Large majorities of Americans believe in the supernatural and paranormal, accept conspiracy theories as true, and reject basic scientific notions of evolution, climate change, and health. Political scientists usually dismiss such “magical thinking” as aberrant, irrational, or unworthy of serious attention. But pre-Enlightenment (or “Magical”) thinking not only has a logical utility, it also has a large and independent impact on public opinion. Using a series of novel measures and experiments from four national surveys, we illustrate the psychological correlates of magical thinking and its influence on a wide array of political beliefs. For example, we find that many factors commonly attributed to political conservatives, such as authoritarianism, moral foundations, disgust sensitivity, or opinions on social issues, actually result from differences in magical thinking rather than abstract ideological commitments. We conclude that magical thinking is a powerful and latent influence on Americans’ political beliefs and can explain many outstanding paradoxes in public opinion research.
Eric Oliver is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. His interests include contemporary American politics, suburban and racial politics, political psychology, and the politics of science. His books include Democracy in Suburbia (Princeton University Press, 2001), Fat Politics: the Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic (Oxford University Press 2005), The Paradoxes of Integration: Race, Neighborhood, and Civic Life in Multi-ethnic America (University of Chicago Press, 2010), and Local Elections and the Politics of Small Scale Democracy (Princeton University Press 2012). He has also authored numerous articles in journals such as the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, International Journal of Epidemiology, Public Opinion Quarterly, and Urban Affairs Review on topics ranging from absentee voting to happiness in suburbs. He has been a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Yale University (1999-2001), a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation (2002-2003), and winner of a Young Investigators Career Award from the National Science Foundation. Eric is currently working on papers about public support for conspiracy theories, whether liberals and conservatives name their children differently, and conducting research on the biological foundations of political cognition.