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


Bedlam opens its historical doors……

‘A Church of Our Lady that is named Bedlam. And in that place be found many men that be fallen out of their wit. And full honestly they be kept in that place; and some be restored onto their wit and health again. And some be abiding therein for ever, for they be fallen so much out of themselves that it is incurable unto man’

William Gregory, Lord Mayor of London, c. 1450

The year is 1247, not much is happening in Britain Henry III is on the throne, Romford becomes a market town, a new silver long cross coin is introduced into the currency and then on October 23rd the Prifun-and-entertainment-in-18th-century-london-7-728ory of the New Order of St Mary of Bethlem opens.  in 1377 the Priory becomes a hospital but it wasn’t until around 1403 that confirmation that it was being used as a place for the housing of ‘lunatics‘ after an investigation by the Royal Commission following a scandal including the Porter.

From this moment on the institutions role would be one inextricably linked with the asylum of those suffering with disorders.  Far from a place of treatment ‘Bedlam‘. often was used as a place to visit, rather like a zoo.  Treatment tended to be based upon blood letting and similar unpleasantness based upon the historic view of Galen’s’ humours’.

Here is a new museum has been set up to commemorate this historic institution. Including art created by some of the inhabited the place.  ‘Work is on display by sebedlam-001veral renowned artists who spent years in Bethlem, including Richard Dadd – noted for his minutely detailed fairy paintings – who was locked up after he murdered his father. Jonathan Martin, brother of John Martin who was famous for his huge biblical scenes, only took up art when committed to Bethlem for his partly successful attempt to burn down York Minster and became a celebrity in the hospital, selling his work to visitors. His output is represented by a drawing of himself sitting in a wood full of lions, which according to his own inscription represents his dream “ of my foot cut off by the command of the princess and the king”. cited from the Guardian

The museum is free to visit and is situated here.

Following is the time team special that focuses on ‘Bedlam’, and in particular the graveyard used by the institution.

Here is a list of reasons for entry into one of The U.S historically significant institutions Trans-Allegheny (it was closed in 1994) which should give you an idea of how far the treatment and perception of dysfunctional behaviour, thankfully has come.


The Management of Stress – Cognition; Stress Inoculation Therapy

In the video below Dr. Donald Meichenbaum discusses the 3 key concepts relating to Stress Inoculation Therapy.

1.  Conceptualisation.  The ‘inner critic’ that contributes towards self doubt and poor performance is analysed and challenged through collaboration and therapeutic alliance. (What’s the problem?)

2.  Skill acquisition and rehearsal.  Coping strategies are taught that helps the individual with their specific issues. (What do I need to do to deal with it?)

3.  Application – The individual applies their new and more effective skills in the real world (I can do this!)

Here is an example of how Meichenbaum focusses his clients on the relationship between thought and behaviour.

I want clients to “take my voice with them.” The portions of my voice that I want them to take are “ACTIVE TRANSITIVE VERBS” such as “notice, catch, anticipate, plan” and the like.

NOTE: There is a need for clients not only to change, but to have the client take credit for these changes. The psychotherapist should ask the client the following questions:

“How did you handle this situation differently from how you handled this in the past?’
“Where else did you do this?”
“How long has this been going on?”
“How did you pull this off (accomplish this)?”
“Are you telling me… are you saying to yourself that IN SPITE OF….., you were able to notice …catch yourself…use your coping techniques of….How did that make you feel?”
“What does this mean about you as a person?”

Read an interview here with Meichenbaum on his method and trauma.

Tea Break Psychology 2 -DSM-5

On the go or short of time…but want a little Psychology in your day…..?  Welcome to the latest feature on the blog tea break Psychology, quick, easy little snippets of thought provoking information to mull over with a cuppa and a biscuit.

A great podcast from BBC Radio 4 – ‘All in the mind‘ series (click on the RSS feed on the right of the page for more episodes) on a range of topics but initially discussing the validity of diagnosis of mental disorders centred around the publication DSM5.  It is interesting to note the DSM is now an app for download…(it costs over £50 so angry birds stella pop probably has nothing to fear….)

Read the latest posting on the history of the questioning of the validity of the Psychiatric process in the US here.

Listen to the podcast here

Read a publication of the key changes between DSM IV and 5 here

An open letter from the BPS to the APA in regards to the classification system 


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.

Freewill Vs Biological Determinism; The benefits of choosing positive stress perception…..


As shown above the classic Yerkes Dodson inverted ‘U’ illustration of the relationship between anxiety and performance IMG_2289used in sport and a range of other areas of applied psychology -the right amount of stress at the right time can aid performance. However, if you were to ask most people about their stress levels – you will get a consistent answer regarding there being too much of it, which is difficult to argue with. Or is it? Below is a lecture that discusses how the choice of  perceiving the stress response in a psychologically healthy way has the significant influence of the body effectively following suit and minimising the physiological symptoms of stress including premature death. These are significant claims – watch the video and examine the evidence presented, is it as simple as changing your mind? If so the freewill debate just received some long needed support……….As 90’s band En Vogue sang ‘Free your mind and the rest will follow‘ maybe they were onto something.

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.