Magical Thinking

In clinical psychology, magical thinking is a condition that causes the patient to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts and threatening calamities.

In the most severe cases, magical thinking is a sign of psychosis, whereby a person has difficulty differentiating between reality and the fiction created in their minds.  People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder often fear that thinking certain things will make them happen, so they create habitual motions or gestures to which they have likewise attributed certain results.

While in its extreme forms, it can be a sign of OCD or psychosis, magical thinking occurs for everyone to an extent, and it filters into the thought processes used in deciding your move during a game of chess.

Based on negativity bias from earlier bad experiences, or even just simply from generalization, your brain may assign a negative feeling associated with a certain type of move (like a Queen takes Knight sacrifice), and then due to magical thinking, your brain averts you from considering the sacrifice, as if thinking it meant playing it. Magical thinking can also take the form of pretending (and subconsciously believing) that if you avoid thinking about what your opponents replies or threats might be, they won’t happen. Players up to 1600 do this all the time, and stronger players fall victim to it too, though more rarely. If you recognize that you do this, think also about why you do it.  Some people fall into this mind-trap only after several games, and this could be mental exhaustion or frustration – it is easier to use this mental ‘tactic’ than to analyze the position. Perhaps you are not having fun playing right now and just don’t feel like trying your hardest. It’s a separate point but if you’re not just killing some time and are trying to improve, try your best every move or don’t play at all! Playing when you’re not having fun is a quick way to get burned out, and it’s not sustainable. You can’t improve if you’re not having fun.

Magical thinking is not all bad, as it can be a way of coping with stress or inspire confidence, like having a good luck charm. However, it can also hurt your chess if you are not aware of it. When I was was much younger, I would sometimes exert full concentration into hoping my opponent would play into a trap move, as if that would make it more likely to occur. It would be beneficial for the player to recognize when these psychological phenomenon occur.  If you recognize and acknowledge that you are using generalization to determine what will ‘likely be a good move’ without paying attention to the nuances of the specific position, you can start actively recognizing your assumptions during the game and create a goal to overcome them. Specific goals like this can be more fruitful than just having a goal to win. Start to think about these things, especially during your slow games!

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