The term, ‘magical thinking’ is one generally used to refer to an aspect of child development. It describes a form of wishful thinking that is characteristic of young children. In principle, we grow out of it as we develop through adolescence into adulthood. It relates to situation where results are expected to arise without our making them happen. For example, a young child may believe that if they want a bike for their birthday and really do want it enough, then it might just transpire that they get the bike they desire.
I have said that we grow out of it ‘in principle’, but what I feel is important to recognise is that not everybody does, or at least not completely. Magical thinking in adults is not uncommon (or in some adults at least). An example, I am very familiar with is the assumption that learning will happen by magic. Countless times I have come across people who sit through a full-day training course, for example, without making a single note (they can’t all have photographic memories!), without making much of a contribution to discussion and then return to their place of work without a plan as to how they intend to put the learning gained into practice. And yet, at the end of the course, they will often hand me an evaluation form in which they claim to have learned a great deal and proclaim it to have been an excellent learning experience. I generally make the point on such courses that, unless participants are clear what their plan of action is for putting the learning into practice, the chances are that all the important issues explored will have become a distant memory within a week. So many people seem to expect learning to happen as if by magic, without any effort on their part.
Others may not even bother to attend training courses or engage in other learning activities. They seem to assume that simply by doing their job over time they will get better at it. Magical thinking once again.
But it isn’t just about learning – that is just one example. Often people will have problems and concerns that are causing them considerable difficulties, and yet they may take no steps whatsoever to do anything about their situation. It is as if they are hoping that the problem will just go away by magic. Of course, some problems do go away of their own accord, but having this as a general problem-solving strategy is unlikely to be fruitful for the vast majority of situations.
The same unhelpful strategy can also be applied to relationship difficulties. When a couple, for example, have tensions to deal with, a common, but basically unwise, reaction is to say nothing and do nothing. The lack of (intended) communication then becomes a form of (unintended) communication in its own right – that is, it gives the message to both parties that their partner is doubting whether the relationship is worth the effort involved in resolving the tensions. And, of course, that is much more likely to increase the tensions than to work towards resolution.
The ‘antidote’ to magical thinking is purposive action. This means being clear about what you need to learn, what problems you need to address or what tensions you need to resolve and developing an action plan for taking the steps involved. Of course, things won’t always go smoothly or without any hitches. Sometimes, working these things out can be difficult and complex. There will be obstacles and setbacks from time to time. But, compared with sitting back passively waiting for magic to happen, the chances of significantly improving your situation are considerably higher.