The Psychology of Magic….Would you wear Hitler’s jumper?


‘How was that done?’ the question we have all asked after witnessing a card trick or some other form of conjuring or illusion.  We know it isn’t actual magic and that the illusionist, conjurer or magician has somehow manipulated our assumptions of what is going on with the intention to produce the desired effect.  However  such processes of misdirection mixed with genuine skill can be truly mind-blowing!  Derren Brown, Dynamo, Penn and Teller and world famous in their ‘abilities’.

However can Psychology help us understand some of the key elements to our magical experiences and is the truth stranger than the  fiction?  How can Asch’s research or Loftus’ help us understand how the impact of the illusion can be heightened.

Listen to the episode of ‘All in the Mind’ to find out how Psychology helps us understand how some of these effects work.

The Psychology of Magical Thinking

Magical thinking is something slightly different. In 1890, the anthropologist JMagical thinking and superstitionames George Frazer described “magical” contagion, which seems to permeate societies around the world. Magical thinking is how we make false associations (or superstitions) that can form beliefs and impact the way we view our world and change our behaviour.  This can impact all areas of our thinking but one of the most observable is in the area of Health Psychology, in particular, Sympathetic magical beliefs of which there are two ‘laws’-  Contagion and Similarity. On of the strongest magical beliefs is that ‘everything happens for a reason‘.


The Law of Contagion –Would you wear  Hitler’s jumper?

The ‘Law of Contagion’ is an example of  magical thinking.  It is the belief once two objects or individuals have been in contact that a magical link persists between the two, in essence, once in contact, always in contact’.  Would you wear Hitler’s jumper? is a question posed by psychologist  Paul Rozin to allow people to test the strength of their own magical belief.  Many report a feeling of discomfort at the idea, worried that some essence of the previous owner may in some way contaminate them.   In health behaviour, magical thinking can relate to many situations, for example, individuals visiting someone with HIV or Cancer and them not wanting to shake hands or even use the same pen in fear of them becoming ‘infected’.

Thought Experiment; Would you be happy to drink recycled water?

However, these beliefs can produce powerful comfort in the objects once possessed by loved ones that something of them still remains and these possessions are often cited as those that are most precious to us.    Consider the ‘One ring‘ in Lord of the Rings or the ‘Horcruxes’ in Harry Potter, both set within the world of magic and fantasy yet reinforcing a belief that is very much observable in everyday life.


Comedian Richard Herring, grew a toothbrush moustache to attempt to break the strong association with Adolf Hitler. There is obviously nothing evil about the style of moustache, but would its association with Hitler still make the wearer less trustworthy, less honest or even evil, like the one ring would it have its own evil agenda?

The moustache made him so paranoid about what judgements people were making that he shaved it off after the first week.”As people passed they would start laughing about five yards behind me. A group of lads called me ‘Adolf’. I haven’t had any sense of anger but I think some people were intimidated or scared.”

“I thought that at any moment someone might smack me in the face. I was being judged by my appearance and being a white, middle-class man I’ve never looked to draw attention to myself before.

“I felt quite afraid and a bit upset. Then I wondered if I was upsetting anyone, and was it worth it if I had done.”

  BBC News

The Law of Similarity 

The Law of similarity suggests that two objects that resemble each other share the same fundamental properties.  Consider how a historic Malay custom, similar to that of a Voodoo doll, works which incorporates the fashioning of a doll in the image of an individual (similarity) incorporated with actual hair and fingernails of the person (contagion) which then is believed to hold the ‘essence’ of that person.

The APA published research in 2003 investigating how people can mistakenly claim authorship of occurrences–believing, for example, that they cause a disliked person’s headache when they prick a voodoo doll.

The law of similarity has two distinct notions, ‘like causes like’ which is the basis of homoeopathic medicine and ‘appearance causes reality’ the view that if something looks like something else that they share the same properties, is it rational to fear a picture of  shark, for example?

Rozin et al (86) conducted research on 50 subjects investigating variations of both the law of contagion and similarity.  He found people didn’t want to eat fudge that was presented like dog faeces (similarity),  and participants are less accurate at throwing darts at pictures of people they like. How about a participant labelling a bottle themselves with the word ‘cyanide’ and then showing great reluctance to drink water from it?  Rozin also tested whether particip[ants would drink from a vessel that had contained a dead ‘sterilised’ cockroach as it can be imagined the results were conclusive.

