Re-calling Magical Thinking and Social Distance

Re-calling Magical Thinking and Social Distance

Azher Hameed Qamar, Ph.D (

    We have been living in a post-corona Neo-normal world for quite some time. Though things are returning to their pre-COVID functioning state, we have not truly “bounced back.” We are moving ahead in a new innovative world where we are preparing to embrace and cope with anything like COVID-19. Nonetheless, one thing that we learned during COVID-19 is “social distance.” In this short note, I share my thoughts on magical thinking and social distance.

    Contrary to dengue, which was visible to human eyes, the coronavirus is invisible. The fear of the “unseen” threat increases anxiety. Following the direction and instruction from medical gurus, we have developed defense mechanisms to cope with anxiety in such conditions; examples include washing away “corona fears” with 20 seconds of hand-washing, socially distancing oneself from the physical world, and adhering to ‘do not touch’ warnings. The fundamental premise is that physical contact might be dangerous. The governments put a lot of effort into making social distance a ‘temporary norm’ through lock-down. Through the media, we were persuaded to substitute a 3-foot ‘masked’ greeting for handshakes, hugs, and kisses. We are learning to utilize our ‘magical thinking’ to refrain from risk-taking behavior that was once seen as normal. It seems that magical thinking has been extensively invoked for ‘rescue’.

    Hence, we took advantage of ‘work from home’ holidays and kept busy with online work, adhering to the popular slogan ‘stay home — stay safe’. If we ran out of food, we either ordered online or went to grocery shopping while taking safety precautions like wearing gloves and a mask and maintaining a social distance. This was a result of social and electronic media campaigns that featured images of ‘untouchable’ dead bodies and the misery of COVID-19 sufferers. To be safe, it was normal practice to use hand sanitizer, put on a mask and gloves, pay with a credit card, avoid the sales desk, and only handle certain grocery products. When I got home after ‘successful food shopping’ I had to complete a 20-second ritual of hand-washing and promptly changing the “untouchable” clothes. I was able to recognize the change in behavior and the influence of media on behavior. Regardless of whether one came into contact with a suspicious object or someone who could be carrying the COVID-19 virus, it was wise to practice precautions.

    I am aware that I was not the only one to go through this during COVID-19 (before vaccination). This cognitive programming to make one feel secure and safe makes me think of Frazerian’s law of contagion, which explains how magical thought is connected to the magical power of physical touch. Frazer (1925), an armchair researcher, compiled pieces of information from various ethnographic narratives and postulated that people frequently assume that ‘physical touch’ might magically connect two people or things. Even if the contact is broken, this magical connection still exists. As a result, anyone with whom the contagious person comes into physical contact may acquire the contagious person’s qualities and symptoms. Because they are unable to see a causal (logical) connection, people use ritualized cleaning that varies depending on culture to get rid of the contagious effects. Alcock (1995) highlights how the neurobiological structure of the human brain contributes to this magical thinking and helps people understand the unexplained. Amidst the several contentious views on the myths and truths of COVID-19, We are currently witnessing an ‘extension’ of germ theory in the form of a consensus between magical and causal thinking. The public and private media highlighted the notion of “social distance” to promote the government’s lock-down efforts, despite the fact that WHO is referring to physical distance in the context of the spread of COVID-19. In some countries, like Pakistan, maintaining a social distance may be the only way of keeping a physical distance. Companies promoted their products through commercials that featured hand-washing ‘competitions’ in response to the rise in demand for cleaning and disinfection products. People started to be more cautious about physical touch, and hand-washing rituals started to take on more importance. No longer was the ‘power of touch’ idealized. I perceive these institutionalized attempts to use magical thinking as a coping strategy to reduce anxiety. The ‘magical thinking’ that has been characterized as ‘irrational’ (Piaget, 1929), ‘primitive’ (Frazer, 1925), ‘unreasonable’ and ‘invalid’ (Eckblad and Chapman, 1983), appears to be a ‘normal’ human thinking in accordance with scientific thinking that served as a defense mechanism during Covid-19. In my opinion, the socio-cognitive screenplay that the agents of socialization created was quite effective in imparting to us the crucial lesson of ‘how to change behavior?’ However, it can cost us more than we realize to watch a variety of ‘behavior change specialists’ in the media constantly influencing public opinion. In the present day, when a medical emergency has evolved into psycho-social and economic crises, I assume that the post-COVID-19 world may encounter new psycho-social issues, such as a modified form of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), problems with ‘internalized’ social isolation, a normalization of magical thinking, and possibly a ‘globalization’ of protective behavior.


Eckblad, M. & Chapman, L.J. 1983. Magical ideation as an indicator of schizotopy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 51, 215–225. 

Frazer, J.G. (1925). The Golden Bough. New York: The Macmillan Company. 

Alcock, J. (1995). The belief engine. Skeptical Inquirer, 19(3), 14-18. 

Piaget, J. (1929). The child’s conception of the world. London: Kegan Paul. 

Rosengren, K. S, & Hickling, A. K. (2000). Metamorphosis and magic: The development of children’s thinking about possible events and plausible mechanisms. In K.S. Rosengren, C.N. Johnson & P.L. Harris (Eds.), imagining the impossible. Magical, scientific, and religious thinking in children, pp. 75–98. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.



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