The word “magic” refers to a broad range of beliefs and practices that include animism, charm(s), divination, enchantment, fantasy, fetish, glamor, illusion, miracles, the occult, shamanism, sorcery, spells, the supernatural, superstition, taboos, trickery, and witchcraft (de Waal Malefyt 2021).
Magic―once thought a core feature of “primitive societies,” abandoned by more rational, bureaucratic and progressive beliefs―is, in fact, thriving in contemporary life, and central to practices of capitalism as well as to everyday behaviors (de Waal Malefyt 2021). Magic is practiced in fields of finance, government, law, medicine and health, technology, advertising, marketing, sports, the gaming industry, and theatrical performances, among other institutions. When situations allow for the assemblage of a “magician,” “rite,” and “representation” within these complex social networks and when professional skills, ideas, conditions, contexts, media, and meanings align, magic acts as an agent of change.
Magic is also practiced in everyday situations in which people need to feel a sense of control in circumstances where it’s lacking, such as performing well under competitive conditions or during times of crisis with indefinite outcomes (de Waal Malefyt 2021). Consequently, they rely on magical thinking—in the forms of superstitions, wishful thinking, and taboo avoidance—which is often accompanied by charms, amulets, or acts of faith to guide them through uncertainty. Conjuring terms such as “fate” and “luck” to ward off illness or improve one’s chances at getting a hit in baseball, are, in fact, ways of expressing ambiguities and dealing with conflicts of temporal existence that all humans face in one form or another.
Mammals and birds have evolved three primary, discrete, interrelated emotion–motivation systems in the brain for mating, reproduction, and parenting: lust, attraction, and male–female attachment (Fisher 2002). Each emotion–motivation system is associated with a specific constellation of neural correlates and a distinct behavioral repertoire. Lust evolved to initiate the mating process with any appropriate partner; attraction evolved to enable individuals to choose among and prefer specific mating partners, thereby conserving their mating time and energy; male–female attachment evolved to enable individuals to cooperate with a reproductive mate until species-specific parental duties have been completed. The evolution of these three emotion–motivation systems contribute to contemporary patterns of marriage, adultery, divorce, remarriage, stalking, homicide and other crimes of passion, and clinical depression due to romantic rejection.
Psychologists have demonstrated increased interest in understanding the factors that come into play for people to admire and like others. The general consensus is that people have different conceptualizations of what they find attractive, hence the need to understand how they arrive at decisions on what is admirable or not (Body, Main).
Attraction is defined as the “desire or inclination to approach another individual or object” (Body, Main). The variables that will be discussed in this section include physical beauty, similarity, proximity, and familiarity.
Physical beauty is described as the extent to which an individual’s physical characteristics are perceived by others as aesthetically attractive or desirable (Body, Main). Research on physical beauty has found that physically attractive individuals are not only perceived as more likeable and friendly, but are also favored more in work contexts than less attractive individuals.
Some physical beauty characteristics such as facial symmetry and waist-to-hip ratio are associated with attractiveness, good personality traits and successful life outcomes, though researchers are yet to validate some of these perceptions (Body, Main). For example, people find women with a balanced facial composition more attractive and knowledgeable than those with unbalanced composition despite research showing that facial symmetry and cognition are not related.
Similarity is described as any resemblance or likeness of character, values, or beliefs (Body, Main). Research is consistent that people show “stronger attraction to objectively similar others (i.e., actual similarity) that to those with whom they share fewer traits, beliefs, and/or attitudes.”
The similarity-attraction effect acknowledges that people tend to be attracted to strangers with whom they share similar values, attitudes, personality, interests and world views than to friends with whom they share few of these characteristics. Research has also found that perceived similarity is a strong predictor of romantic attraction than actual attraction, though actual similarity in external characteristics such as age and hairstyle is more predictive of preliminary desirability than likeness in psychological characteristics such as cleverness and confidence (Body, Main).
Proximity can be described as closeness in space, moment in time or affiliation, while familiarity is the status of demonstrating adequate knowledge or understanding about something. In proximity, research shows that people tend to be attracted to those who are near them due to factors such as convenience, familiarity, identity, availability, visibility, and comfort (Body, Main).
Enchantment is both the capacity of the world to charm us and the inspiration that comes upon us when we open ourselves to the magic in everyday experiences (Moore 1996). An enchanted world is alive and rich in personality. It reveals itself to us in its beauty and poetic presence that ultimately make life feel worth living.
Over the years, we have taken such pride in our scientific and technological achievements that we have come to imagine our entire lives as mechanical (Moore 1996). We prize our rationality and quantifying methods, believing that they offer unmatched reliability. We have even introduced them into our arts and our psychological studies and therapies.
But we pay a price for this kind of progress. We have lost much that quickens the heart and nurtures the imagination (Moore 1996). Our arts are marginalized as never before. Education has been reduced to information gathering and training. Medicine neglects the soul and spirit, and focuses exclusively on the purely physical dimensions of the person, using only mechanical and chemical means of healing. Politics appears obsessed with power and money instead of genuine needs of communities. All of these aspects of modern life hurt the soul and, therefore, decrease our humanity.
It’s tempting to respond to these serious problems with remedies that remain within the paradigm of modern culture instead of imagining an altogether different way of life (Moore 1996). A philosophy of enchantment turns current values upside down and asks that we step outside the frontiers of contemporary wisdom. Instead of rushing into the future, we might profoundly appreciate the past, and instead of treating nature as an inert, inanimate substance – a resource for making the merely physical world, we might grant it its soul and personality. We become enchanted and inspired when we open our senses and our imagination to the song and speech of the world.
To live in an enchanting world we have to assume a receptive posture rather than an exclusively active one (Moore 1996). We can become skilled at allowing the world in, taking its secrets to heart and finding power outside of ourselves. This is the chief teaching of the wise, who have explored the secret potentialities of nature and human ingenuity in every period of history and in every culture. When, emptied of the debris of modernism, we enjoy the role of being a conduit for the powers that lie outside us, the world floods us with its wisdom and support.
Moore, Thomas, and Thomas Moore. The re-enchantment of everyday life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
Fisher, Helen E., Arthur Aron, Debra Mashek, Haifang Li, and Lucy L. Brown. "Defining the brain systems of lust, romantic attraction, and attachment." Archives of sexual behavior 31, no. 5 (2002): 413-419.
Body, Main. "The Psychology of Physical Attraction."
de Waal Malefyt, Timothy. "Magical Practice." In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. 2021.