May 10, 2007 — -- Everyone wishes for something. And lots of people believe they know how to make their wishes come true with magical thinking.
What is it? "Magical thinking is a belief in forms of causation, with no known physical basis," said Professor Emily Pronin of Princeton. "So, for example, there's no known physical basis for how carrying a fluffy pink rabbit's foot in your pocket is going to increase your odds of winning the lottery."
For magical thinkers, it's more about the power of their wishes, their feelings and their positive thinking to affect their lives directly.
Twenty-seven-year-old aspiring actress Lindsay Lioz relies on magical thinking to further her showbiz career -- starting with visualizing every audition in advance. "It makes me feel like I've had rehearsal," she said. "It makes me feel prepared."
Lioz also uses magical thinking to improve her love life. She's written a list of the qualities she wants in a man -- and she sleeps with that list under her pillow every night. How has it worked so far? "I have great men in my life, I do. I'm very happy with how it's working out."
Magical thinkers call that idea "the law of attraction." It's a key element of the bestselling book "The Secret," which has been hailed by Oprah Winfrey and bought by millions worldwide.
"'The Secret' is telling people that if you think positive thoughts, positive things will happen, even at a very specific level," Pronin said. "If you visualize getting a parking space, you will get one. If you want to get thin, just stop having fat thoughts."
Magical thinking is not a religion. It's a different kind of faith -- a faith in the power of positive thoughts and feelings. Yet as unscientific as magical thinking sounds, Pronin said studies have shown there are times when it seems to have a real effect: "There was a study where people in their mid-20s were measured in terms of their optimism," she said, "and then, 50 years later, those who were more optimistic, were actually more likely to still be alive. So it's not always magical to believe that your positive thoughts are having a positive effect."
Magical thinking starts in childhood. At the University of Texas, Professor Jacqui Woolley has examined how children who know the difference between what's real and what's not believe that wishing can cause a penny to appear in what has just been shown to be an empty box. "We find that, by about the age of 4, most of the kids we test seem to really believe that wishing works," said Woolley. "So that would be an example of magical thinking."
Nick Barber spent his childhood wishing for riches, focusing on something his father gave him. "I was about 8 or 9 when my dad came home and gave me a fake million dollar bill," he said. "And that became something that represented my goals. I've hung on to it every since."
Barber would even sleep with the bill under his mattress. Now, at 27, he runs a multimillion dollar real estate company in Dallas called UMoveFree, and he still has that million dollar bill in his wallet. How did that bill help him get to this point? "It allowed me to believe in myself at a very young age," Barber said, "not to pay attention to those that said you can't, and to always believe that I can."
Thanks to magical thinking, Lioz always believes she can -- even when it's time to get a parking space. "I really do envision my spots and get them 90 percent of the time," said Lioz. "I have no idea how it works. But again, I don't care. It just does. I believe in vibes -- [if] you're putting out that positive vibe, the rest of your world is going to meet you at that vibe."
So what should people who study "The Secret" know about magical thinking? "Having a positive outlook -- being an optimist, feeling a sense of control in your life -- is a good thing, and is associated with positive outcomes for mental health, physical health, your work life," Pronin said. "But I think it's also important to recognize that visualizing getting a parking space is unlikely to get you a parking space. It's better to just show up a half an hour early for your job interview, so that you leave that half hour to get the space, than to think you can just get there and visualize."
Nick Barber would be the first to agree that in life, wishing won't make it so -- not all by itself. "No -- God, no," he said. "It's the day-to-day actions that are going to make the difference: the self-discipline, the passion, the 12-hour days. This was a lot of hard work."