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When it comes to a fight,
it's not who's right, but who's left
                       Ed Parker

Unintended Consequences
And what makes a victim?

On this page:
What Went Wrong? | Unintended Consequences | Victim or Participant? | It's Your Blood

A therapist friend has a term he uses to describe a common problem: Magical Thinking. Magical Thinking is a seeming logical 'cause and effect' approach to life and interactions. It is the assumption of  "If I do (A) then this person will do (B)"

On the surface this seems like a reasonable approach (e.g. if I am polite to you, you will be polite back) ... except for one thing. The other person has not agreed to B. In fact, it's not even a one sided deal. With magical thinking, the other party doesn't know the 'deal' exists and yet is expected by you to behave in a certain way.

This is what differentiates established protocols and negotiate.htm">nnegotiate.htm" onMouseOver="MM_displayStatusMsg('conflict negotiate');return document.MM_returnValue" TITLE="negotiate out at the sharp end">egotiation from magical thinking. It is not magical thinking if you both are operating in a predetermined conditions. For example, if you give a store clerk money, that person, in the name of the business, transfers the ownership of the product to you. Another way it isn't magical thinking is if it a communicated and agreed upon set of conditions (e.g. "If you do this for me I will reciprocate with doing that for you").

Another distinction that must be made is when 'hope' must be factored in. Although closer to magical thinking, reasonable hope is more an issue of 'working on spec.' That is to say you do something and hope it will have the desired outcome. Yes, you are putting forth time and effort, but you do not expect guaranteed results. This can be a considered, strategic gamble. For example playing the stock market and even poker. You take a course of action in the calculated hope that it will work to your benefit. BUT, you do do these actions knowing the odds of success are comparable to the odds of failure. Therefore under this planned gamble, you create options. Options to deal with plans both working and not working. That is the pragmatic end of 'hope spectrum.'

However, out in the unrealistic end of 'hope,' you begin to move into magical thinking. Magical thinking is the erroneous belief that your actions can control another person. It is the false belief that you have the power to magically create the behavior that you wish of him/her by your actions. For example "If I lose weight he/she will love me."

Often magical thinking takes an incredibly complex cocktail of factors and -- in the mind of the person doing it -- reduces it to a simplistic and unrealistic equation (e.g. a person loving you being dependant on your weight). Yet, the person obsessively believes that this is the key to success. This thinking has left the 'hope' that a behavior can create a certain reaction and has moved into both the fantasy AND the expectation that it will create the desired results.

Another version of magical thinking is the belief that if you do (A) the other person will NOT do (C). This is not only assumes the the other person will do (B), but that he/she will not even consider doing any other option.


This particular assumption is especially common among people projecting their social assumptions onto others. They assume because certain 'rules' apply where they are from, they apply universally. As such, they proceed on a course of action that endangers them.

In many ways, this is the most dangerous form of magical thinking. Not only are a great many people victimized because of it, but the trauma that it induces is far greater than a calculated risk that didn't work. Every year countless people discover the violent repercussions of this kind of thinking.

This kind of thinking can manifest in countless ways. Here are some examples:
      1) If a young woman decides to get so drunk she passes out at a
          party, the magical thinking is that she won't be sexually molested
          while she is incapacitated and unable to fend for herself.
      2) An older office worker entering a parking area sees a group of young
          toughs loitering near the entrance paying undue attention to him/her.
          Instead of returning to safety (and either calling security or the police)
          that person -- using magical thinking -- decides "they won't bother
          me" and proceeds to his or her car. And walks right into a
      3) In an unexpected conflict -- let's for the sake of this example say
          with a stranger -- an individual says something particularly vicious,
          nasty and rude. This can be both types of magical thinking. One is
          "If I say this, this other person will see how serious I am and go
          away" (If I A he will B). And, "If I say this he will do what I want
          and will NOT hit me (C) for what I just said"

Magical thinking is one of the biggest reason why unintended consequences can be so traumatic. We are shocked and traumatized, not only by the event itself, but the apparent 'betrayal' when things don't work out as planned. And this isn't just a betrayal by a person, it's a betrayal of our reality(1).

What Went Wrong?
How many times have you heard someone when facing the consequences of their actions attempt to defend themselves by saying something akin to "I DIDN'T MEAN FOR THAT TO HAPPEN!!!" (apparently using the ploy that because they didn't intend something to happen they shouldn't be held accountable for having created it)? Such an excuse is an incredibly weak and foolhardy statement to make ... except maybe it isn't.

