The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is the backbone of psychiatric assessment and diagnosis (American Psychiatric Association, 2014). In addition to offering a common set of diagnostic language and classification for various health providers, the DSM-5 provides clear and concise diagnostic criteria for dozens of various mental health conditions.
Many of these disorders contain a diagnostic criterion labeled “magical thinking.” This feature is often seen in various situations including schizotypal personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and others. In these situations, the individual may experience mystical or superstitious thoughts about themselves or others. Such thinking is often thought of as harmful because these thoughts contribute toward maladaptive behaviors. However, not all research supports these judgments (Damisch, Stoberock & Mussweier, 2010).
Children are powerful teachers. One culturally accepted example is the fascination with fictitious characters such as Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. Most parents and children celebrate these pseudepigraphal figures into normal childhood development in healthy ways. These beliefs and attitudes promote social bonding, create positive feelings and foster healthy development. Maybe the words of Jesus as recorded in the Bible suggest that becoming childlike also includes being open to intangible and potential and possibilities in childlike ways. There is the power in dreaming; to me, this feels healthy and powerful.
In religious circles, various spiritual traditions promote prayer and healing. Sometimes these beliefs are challenged as scientifically unprovable. However, scientists cannot ignore the power of the placebo. Individuals experience genuine miracles with significant results based in “magical thinking”. These changes are so tangible that Eastern spiritual philosophy is now integrated into western medicine in the form of mindfulness. Many spiritual believers and objective observers affirm these perceptions promote well-being and an increase in social, physical, and mental performance. Interestedly, some researchers suggest that even extremely dysfunctional psychopathology (such as schizophrenia that can include auditory hallucinations) may merely be an unhealed expression of an emerging spiritual gift, instead of a dysfunctional neurological psychosis (Richardson, 2018).
Of course, like anything, “magical thinking” can be harmful. However, I propose in many cases, what may be cultural objectionable to some, is part of our strength, and is very real. These may include beliefs in a higher power, eccentric beliefs, unique spiritual gifts, and are exactly what we need to become our best self. Some therapeutic models such as solution-focused or brief therapy include a miracle question, helping an individual to explore the reality of a miracle in their life. We cannot discount the power and positive benefits of “magical thinking”.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21(7), 1014-1020.
Richardson, P. S. (2018). The Misunderstanding between Schizophrenia and Clairaudience.