Amanda Montell’s book on irrationality makes sense of your delulu thoughts

In The Age of Magical Overthinking, the Sounds Like A Cult podcast host breaks down our obsession with celebrity, conspiracy theories and toxic relationships

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In The Age of Magical Overthinking, the Sounds Like A Cult podcast host breaks down our obsession with celebrity, conspiracy theories and toxic relationships

By Darshita Goyal11 Apr 2024
9 mins read time
9 mins read time

Why do you feel jealous when a friend’s TikTok goes viral? Why do fans hold Taylor Swift morally accountable for anything right or wrong in the world? Why did I stay in that toxic relationship for years longer than I should have? And most importantly, why was the world hell-bent on finding a deliciously dangerous conspiracy theory linked to Kate Middleton?

I know there are lots of “whys” there, but luckily for us, author, linguist and podcaster Amanda Montell seeks to answer them all in her new book The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality. While the writer is best known for her analysis of unconventional cults (think: reality TV fans, Apple loyalists or Lululemon girlies), her latest project delves into the cognitive theories that inform modern thought.

Each chapter is dedicated to a specific bias that shapes how we perceive the internet world: like the sunk-cost fallacy which believes the more work humans put into a romantic relationship, the more patient they are to reap the benefits. Montell employs this theory to explain why so many of us stick around with toxic partners for much longer than we should have. In another chapter on zero sum bias, the author breaks down why we feel angst or lesser-than when a colleague gets a promotion or a friend gets engaged.

At a time when people are consuming more content than we can make sense of, Montell’s book acts as a soothing balm that undoes some of our general brain chaos. Each theory makes the reader feel validated, either in their own actions or of someone they know. Below, we caught up with the author on demystifying the present age of magical overthinking.

What is magical overthinking?

Montell: So ‘magical thinking’ all on its own is an age-old psychological quirk, describing humans’ inherent, widespread belief that our internal thoughts can affect external events. It intensifies during times of grief or crisis when we feel out of control and need to tell ourselves stories as a means of reclaiming some agency. But magical overthinking feels distinct to the modern era – a product of our innate superstitions colliding with data overload, mass loneliness, and a capitalistic pressure to “know” everything under the sun.

I like the phrase because even though it represents something painful, there’s also an upside. For a long time, cognitive biases helped us make sense of the world to survive it. Being perfectly rational simply isn’t human, and despite the contemporary drawbacks, there is a “magic” in magical overthinking. Being aware of the innate irrationalities that inform our decision-making can help us make the best of them while avoiding the worst.

In WordSlut and Cultish you focus on how linguistics influence our perception of the world. Why did you shift away from language to cognitive biases in this book? What inspired this move?

Montell: A pattern is emerging for me where the research process for the book I'm currently writing tends to plant the seeds for the next one. My last book Cultish was really born out of a fascination with the relationship between language and power that I developed (and became obsessed with) while writing my first book, Wordslut. I tackled that first in the context of gender, and then cults. The idea for The Age of Magical Overthinking came about in a similar way. As I was writing Cultish, I came across fascinating psychology and behavioural economics research about cognitive biases – these mental magical tricks we naturally play on ourselves which historically helped us make efficient decisions.

Confirmation bias and sunk cost fallacy are two of the most famous, but hundreds of others have been described. I was fascinated by how these biases explained not only the cult behaviour I was examining but also so many of the confounding beliefs I was noticing in the zeitgeist at large and in my own life. From extreme celebrity worship and growing obsessions with Instagram manifestation “gurus” to a personal choice in my early 20s to stick out a romantic relationship that I knew caused me great suffering. I knew right away I wanted my next project to contextualise cognitive biases in the modern age in a way that was equally informed by social science, cultural criticism, and relatable personal stories. It's not explicitly about linguistics, but I think my love of language will always find a way to inform my writing, no matter the topic at hand.

I hope [the book] helps people understand their own hearts and minds better, as well as the hearts and minds of people they've written off as delulu beyond repair, during this increasingly isolated, complicated, technologically-ruled era.
Amanda Montell

While reading the book, I felt validated by the biases as it made sense of the chaos in my mind. Which cognitive bias made you feel most seen, and why?

