The Age of Magical Overthinking

In this podcast (episode #587) and blog, I talk to linguist, bestselling author and podcast host Amanda Montell about how cognitive biases impact the way we think about and show up in the world, how easy it is to fall into magical thinking, how impactful our perceptions are, why we tend to stay in bad relationships, and so much more!

Amanda Montell is a New York Times-bestselling author and iHeart Radio Award-winning podcaster. Her nonfiction books include Cultish, Wordslut, and The Age of Magical Overthinking—an instant New York Times Bestseller and Indie Bestseller. Amanda’s books have been praised by The Atlantic, The Economist, NPR, Kirkus Reviews, and more. Her podcast Sounds Like A Cult was named a best podcast of 2022 by Vulture, Esquire, Marie Claire, and others, and won the 2023 iHeart Radio Award for Best Emerging Podcast. Amanda’s writing has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and elsewhere. Amanda has also appeared in documentary series including Netflix’s How to Become A Cult Leader and Vice TV’s True Believers. Her newest podcast, Magical Overthinkers, premiered in May 2024.

A big part of Amanda’s work and her latest book The Age of Magical Overthinking is trying to answer the question that, even with so much information at our fingertips, why does the world make less and less sense? In many ways, our innate human superstitions and irrational decision-making, which may have served us well in the past, clashes with the information age, mass loneliness and the capitalistic pressure to know everything under the sun, which exacerbates many cognitive biases we have in the digital age.  

Amanda includes her own experience with cognitive biases in her relationships in her book, and how the “sunk-cost fallacy” kept her stuck in a cult-like relationship for many years. This a tendency to believe that resources already spent on an endeavor justify spending even more. For many of us, if we have invested so much in a relationship, we often feel the need to stay with that person and invest even more of our time and energy, even if the relationship is toxic or abusive.  

As human beings, we are extremely loss-adverse—we don’t like to look defeat in the eye, and feeling like we have invested so much of ourselves in something only for it to fail is hard to accept, including in our personal lives and relationships. It is easy to feel ashamed if we made a bad bet on our own happiness, especially when this can reflect badly on our ability to socialize and connect with others, which is an important part of life and our wellbeing. No one wants to be the person who was “tricked” or labeled the “village idiot”. 

We want the choices we make in life to be worth it, but life is in many ways unpredictable. To control this uncertainty, it is sometimes easier to justify a bad choice and keep walking that path to make life seem more manageable and to make yourself more attractive to others. If this sounds like you, don’t give up hope! A key part to avoiding falling into the sunk cost fallacy is to forgive yourself when you find yourself falling into this pattern of thinking, and working on better understanding why you make the choices you do, how cognitive biases can misinform us and how to counter this “magical thinking”. 

Here it is important to understand the difference between magical thinking and magical overthinking. As Amanda points out in her book, magical thinking is “the belief that one’s internal thoughts can affect unrelated events in the external world: think of the conviction that one can manifest their way out of poverty, stave off cancer with positive vibes, thwart the apocalypse by learning to can their own peaches, or transform an unhealthy relationship to a glorious one with loyalty alone. In all its forms, magical thinking works in service of restoring agency amid chaos”. Magical overthinking is distinct to the modern era: the clash between the overwhelming amount of knowledge we have access to and our “irrationality” is often exacerbated when faced with so much overwhelming change.

In a toxic relationship, magical overthinking could show up as us posting happy pictures on social media when reminded of how bad the relationship is, as if this will make things better or justify the way things are. Or, this could be the desire to add something to the relationship: go on a vacation, buy new furniture or get a pet rather than admitting to ourselves that we have made a bad bet and lost.  

Another form of magical thinking we can fall into is something called proportionality bias, or the thinking that big events or big feelings must have a big cause. This bias often leads to conspiratorial thinking, as well as manifestation thinking—the idea that the universe is either for or against you, and you can somehow engineer this in your favor. The latter, manifestation thinking, is especially appealing when things around us feel so out of control: if we can just do this thing, we can somehow make things work out for us and get everything we want. 

We should also be careful of zero-sum thinking, which can often lead to toxic social comparisons through social media especially, and leave us feeling “less than” or not worthy. This is the thinking that another person’s gain means your loss: their wealth, popularity or beauty threatens your wealth, popularity or beauty. These instincts come from a place of survival, where the resources we needed to live another day could easily be taken from us, but in the information age, so many of the resources we now value are intangible, such as beauty, “coolness” and “influence”, and are not limited in quantity. But, when things feel out of control, we tend to embrace zero-sum thinking and feel the need to see anyone who threatens this as threatening our self-esteem. Part of combating this way of thinking means shifting our mindsets, and understanding that someone else’s light does not dim ours, and reminding ourselves of this especially when we are triggered on social media. 

Another common cognitive bias many people fall prey to in the information age is called the halo effect. This is when we have larger-than-life expectations for a celebrity or an important figure in our lives: we admire one quality in a person and think they must be perfect overall. However, when we realize that they are also human, this can lead to disappointment and tension, which we need to work through. It is important that we realize that we are all complex human beings, instead of punishing the people we assume should fit into our idea of perfect. Understanding that the people we admire can disappoint us, especially when celebrities take on a parental role in our lives, is important, and having the empathy to accept their “humanness”, is an important part of avoiding halo effect thinking. 

For more on the magical thinking and overcoming cognitive biases, listen to my podcast with Amanda (episode #587) and check out her incredible work. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).   

This podcast is sponsored by:

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Podcast Highlights 

2:30 Amanda’s amazing work

7:00 The sunk cost fallacy & relationships 

12:40 The difference between magical thinking & magical overthinking 

17:26 Proportionality bias, conspiracy theories & manifest thinking

22:07, 31:00 The zero-sum bias & social comparison 

33:40 The Halo Effect: Celebrities, parents & our larger than life expectations 

39:31 Embracing intuition while avoiding magical thinking

Switch On Your Brain LLC. is providing this podcast as a public service. Reference to any specific viewpoint or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by our organization. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. If you have any questions about this disclaimer, please contact    

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional. 

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