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Navigating the delusions of our time

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Amanda Montell is an author, linguist and podcast host. She is the author of Word bitch and the bestseller Cultivate and host of the podcast Sounds like a cult. Her texts have also appeared in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and more. She has a degree in linguistics from NYU.

Below, Amanda shares five key takeaways from her new book: The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality. Listen to the audio version – read by Amanda herself – on the Next Big Idea app.

The Age of Magical Overthinking Amanda Montell Next Big Idea Club


1. The human mind inherently clashes with the information age.

Why does living in the so-called information age only seem to make life more confusing? Why does this particular time in history seem to clash so violently with the human spirit? It's no secret that we're living through an unprecedented mental health crisis: We're isolated, languishing, burned out on screens, losing faith in everyone's humanity, thinking ourselves to death, and relying on the larger-than-life TikTok astrologer celebrities , who allow themselves to be distracted by nostalgic chimeras of the past and become friends with conspiracy theories.

In 2021, a CDC survey found that 42 percent of young people felt so sad or hopeless in the past two weeks that they were unable to go about their normal daily lives. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that between 2020 and 2021, the number of crisis calls to their lifeline increased by 251 percent.

The mental anguish is enough to make us think that everyone has become evil and the world is ending once and for all. But as it turns out, much of the discomfort can be explained by cognitive biases — the mental magic tricks we play on ourselves. Like Mentos and Diet Coke, our innate mystiques and the information age have combined explosively. Capitalism, data overload and the competitive pressure to know everything under the sun have collided with our irrational nature and created an era of violent delusions.

2. Cognitive biases are a useful lens for understanding other people's bizarre behavior (and our own).

Cognitive biases are psychological shortcuts that we use both automatically and unconsciously. They are deeply rooted and sometimes ancient. They underlie so many of the mysterious, nonsensical decisions people make today – from my neighbor's decision not to get vaccinated because a YouTuber in palazzo pants said it would “downgrade her DNA” to my decision In my early 20s, I noticed a romantic relationship that I knew was causing me distress.

“Each different cognitive bias can be used as a lens to examine a confusing irrationality within ourselves.”

From the sunk cost fallacy to the halo effect to the “Ikea effect,” every bias is an illusion that allows us to maximize our limited time, mental abilities, and desire for meaning. The problem is that they dominate our decision-making so naturally that we fail to notice how counterproductive many of them have become. Each different cognitive bias can be used as a lens to examine a confusing irrationality within ourselves. Developing an awareness of our cognitive biases is a way to become more compassionate toward the irrationalities of others and skepticism toward our own. It may be the only way to survive this age.

3. Knowledge of science does not make us better at recognizing facts.

Here's a perfect example of how more information doesn't exactly make the world more meaningful: A 2011 Yale experiment on climate change perceptions found that better scientific literacy actually made study participants less willing to expressing views with which they disagreed. Why? Additional information only made them better able to defend their existing beliefs. “As scientific and computational literacy increases, cultural polarization actually increases, not decreases,” the study authors concluded. “As the regular public learns more about science. . . They become more adept at finding and understanding—or, when necessary, explaining away—empirical evidence related to their groups’ positions.”

This is an example of confirmation bias on steroids. In socio-politically tense times such as election years, it is particularly important to recognize this. Using facts to force other people's thinking to change is not always, as a behavioral economist would say, a rational use of a person's limited time and cognitive resources. However, we're actually pretty lucky at changing our own minds. A 2021 study published in “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” found that people who trained themselves to be aware of their own thought processes were able to strengthen their defenses against misinformation and dogma.

4. Celebrity worship is one of the reasons delusions have become mainstream.

In this time of mass loneliness and loss of identity, young people are increasingly investing in parasocial relationships with celebrities whom they revere not only as entertainers but also as saviors.

A 2019 Japanese study found that about 30 percent of teenagers aspire to emulate a media figure such as their favorite singer or athlete. A 2021 study published in the North American Journal of Psychology found that celebrity worship has increased dramatically since two decades earlier. A 2014 clinical review found that high levels of celebrity worship are linked to mental health problems, including “body image concerns.” . . greater susceptibility to cosmetic surgery, sensation seeking, cognitive rigidity, identity diffusion, and poor interpersonal boundaries.” Other problems observed included depression, anxiety, dissociation, narcissistic personality tendencies, fame-seeking, compulsive shopping and gambling, stalking behavior, excessive fantasizing, and even social dysfunction , addiction and crime.

“Young people are increasingly investing in parasocial relationships with celebrities who they revere not only as entertainers but also as saviors.”

It's not unhealthy to admire a celebrity, but when people lack “positive stressors” from their real lives and communities, they can get lost in relationships that aren't real. This intensity is responsible for the extreme cycles of celebrity adoration and dethroning that we see in popular culture, particularly when it comes to female stars. These concepts are related to the “halo effect,” the unconscious tendency to make positive assumptions about a person's overall character based on our impressions of a single trait.

5. Understanding “magical overthinking” can ease our mental discomfort.

Classical “magical thinking” is broadly defined by the belief that one's inner thoughts can influence external events. In moments of uncertainty, from the sudden death of a loved one to a global pandemic, otherwise “sensible” brains begin to buckle. Be it the belief that you can “manifest” your way out of financial hardship, thwart the apocalypse by learning to can your own peaches, ward off cancer with positivity, or turn an abusive relationship into one with hope and magical thinking alone glorious can transform works for a restoration agency.

While magical thinking is an ancient habit, overthinking feels typical of modern times. Faced with a sudden flood of information, cognitive biases cause the modern mind to overthink and underthink the wrong things. We unproductively obsess over the same paranoias, but we skip complex considerations that deserve more attention. I've experienced more than once the disorientation that comes from engaging in a battle of wits online, only to come up for air and feel in my body as if I've used sparring tactics more suited to a Neolithic predator than a theoretical one Conversation.

I have called this era in which we are so quickly abandoning the psychological illusions that once served us the “Age of Magical Overthinking.” For me, having a label and a lens for these relatable experiences was hugely validating. It can feel exhausting to simply exist as a human in the world right now, but that's not a personal problem. That’s because in this ever-troubled age, so many of us have become “magical overthinkers.”

To listen to author Amanda Montell's audio version, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Listen to key insights on the Next Big Idea app