Montell: The second chapter in the book, "A Toxic Relationship Is Just a Cult of One: A note on the sunk cost fallacy" is probably the most vulnerable and intimate of them all. Writing that helped me process one of the most irrational choices I've ever made: the decision to stick out a romantic relationship – that I logically knew wasn't serving me – for years longer than made sense to anyone, including myself, but that I couldn't justify leaving. I beat myself up for a long time for being so delusional, but the fact that there's an empirical, traceable behavioural economics explanation for my choice made me feel so much less ashamed.

Most recently, with the Baltimore boat incident and Kate Middleton’s temporary disappearance, we saw proportionality bias in play as conspiracies continue to abound. People needed the cause and effect to be equally big. With knowledge of the bias, does this change how you interact with the world and consume information?

Montell: It's been amazing to see how these different biases I cover in the book, like proportionality bias, continue to explain daily current events. I suppose amazing isn't exactly the right word – more so it's been clarifying and soothing. We can't altogether eradicate our cognitive biases – they're so deeply embedded – but for me, developing an awareness of them has helped me generate more compassion toward others' irrational behaviours (like engaging with conspiracy theories) and scepticism of my own. These biases aren't an excuse for people succumbing to the worst of their delusions, but it is an explanation. And that's helped me see that most people aren't evil or hopelessly brainless; we're just living through an era when our oldest decision-making strategies are no longer working for us.

You also talk about how it’s comforting to know when others feel envy; if everyone feels the zero sum bias you’re not alone. This made me think about reality TV. Do you think we enjoy watching people feel jealous and mess up because it helps us feel seen? Why do you think we watch reality TV in the context of cognitive biases?

Montell: At worst, I think watching people behave badly on reality TV can give us a sense of superiority. It comforts us to convince ourselves that we would never act as chaotically as those people. That's overconfidence bias at work (which, I fear, affects almost everyone). But I also think gossiping about reality stars provides a sort of social connective tissue that can be relatively harmless, as long as we don't dehumanise the people on screen. Discussing their behaviours in private allows social communities to establish in-group values, circulate information, and engage in conversations about deeper topics in a more lighthearted context.

What is a modern truth or trend that we’ve taken as fact because of an illusory truth effect? For me, it would be that online dating is a dumpster fire, the more we read and hear it, the more real it feels.

Montell: The illusory truth effect describes our tendency to believe something as true just because we've heard it multiple times – we naturally mistake processing fluency as accuracy, which is how mis- and disinformation, as well as harmful social stereotypes, can spread so easily via false headlines and memes. On a more lighthearted note, I genuinely believed until I was an adult that it takes seven years to digest gum because I heard that phrase so often growing up. It was repeated so much, I never thought to question it!

How has writing this book and researching cognitive theories helped you make sense of other people’s irrationality or your own?

Montell: First I'll say, the research process for TAOMO was not only the most fun of all my books, it was also the most personally beneficial. I started out by gaining a foundational understanding of each cognitive bias by reading a volume of academic papers, both the earliest and latest writings on each one; then, I read more mainstream psychology and cultural criticism books, like Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson.

Then as each chapter took shape, I read, re-read, and folded in a huge range of references, from Sylvia Plath poems to Bell Hooks speeches to Taylor Swift lyrics – whatever felt necessary to communicate that chapter's thesis. Being able to contextualise this academic research in my own life and modern society gave me constant lightbulb moments. Even though "cognitive bias" is not a new term (it was coined in the ‘70s by the late Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman), I think it's more relevant than ever as we attempt to "make sense" of life in the Information Age, when we have access to more knowledge than ever, yet life only seems to be more confounding.

What is one thing you hope people take away from The Age of Magical Overthinking?

Montell: I hope it helps them understand their own hearts and minds better, as well as the hearts and minds of people they've written off as delulu beyond repair, during this increasingly isolated, complicated, technologically-ruled era.

In your opinion, what age comes after this?

Montell: I love this question. Hopefully a more grounded, embodied age! I know I'd personally love to detach myself from my devices and connect with the physical world. I think my brain would thank me.

The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality by Amanda Montell, is published April 11 (Thorsons, Hardback, £20). Buy on