March 25, 2015

Magical Thinking vs. Sociological Reasoning

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A student of a colleague had failed a course after rarely attending and not completing several assignments. The ones he did complete were poorly done; he did not see the instructor in office hours despite repeated invitations to talk about improving his grade during the course. He earned 25 out of 100 points in the course, and perhaps unsurprisingly, an F.

But to my colleague’s surprise, the student emailed after seeing his final grade, asking if there was any way he could earn a C in the course (which typically requires 70%, well above his 25%). Maybe the instructor added incorrectly?

After writing back with a detailed explanation of the breakdown of his grade, the instructor also reminded him that the class had in fact ended, and that he could no longer complete work for the course to earn more points.

This is an example of magical thinking, the notion that things we want will happen without connection to actual events or in this case, despite a lack of effort. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion describes coping with grief after the death of her husband, whom she imagined would return and need his shoes and his cell phone. But she knew this was not going to happen, and her book was about coping with the pain of this loss.

Within magical thinking, conventional notions of cause and effect are disregarded in favor of what we might also call wishful thinking, or hoping that what we want to happen will happen simply because we want it to happen.

Sociological reasoning is very different. Thinking sociologically requires us to look for connections between events—although not always causal connections—based on empirical evidence, or events that we observe. Sociologists often use quantitative data to assess probability, or the likelihood of an event occurring based on the events of the past. Perhaps this is why it is so frustrating when students in sociology courses overlook the most basic causal relationship between their assignment grades and their final grades.

As sociologists, we learn how to ask questions (see these previous posts on asking sociological questions) in order to find out more about the connections between events, sometimes about those that are not obviously related. Part of developing a sociological imagination is recognizing that patterns exist between our individual lives and the broader world around us.

But students aren’t the only ones who engage in magical thinking. Nearly everyone does this when events feel beyond our control. Unfortunately, policy makers sometimes disregard the connections between events as well.

For instance, we might make funding decisions without recognizing the obvious consequences to these actions. When funding for public education is cut to balance state budget shortfalls, the outcomes might include hiring fewer instructors, paying instructors less, increasing class sizes, reducing course offerings, reducing enrollment, or increasing tuition at the college level. No one likes tax increases, and those affected certainly don’t like fee hikes, tuition increases, or pay cuts. But these are all likely results unless we want to reduce who has access to higher education, not to mention the quality of higher education as well.

This has been a particular problem in California, which has the country’s largest public college system. One campus has seen its enrollment increase by nearly 13 percent over a five year period, as more people seek higher education to improve their job prospects in the wake of the Great Recession. The Los Angeles Times reported that:

Campus officials say they lack funding to hire enough full-time faculty to meet needs while facing surging numbers of applications from out-of-area transfer students and qualified high school graduates. The system received more than 790,000 applications for fall 2015, a number greater than the population of North Dakota.

Community colleges in the state also face more demand than funding can keep up with, so starting at a two-year school isn’t an easy option either. As the Times reported in 2012, some community colleges are so over crowded that students can only enroll in one class at a time:

It's a product of years of severe budget cuts and heavy demand in the two-year college system. The same situation has affected the Cal State and UC systems, but the impact has been most deeply felt in the 2.4-million-student community college system — the nation's largest.

At Pasadena City College, nearly 4,000 students who are seeking a degree or to transfer are taking a single class this fall. About 63% are taking less than 12 units and are considered part time. The school has slashed 10% of its classes to save money.

And yet high school students are routinely encouraged to work hard and go to college—often by the same politicians who were complicit in these budget cuts—only to find a barrier preventing interested students from enrolling. Beyond a personal problem, a less educated workforce can prevent economic growth and create a glut of low wage workers with too few jobs to go around while other fields have too few qualified candidates.

Sociological reasoning requires us to think about the relationship between social action and the effects of these actions. Can you think of any other examples of magical thinking that would benefit from sociological reasoning?


Magical thinking also comes with sending students to get a education and then having open positions available for jobs. Education, cost of living and debt are what students struggle with and then once that struggle is over a new one begins. Getting a job. One would like to think an education leads to a great job, but it is less the case now than it has ever been. Magical thinking is happening everywhere.

I read your text with magical thinking. I do not just pick up right or not! But I believe in everything that happens to us in mind as we think. Because a series of energy around us that we assist in achieving our goals. This power may be of God, or something else that I know.
I was very upset when I saw your site on the internet and reading I forgot discomfort. Thanks you so much

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