The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality by Amanda Montell: nonfiction review

The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality by Amanda Montell

Overview: "Magical thinking" is the belief that particular words, thoughts, emotions, or beliefs can have a material difference on the outcome of our actual lives–that our thoughts have particular influence on the world around us. It's a common trait among kids, and, more detrimentally, goes hand in hand with mental illnesses like OCD. It is also, as Montell points out, largely promoted by the internet. While not solely focused on magical thinking, that is a solid starting point to explain this book which uses both linguistic and sociological frameworks to capture the weird ways that internet culture messes with our brains and influences our worldview. If you are hyper-online, you'll probably find this to be a real gem. Overall: 4

Notes: Instead of a comprehensive overview of the book, for this review, I wanted to discuss a couple chapters that stood out to me. 

The book opens with a discussion of Taylor Swift and the parasocialism that the internet encourages. Montell makes the reader take a step back and truly sit with the absurdity that many of us feel like we know particular artists or celebrities because we like the small pieces of themselves they choose to reveal through their art or online. I particularly thought it was interesting how Montell drills into Swift's departure from Tumblr after fans got upset with her over her minimal response to the BLM movement and her sparse approach to political engagement. 

Montell points out that fans were upset less with what Swift was or wasn't doing and more that she wasn't living up to the Taylor Swift they felt they were best friends with in their heads. Swift, the living breathing person, might not have half the traits her fandom has ascribed to her, likely projecting their own selves, and she's being asked to live up to a person she doesn't know and who doesn't exist. This conversation is so fraught in stan communities (the most intense facets of fandom online, particularly on Twitter) that it was nice to see an outsider take such a blunt stab at what the internet is truly unable to have a real conversation about. 

On the front of magical thinking, the internet loves to push manifestation and its closely related cousin, astrology, as secular life bibles. While the book does dive into this, Montell also discusses the somewhat related concept of how vastly humans overestimate their intelligence and abilities to a sometimes staggering degree, citing a number of studies. 

This just proved to be a good reminder that the people on TikTok and Instagram and Twitter don't actually know what they're talking about, and it's often confirmation bias that gives them the credibility in your mind. It's scary that discerning real from fake is becoming increasingly obscure as media literacy is dropping and the task simply gets much harder than before, and this part of the book made me reflect on the influencer garbage I'd nearly fallen for. While it can be relatively harmless, particularly wellness content like demonizing birth control with fake facts about it running your hormones or promoting dangerous eating habits, can have disastrous effects on consumers of any age. 

Finally, the book closes with the Ikea effect, which explains why people tend to ascribe higher value to things they helped make or assemble even if it's not objectively worth all that much. Montell tells a story about a cushion she made. I instantly thought about how, in my recent move home from LA where I had to let go of almost all my furniture, the only thing I couldn't bare to part with were the three stools my mom and I bought at Ikea, sanded, and painted lavender. Even my dad mentioned not wanting to see them go. This made no sense (other than that the stools did end up being really versatile), but reading the book made me understand the why we all had this attachment a bit more. 

She uses the Ikea effect as a way to talk about AI and art and the sweeping claims that human art will soon be irrelevant as soon as the computers can figure out how to rip off enough of the art they aim to replace to do it "better" (for the record, this is my bitterness and animosity coming through, not necessarily Montell's from the book). But she counters this notion with a few examples of art as human connection and how a certain intangible specialness in the most beloved art is because of the people behind it. Technical excellence isn't what we always–or even typically–respond to in the consumption of any art. I liked this conclusion because I agree with her, sure, but I also thought it fit nicely with another book that takes on what algorithms and AI are doing to our brains, Filterworld.

This book is definitely worth a read if you exist as a person online. It's good to be made aware of the ways our brains are changing because of the internet. So much of the book goes back to Montell's time as a beauty editor and the unwitting ways that they started to use the internet to stoke bad emotions to get clicks. It seems like she still harbors some guilt about what that turned into, and this book is her way of rectifying that, of reminding you that the internet exists to play with the switches and levers in your brain regardless of the personal cost.

I loved Wordslut and wasn't a huge fan of Cultish, but The Age of Magical Overthinking has definitely gotten me back into Montell's books. 

More From This Author:

Wordslut review

Cultish review

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

Worry review

After You'd Gone review

The Late Americans review

Green Dot review


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