Expanding the Realm of Possibility: Magical Thinking and Consumer Coping
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This dissertation examines how consumers cope with stress and, specifically, the role of magical thinking in consumer coping. Magical thinking is defined here as creating or invoking ‘extraordinary’ connections – symbolic relationships founded on a belief or intuition in the presence of mystical forces in the world – in order to understand, predict, or influence events. Previous research in the field of psychology has largely depicted magical thinking as a cognitive distortion or fallacious reasoning that emerges in stressful situations due to limited information-processing capacity or to provide an illusory sense of control (e.g., Zusne and Jones 1989). In contrast, I draw from research in sociology, anthropology, and religious studies to explore the cultural dimension of magical thinking. Building on Stivers’ (1999) culturally-based theory of magic, I seek to develop an understanding of magical thinking as a process of meaning negotiation whereby consumers invoke mystical forces to cope with stressful events. These themes are explored through a phenomenological investigation of consumers’ weight loss activities. Findings provide insight on the nature and conceptual domain of magical thinking in the marketplace; magical thinking emerges as a set of practices that involves imparting moral meaning to a situation, reifying and externalizing one’s control over the situation, attempting to symbolically influence this powerful, mystical entity that is vested with control, and interpreting scientific symbols as objective signs from this entity. This research also advances our understanding of consumer coping by illuminating the role of magical thinking as a resource that expands the realm of the possible to help consumers cope with the moral responsibility for a domain over which they experience limited agency.