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'Magical Overthinking' author says information overload can stoke irrational thoughts

Amanda Montell hosts the podcast <a href="https://www.soundslikeacult.com/">Sounds Like a Cult</a>. She's also the author of <em>Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism</em>.
Kaitlyn Mikayla
Simon & Schuster
Amanda Montell hosts the podcast Sounds Like a Cult. She's also the author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism.

How is it that we are living in the information age — and yet life seems to make less sense than ever? That's the question author and podcast host Amanda Montell set out to answer in her new book, The Age of Magical Overthinking.

Montell says that our brains are overloaded with a constant stream of information that stokes our innate tendency to believe conspiracy theories and mysticism.

"We grow up hearing certain legends and myths and lore repeated ad nauseum, and we perceive them as true," she says. "It's the reason why ... I genuinely thought, until I was an adult, that it took seven years to digest gum." (Despite what you may have heard, bubble gum typically digests the same way as food.)

Montell, who co-hosts the podcast Sounds Like A Cult, says this cognitive bias is what allows misinformation and disinformation to spread so easily, particularly online. It also helps explain our tendency to make assumptions about celebrities we admire.

"We see a pop star whose music we enjoy, and we assume that they must also be worldly, kind, nurturing," Montell says. "Or we enjoy someone's fashion sense and we jump to the conclusion that they're gregarious or maybe they speak other languages — we jump to these conclusions for which there is little or no evidence."

Montell says that in an age of overwhelming access to information, it's important to step away from electronic devices. "We are meant for a physical world. That's what our brains are wired for," she says. "These devices are addictive, but I find that my nervous system really thanks me when I'm able to do that."

Interview highlights

On why humans developed cognitive biases

/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

Cognitive biases are these deep rooted mental magic tricks that we play on ourselves. ... Cognitive biases developed to help us reconcile our limited time, our limited memory storage, our limited cognitive resources, and our distinct craving for events to feel meaningful during a time when most of the problems that we were contending with every single day were physical. They were less abstract, less complex, less disembodied. And that was true for most of human history. So we developed these shortcuts unconsciously to help us make sense of our environment enough to survive. But now survival is, for the most part, taken care of. At least we're not being attacked by saber tooth tigers anymore in the way that we were when these biases developed. And yet we're still relying on them to confront much more complex and cerebral concerns, and that clash is causing a great deal of existential pain. I really think that our innate mysticisms are clashing with this onslaught of information, mass loneliness and almost a capitalistic pressure to know everything under the sun. And this is all happening without our conscious awareness.

On the "halo effect," in which we jump to conclusions that celebrities are perfect

Once, when [human beings] were living in smaller communities, the halo effect prompted us to make decisions, like seeing someone with large muscles or intact teeth and thinking, "Oh, that person must be a skilled hunter or a skilled fighter, because they've avoided disfigurement from battle. That would be a great person to align myself with for survival." But we're now mapping this halo effect onto modern para-social relationships involving celebrities, and that's setting everyone up for psychological failure, because we're uplifting these celebrities onto a pedestal so high up in the sky that we can't perceive their humanity anymore. ... So when they post something or behave in a way that contradicts the expectations that we've cultivated of them, we feel the need to dethrone them, to punish them.

On "thought terminating clichés" and the notion of manifestation

It describes a sort of stock expression that's easily memorized, easily repeated, and aimed at shutting down independent thinking or questioning. ... So a new age thought terminating cliché might sound like something like, "Well, that's just a victim mindset." Or "you need to sit with that." Or "don't let yourself be ruled by fear." ...

[Manifestation] is its own kind of conspiracy theory, which is an edgy point to make. ... We tend to believe naturally, as humans, that big events or even big feelings must have had a big cause. It just makes proportional sense to us. ... Where manifestation starts to get a little sketchy, a little grift, a little culty dare I say, is when public figures on TikTok, on Instagram projected the language of capitalism onto it. When you start to take an absolutist approach to this subject matter and make it an ideology, it gets a little sinister. Because then when you start to think about it more surgically, if the fact that you are now gainfully employed and have a romantic partner whereas before that was not the case, is because you manifested it, you created a vision board, you bathed your crystals, you know your mind was in the right place.

Well, the inverse of that is that if you're sick, poor, unemployed, unlucky in love, well then it must be your fault. And in the post-pandemic era, during this time of incredible tumult, socio-politically, globally, we're craving someone to tell us how to reclaim some agency. And so I have noticed a generation of grifting manifestation gurus on TikTok and Instagram sweep into the market and promise, "Actually, I have a bespoke proprietary manifestation technique, and if you're seeing this on your free you page, then it was meant for you. All you have to do is sign up for my $30 a month course, and I will impart this manifestation wisdom onto you. It will change your life. And if it doesn't, well, that's your fault."

On the power of nostalgia

During times of present pain, we tend to sort of bathe in a warm bath of positive past memories as a coping mechanism. Excess nostalgia is a bad thing. It's what's causing everyone from Disney adults to MAGA zealots to go blackout drunk on nostalgia and have these complete delusions of the past. That can be really dangerous. But as I continued talking to nostalgia scholars, I realized that what's called personal nostalgia, or when we romanticize memories from our own life, that's a really positive thing because it helps us generate hope for the future. It's engaging us in imagination. The future is unpredictable. We don't have any artifacts from [the future]. ... We do have relics from the past, and that helps us. We cling to those things in order to imagine a future that could feel that good. At the same time, we're experiencing a glut of this cognitive bias called declinism, which is our proclivity to think that life is just getting irreversibly worse and worse and worse. And it's all downhill from there. And again, that's something that we do naturally.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.