What you're seeing is the shock and confusion of when magical thinking doesn't pan out.

While to an outside perspective it might seem like the person
    a) has to be a complete idiot for believing such a thing
    b) is being deceitful about his/her motives in order to avoid punishment
    c) is insane
    d) some of the above
    e) all of the above
realize, this is what it looks like when magical thinking runs head long into reality (and when you head butt a brick wall you tend to be somewhat stunned).

What we're saying is that, often, these people aren't being deceitful. They really are at a loss when the world didn't behave according to their simplistic assumptions and expectations (magical thinking). Despite actively participating in a situation's development, they didn't realize it could go so horribly wrong.

Realize that people in the grips of magical thinking they are almost like a drunk; except instead of alcohol suppressing their higher brain functions, it's focusing on a goal to the exclusion of other factors that's doing it. People in the grips of magical thinking become so focused on the desired goal that they blind themselves to the fact that this 'logic' is flawed. They're shocked when the world doesn't work the way they've invested so heavily in. They've so convinced themselves that "If I do A, he will do B" when that doesn't happen they are at a total loss.

The problem is that no matter how unrealistic or out of sync with exact circumstances someone's magical thinking is, they are that person's reality! This is also to say that person has invested enormous amounts of time, effort, and ego in the creation of this 'version' of reality. To have that reality brutally ripped from you by events -- the likelihood of which you didn't even factor in -- adds an extra level of trauma beyond the event. If your reality and everything you think had just been blasted into a million pieces, you'd be babbling too as you tried to put it all back together.

Magical thinking also has another draw back. Because it has taken you off into a particular mindset that is out of touch with the current circumstances, if and when things go wrong, you are not mentally prepared to adapt to the actual circumstances. You are incapable of making an change in your behaviors that will allow you to effectively deal with the circumstances. Unlike a calculated 'hope' (where you prepared by having other options), magical thinking has not allowed you to prepare for the eventuality of things not working out the way you planned. In more benign circumstances this can leave you emotionally or financially devastated. But when it comes to violence, you do not have the means or time to prevent yourself from being victimized.

Unintended Consequences
The bottom line is that all kinds of things effect how we think. Not only how our brains are physically wired, our age, how much mental preparation we have done, past experiences, but also the social/cultural/familial/business circles we normally limit ourselves to. All of these act as 'filters' as to how we view reality and interact with our surroundings (the two not being exactly synonymous).

The problem with magical thinking is that it blinds us to other possibilities -- especially negative ones. In the grip of it, all we see is the perceived profit of our actions (yes, there is a large degree of selfishness in magical thinking). Usually all we can see is the benefit a course of action will supposedly bring. It is with this imagined benefit firmly in our minds that we make conscious decisions to behave in certain ways.

In this state of mind, we do not see the downside, potential problems or -- as is the case of violent repercussions -- the danger. This is why this subject is so deeply intertwined with high risk behavior. (Incidentally our definition of high risk behavior isn't the common moralizing one, it is: Any behavior that puts you into circumstances where violence is probable). Your actions have a BIG influence on whether or not such a situation does turn violent. You have more power than you imagine. Any example of magical thinking in the wrong kind of circumstances can be high risk behavior.

Here's the thing, these decisions can be as much of a momentary whim, emotional impulse or act of frustration as a 'thought out' course of action. Both can put you into danger. Quite frankly, a whim decision by an office worker not to be inconvenienced by the thugs loitering in the parking lot ('they won't do anything') can put you in more danger than a passed out drunk girl at a frat party.

In the high risk behavior page we described danger as a constellation of factors that come together for a period and then separate again. What we are saying is when these factors have come together the impulsive act of flipping the wrong person off is more dangerous than screaming in someone's face when those factors are not present. The simple fact is that you may have done both on numerous occasions and never suffered negative consequences. However, when circumstances are right -- if you're lucky -- you'll wake up in the hospital. If you're not lucky, you won't wake up at all.

This is why awareness of your surrounding is so important for personal safety. Your actions can put you into dangers just as fast as they can take you out of it.

Victim or Participant?
There is a huge debate as to what degree a person who
    a) engages in magical thinking/high risk behavior
    b) remains willfully ignorant of his/her environment
    c) willfully engages in illegal/capacity reducing behavior
    d) actively participates in the creation and escalation of a situation
should be 'held accountable' for the end result. Or even how much sympathy such a person warrants when things 'go sideways.'

