The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane by Matthew Hutson
Not recommended. I put it down halfway through.
My first criticism is that he is vague and imprecise, to a degree that damages the book. He recounts charming bits of research revealing that human beings have irrational preferences based on magical thinking. For example, given the choice between identical sport coats, we prefer the one that has belonged to a loved one, as opposed to one owned by a serial killer. We think there is something inherently more valuable about the piano John Lennon used to write "Imagine" than an identical model that he did not own. Yet Hutson never tells us how strong these preferences are over all these research tidbits: We prefer A over B, and that's magical thinking, and he moves on.
Except that it matters. Enormous preferences for irrational reasons, whether they increase our risk or cost us money, are important for human interaction. Slight preferences are merely curiosities. Hutson often does not even give an approximation.
I understand that readers of popular nonfiction often don't like a lot of numbers (each equation in the text is supposed to cut sales in half), leaving the author with a difficult choice if he is to make a living. But that's not my problem.
Second, I expected that he wasn't going to like prayer and theism much, but that is a fairly minor annoyance. Nonbelievers generally get some important understanding simply wrong, but sometimes have valuable things to say nonetheless. They are outsiders, they have a different perspective. Hutson does something more problematic still: first he writes as if he considers prayer to be the same thing as having positive thoughts, or wishes, or sports fans' superstitions, and jinxes about events; then he explains quite clearly in a few sentences that prayer is actually something different, in that it is asking a supernatural agent to act, rather than relying on the power of the thoughts themselves; then he reverts to treating them the same as positive thoughts again, without explanation. So he gets it, but then refuses to deal with the difficult bit. I can follow an argument that finds many similarities between the two, and can accept that there are some who perceive no difference and give reason for that. They are wrong, but usually consistent and understandable. Hutson is too busy hurrying on to his main point that optimism and self-confidence can have positive effect, so go ahead and keep those magical thoughts.