Magical thinking is a term used by child development specialists that describes childrens' tendency to come up with creative, implausible theories for the events in their lives, usually in ways that revolve around their own actions or experiences. The conventional wisdom says that because they are egocentric, children invent explanations for why things happen that hinge upon theories that are within their comprehension or their ability to control. In other words, they imagine that something they did or didn't do mediated the death in some way.
Beyond egocentricity: The purpose of magical thinking
Magical thinking may seem like nonsense to us adults, but for children, it usually serves a very real and important purpose: the implausible explanations and the0ries that children form serve as a defense mechanism against a fear of the unknown. For example, children who are enduring a divorce often invent ways to blame themselves, because believing they are at fault may be far less scary than believing that things are out of their control or beyond their comprehension. By believing they are the ones who caused the breakup, there is a cause and a potential solution that can give them understanding and direction amidst this chaotic and painful time. To think that your entire world is crashing down Exe before your very eyes and that you're helpless to do anything about it because these events are beyond your control...this prospect is flat-out terrifying. Sometimes, it's easier to believe it's all your fault than it is to feel helpless during painful times.
The magical thinking that children form in response to death most often serves a similar purpose. Death is terrifying, difficult to grasp, unfathomable, and beyond their control. Amidst this sea of fearful doubt, children often create their own explanations using magical thinking. At least if you believe that your beautifully crafted get-well card was just too much for grandma's quaint old heart to take, you have information that helps you understand death and can steer you in the future. It also might be more comforting than believing that your very best well-wishes and most hopeful thoughts or prayers had no effect. It might be less scary than thinking that death is unpredictable and beyond our control. In the absence of plausible explanations that give them some sense of control, a child's psychology may be steered into irrational beliefs that they understand and which keep them from feeling so darn helpless.
Magical thinking among adults
Psychologists seem to enjoy belittling children by attributing such magical thinking to egocentricism, but the truth is that even adults engage in magical thinking to a large degree. How many people do you know who will alter their behavior based on superstition? How many sports athletes stick to a ritualistic routine before games out of concern that any deviation may jinx them and result in poor performance? How many people hope for or believe in miracles? How many people pray, assuming that mere thoughts inside our head can transcend the physical-spiritual realms to bring about a desired effect or change in the real world? In fact, when you think about it, who among us IS NOT a magical thinker to one degree or another?
Adults certainly engage in plenty of magical thinking themselves. (Hutson, 2008) In one study, 80% of college students thought there was at least a 10% chance that donning one of Mr. Rogers' sweaters would endow them with some of his "essence," making them friendlier and improving their mood, even if they didn't know it was his. (ibid, p. 93) Other studies reveal that people are reluctant to destroy a piece of paper with the name of a loved one written on it, for fear of the ramifications this might have.
The truth is that we all understand the world by trying to string together cause and effect. While this works well most of the time, it also commonly leaves us searching for associations when there aren't any, especially during times when we're confused or helpless. Children are the same way. A child's magical thinking may be more eccentric than that of adults, and thus seem sillier in the eyes of us self-proclaimed grown-ups,