From conspiracy theories to manifesting: How to navigate the age of "magical overthinking"

Salon chats with author Amanda Montell to learn more about cognitive biases in today's information age

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published April 9, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Woman walks through door into natural landscape collage (Getty Images/We Are)
Woman walks through door into natural landscape collage (Getty Images/We Are)

When you lose a loved one, grief and magical thinking go hand in hand. That is why it's easy to feel completely understood by Joan Didion's book, "The Year of Magical Thinking," after experiencing a loss yourself. Indeed, it's what I turned to when I lost my stepdad a few years ago. Like Didion, I found myself getting tangled up in knots of magical thinking. If I saw a specific sequence of numbers or heard his favorite song, I took it as a sign that he was saying hello from the other side. Admittedly, as time has passed on, so too have these curious occurrences.

Today, magical thinking is no longer reserved for the grieving. In the current culture, it has taken up more space. It has had the ability to influence politics, impact peoples' personal health decisions and even cloud celestial events such as this week's total solar eclipse. We're in what author Amanda Montell calls "the age of magical overthinking," which is appropriately the name of her new book, "The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality."

After investigating the cultish influences in our society, which are riddled with magical thinkers, Montell said she became equally as curious about the cognitive biases so many people experience in everyday life. "I couldn't help but notice how confirmation bias could explain the astrology attitudes I was seeing among some of my smartest friends," she said, "like using Mercury's position in the cosmos to dictate their behavior."

This led Montell to further investigate how cognitive biases, which are the errors in thinking that occur when people are processing information that affects decision-making, are clashing with the information age. Salon chatted with Montell to learn more.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How, exactly, do you define the age of "magical overthinking"? 

"Magical thinking," or the inclination to believe that your internal feelings, hopes and anxieties can affect external events, is an age-old human cognitive quirk. But I'm arguing that something called "magical overthinking" is sort of a new product of this era of information overload. We're living in a time when the answers to any question are available to us at the touch of a button. In theory, having access to more information should help the world make more sense. But, in fact, it seems to do the opposite.

In theory, having access to more information should help the world make more sense. But, in fact, it seems to do the opposite. 

I couldn't help but notice that so many of us in the past five to 10 years have had this shared juxtaposition of feeling a lot of pressure to know everything under the sun, yet at the same time, not always feeling empowered or emotionally quelled by facts or data, or what we believe are facts and data. And so I just really wanted to explore how this era of information overload is colliding with these mental shortcuts that we've been taking since the dawn of the human species.

I agree that it's a byproduct of all the excessive information we have at the moment. In your first chapter, you explore the cognitive bias called the "halo effect," which you describe as the "unconscious tendency to make positive assumptions about a person's overall character based on their impressions of one single trait."

We see this a lot with celebrity culture right now. As you say in the book, worshiping others is nothing new. There's nothing wrong with admiring people, but there's a dark side to the "halo effect," which we see a lot of today.

We've always looked to single role models for our survival. We've always jumped to quick conclusions about a person. But the difference is that in this era of parasocial relationships and intense fanaticism, we sometimes jump to conclusions about people who certainly can't aid in our survival or our direct identity formation.

When we go through cycles of intense selective worship, such as with Taylor Swift or Harry Styles, we are assuming that because we really connect with their music, they must care about us. When we go through these cycles and then also celebrity dethronement — when evidence surfaces that these people aren't the godlike figures that we built up in our heads — that can be very difficult. It can be a sort of lowercase "t" online trauma.

I came across this really fascinating research about our relationships toward celebrity worship: There's a correlation between those and our attachment styles to our own parents.

I came across this really fascinating research about our relationships toward celebrity worship: There's a correlation between those and our attachment styles to our own parents. People who don't encounter enough real-world positive stressors from their families, parental figures or communities can lose themselves in what's called the virtual trauma of a stan dynamic — and that is something that we're distinctly seeing right now. On the positive end, it can be very fulfilling for people, but on the negative end, it invites someone to descend into the worst times of magical thinking.