In regards to the recycled water question posed earlier, In the first series of studies, Rozinasked adults in five cities about their backgrounds, their political and personal views, and, most important, their view on the concept of “recycled water.” On average, everyone was uncomfortable with the idea—even when they were told that treated, recycled water is actually safer to drink than unfiltered tap water. That discomfort, Rozin found, was all about disgust. Twenty-six per cent of participants were so disgusted by the idea of toilet-to-tap that they even agreed with the statement, “It is impossible for recycled water to be treated to a high enough quality that I would want to use it.” They didn’t care what the safety data said. Their guts told them that the water would never be drinkable. It’s a phenomenon known as contagion, or, as Rozin describes it, “once in contact, always in contact.” By touching something we find disgusting, a previously neutral or even well-liked item can acquire—permanently—its properties of grossness. 


Watch the video on magical thinking to see how powerful an effect it can be.

Further Reading

Rozin P, Millman L and Nemeroff C (1986) Operation in Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and other domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 50 No 4 pp 703-712

Rozin, P and Nemeroff. (2002)  Sympathetic Magical Thinking:  The Contagion and Similarity Heuristics, The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement  pp 210-216

The homeopathic debate……Placebo, nocebo, wishful thinking or misunderstood science?

This week Homeopathic treatment has all but been written off.  But why was it ever even entertained as an idea in the first place?

The ‘process’ was based upon a ‘fight fire with fire’ approach, which has some value as vaccinations often use this method to trigger the body to create antibodies,  to allow the body to be prepared to fight off a disease, if it is then exposed in the future.  Homeopathy attempted to work by diluting many, many,many,many,many,many times over a medicine assuming it then actually makes it stronger (potentiation), however most would consider  this as being counter-intuitive.  However there have been some heavy weights historically on the homoeopathic side of things, for example the NHS spent over £100,000 in recent years on the method and the process itself has a centuries old history.  However, the actual  evidence seems to be overwhelming that, as most suspected, that there really is nothing to it from a medical perspective. Those interested in Psychology and the relationship between mind and body will know how significant effect a Placebo can be…but does it have  a place ethically in modern health?

Placebo’s have their own deeply ashamed place in the the history of medical  research. From 1932 to 1972 one of the most unethical pieces of health research was ever conducted – The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment prompting a formal apology from US President Bill Clinton to the families of those involved. Participants were promised a range of benefits including health care and insurance when in fact there was none as their experimenters (the U.S Public Health Service studied the long term effects of syphilis on the naive participants.

‘By the time the study was exposed in 1972, 28 men had died of syphilis, 100 others were dead of related complications, at least 40 wives had been infected and 19 children had contracted the disease at birth’

Here is an interesting podcast on the .Nocebo’ effect  a harmful response to an inert substance..

Whatever an individuals view on the power of the mind over our health….research should be duty bound to put the participants/patients first irrespective of any opportunities to make any new discoveries to their detriment.

Temporal validity? Back dating The Health Belief Model to the 14th century………..

99ee996fd98675364d236798b7f98c43 I can only imagine a frosty atmosphere this morning at breakfast, as Kevin the Gerbil and Roland Rat receive news on who actually should be blamed for the Black Death…

Often you hear people refer to issues in their life in terms of ‘first world problems’ which are nothing more than a range of trivial or minor frustrations that impact certain economically developed countries, such  as computers crashing or not being able to access Wi-Fi (surely there is a case for a new foundation layer to be added to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), but how about 14th Century problems?


For most of us  the ‘Bubonic plague’ was nothing more than a trip to Eyam and a (most likely incorrect) recounting of ‘a ring a ring a roses’….However today’s news of the story of the plague AKA as the Black death (if ever there was a name of a disease to ensure that perceived seriousness should always be high, it’s this one), especially when there were 800 confirmed cases by the WHO in 2013 of which a significant number were fatalities’. Healthbeliefmodel   Consider how our knowledge about individual’s belief’s regarding our health could have impacted upon the epidemic (1/3 of all those in England died) – if we had Becker’s model to hand at the time would it have been different?, it is very difficult to say, however it is difficult to argue with the fact the more we understand about the dangers to our health the more informed choices we can make. However, such anxiety can in some go too far and become an illness in itself, Health Anxiety Disorder historically referred to as Hypochondrias can be explained using a range of psychological theory from the early work of Charcot and Freud to more Cognitive based theory such as the Health Belief Model.  From Psychoanalysis to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy it is a long road for sufferers.  A recent article highlighted in the Guardian just how debilitating it can be.