I found myself comparing Dr. Oates’ exposition of magic and superstition to what I have experienced personally with my youngest son. Dr. Oates references B.F. Skinner, stating “that superstition is the accidental connection of a given reinforcing stimulus with a given response” (p. 71). He unpacks that differently from my experience, but the principle taken from Skinner holds true in both.
My youngest son was a wonderful high school athlete, excelling in three sports. He was also very charming as a teenager and people responded to him with favors that produced no little jealousy among his two older siblings, particularly his older brother. While not of Division 1 college scholarship caliber, he did receive special consideration with a Division 3 school and its baseball program.
However, as a young adult my son found it difficult to connect actions and outcomes. He didn’t understand how his on-field performance didn’t translate into great grades. He left school disillusioned and drifted. He landed decent employment, but maintained the belief that by working diligently at whatever job he was in (he had flawless performance evaluations from direct supervisors), his life would magically unfold with positive results regardless of other behaviors. He destroyed his credit rating with unpaid bills and maxed-out credit cards, was arrested for DUI, and experienced two difficult separations from women with whom he had significant relationships.
With counseling, he has been able to gain perspective and freedom from the magical belief that a great benevolent hand is always waiting just off stage from his actions to rescue him from the consequences–like the deus ex machina of ancient Greek comedy. However, some of the residual consequences of earlier behavior still hamper parts of his life–particularly regarding his ability to get credit. I understand his early problems as a religious sickness–a distortion of belief in providence into a sort of magical thinking that one is blessed even to the level of being invulnerable.