As we both know, "The Secret" has had a digital makeover, and there's a whole digital economy centered around helping people "manifest" what they want in their lives. We hear the phrase "the universe has your back" in so many spiritual and self-help circles. In the book, you say the universe having our backs is actually a conspiracy theory. Can you explain why to Salon's readers? 

That chapter addresses the phenomenon called "rationality bias," which is our proclivity to think that big events or even big feelings must have big causes. That is what seems to make sort of emotional sense to us. And so that is the cognitive bias underlying more hardcore conspiratorial beliefs that you might see in QAnon, for example, or these classic sort of ridiculous sounding conspiracy theories, such as the moon landing was faked. I argue in the chapter that anyone who's ever made an oversimplified conclusion about the cause of a huge life-altering event has a pinch of conspiracy theorist in them, and conspiracy theories can also be spun as a positive. Manifestation is one example of this. 

Do you think manifesting is a scam?

I don't want to say any kind of absolute, such as all forms of manifestation are scammy. Certainly, if you're at home collaging a vision board for fun with your friends, that sounds like a blast.

The easiest lies or scams to believe are the ones closest to the truth. It's true that your mentality can affect the way you move through the world. But anyone who attempts to weaponize and capitalize on the most sort of irrational form of manifestation? That can be pretty insidious. There are various implications there, that if you don't succeed or you don't find wealth, it's your individual fault, rather than the fault of the system or dumb luck. There's a lot of self-blame that can be inflicted.

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Manifesting really seems to perpetuate individualism in our society.

The neatly-packaged-for-Instagram version of manifesting can absolutely encourage our existing individualism and can cause us not to have as much compassion for people who aren't #manifesting effectively. But I do think it's possible to engage in these practices in a more casual way.

In your book, you write that "theoretically, there is no psychological scenario too outlandish or high risk for confirmation bias." It seems like in any attempt to disprove something, the brain tries even harder to hold on to it. "More information doesn't fix the agitation," you say. But there's a legitimate reason confirmation bias exists, right?

Confirmation bias is probably the most famous cognitive bias. It's the first one that I ever heard of: this idea that we're more likely to seek out and cherry pick and remember facts that corroborate our existing beliefs. It sounds like there's no upside to this bias. Why should it even exist, right?

But I came across some research talking about how confirmation bias helps our social world align with our beliefs in a way that can help us make efficient decisions. If we were constantly overanalyzing every decision, we wouldn't be able to move through the world effectively. Am I wrong, for instance, about what I ordered for lunch? Or the political beliefs I've had for the past five years? Some decisions are worth interrogating, but we can't interrogate every single little tiny decision because it would be completely debilitating for us.

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As our culture becomes more pseudo hyper-connected, as we become exposed to more ideas than we ever had in the past, I think it's extremely important to be aware of confirmation bias. It's such a deep-rooted bias that we will automatically rely on it.

I came across this really haunting piece of research while writing that chapter: that science literacy doesn't actually make people better at identifying real facts. It just makes us better at defending our existing beliefs with facts. Confirmation bias is incredibly sturdy, and combating it entirely is not something that I really foresee happening. Changing other people's minds is practically impossible, but generating awareness of how your own mind works and trying to resist confirmation bias in small ways in everyday life is, I think, a really important challenge to take on.

What is the path out of the age of magical overthinking? Where do we go from here?

Well, all the reading I do is sort of aimed at the general mission of being more compassionate toward other people's irrationalities and skeptical of my own. The best place to start is to look inward.

It's not a self-help book by any means, but there are some little sprinklings of actionable data in the book. I think connecting with the physical world and sort of shrinking your world, if you can without being totally ignorant to global issues, it’s a balance. But being able to stomach the cognitive dissonance of life on Earth — and in the information age — is something that I think will help save us all.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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