Now when put into such blatant and obvious terms, this concept seems absurd. However, in practice, it is amazing how subjective and contradictory people's views are. That is because this is often an emotional, not rational issue(2). This issue has not only had major affect on 'civilized' culture, but also 'pop' culture and the laws of the society you live in.

In the Modern Romans/Modern Barbarians page we mention that we've spent a great deal of time traveling between different social and cultural levels. With that experience comes the understanding that there is no homogenized attitude about a great many issues differently. In fact, different social levels look at this subject of victim/ participant in radically different manners. One of the bigger differences is that more 'civilized' circles do not feel they should be held immediately and individually responsible for their actions. By this we mean, in civilized circles you don't expect to be spitting your teeth for your actions.

This attitude does NOT transcend into different cultures of the lower socio-economic levels of your own society. There, you are both immediately and individually responsible for your actions. And you are expected to be able to do so. In fact, if you are ready, willing or able to deal with the consequences, good or bad, DON'T DO IT!

That is a HUGE difference in how different social groups view the world. And it is the source of all kinds of unintended consequences. In those circles, there are no unintended consequences, there are only consequences. If you aren't ready to live, die or kill over your decisions, stay OUT of those places were those are the rules. Recognize another huge difference, in these groups YOU will pay the price for your actions -- and immediately. While there, you must guard against behaviors that endanger you -- no matter what your motivation. And that includes the willful abdication of your ability to defend yourself (e.g. via intoxication). In other cases it is abandoning awareness of your circumstances for your own emotional storm.

A huge issue -- and one especially common among the young and the upper class -- is the belief  that their bodies are sacrosanct. The belief that one is 'untouchable' has the result that the person does not mentally prepare for the likelihood of having to defend him/herself. Such a person not only takes NO measures regarding personal safety, but honestly (magical thinking) believes he/she can safely move into different social levels and high risk circumstances. This kind of person puts him/herself into these situations without having taken either the time and effort to prepare to function there and/or the false belief that it is the other people's responsibility to respect his/her wishes.

In short, the person -- using magical thinking -- expects to be allowed to move freely outside his/her social circles/rules, but does nothing to prepare to do so. And then looks upon the consequences of these choices in shock, horror and utter astonishment.

This is where you hear cries of "I didn't mean for that to happen"

It's Your Blood
There is a common attitude expressed by young drivers when they are dismissing safety protocols. What they are glibly derisive of are protocols and habits that would keep them out of accidents. They justify not doing this extra work with statements like ... "It would be his fault."

That flip attitude is very easy to maintain -- if you've never been in a car wreck or had to live with the long term physical damage that comes from having been sitting in thousands of pounds of metal being wadded up like tinfoil. That is also the attitude of someone who has never had to go through the expense and inconvenience of replacing a totaled car.

Unfortunately, there is no way to explain to the young that the small amount of extra work now (to develop good driving habits) is miniscule in comparison of the pain and suffering that comes from wrecks. Wrecks that usually occur because of not taking the time to develop those habits.

This page was written by someone who has, not only spit blood for not stopping to take the time to consider the consequences of my words or actions, but has had people make dedicated efforts to kill me over my actions. In short, I've paid in blood and trauma for putting myself into dangerous situations. Therefore my advice to you is this: When it comes to personal safety take the time to see if a dangerous constellations of factors are present before you decide to act.

The simple truth is we live in a big world with all kinds of different people. While most of them are good, kind and caring people, not all of them are. And not everyone you meet and deal with is unwilling to use violence to achieve their ends --  especially if you yourself are violent and rude to them 3.

Remember, no amount of damage control is better than prevention.

Return to top

1) In the Anger page we discuss how the preservation of Core Beliefs is a major source of anger. Return to Text

2) Dr Drew Westen of Emory University (author of "The Political Brain") ran an interesting experiment where he put individuals who identified themselves as either liberal or conservative into an MRI and then proceeded to ask them political questions. Interestingly enough, in both groups the part of the brain that light up was NOT the rational, but rather the emotional parts. Despite the researchers looking at the physical proof that these people were being emotional, not logical, the participants ALL swore that they were being logical and reasonable in their 'thinking.' (News release). This study has incredible implications because it show how magical thinking is emotional, not logical. Return to Text

3) Although overstated, this humorous Youtube video does show how many people who are assaulted behave. Evidently they feel that their actions should have no consequences. Return to Text

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