Thursday 9 February 2023

'Lucky girl syndrome' trending on TikTok is just old-school magical thinking, psychologists say


                         The phrase "lucky girl syndrome" has been trending on social media, but what does it mean? (Image                                                                                                   credit:   GaudiLab via Getty Images)

A new technique for manifesting one's goals has gone viral on TikTok. So-called "lucky girl

syndrome" may sound like a condition most people would like to have, but the psychology behind it is shaky at best and misleading at worst. 

To be a "lucky girl," you must pronounce yourself to be lucky, prosperous and a magnet for good things, according to proponents of the trend. In one TikTok video(opens in new tab), user iambrifields(opens in new tab) repeats the affirmation, "Everything I want and need is on its way to me right now. I am open to receive." The trend isn’t limited to TikTok — Instagram user hothighpriestess(opens in new tab) posted a reel(opens in new tab) in which she states, "I am powerful and in control of my reality. I attract all that is good in this universe. I find myself in a state of perpetual happiness." 

As Vox writer Rebecca Jennings recently pointed out(opens in new tab), the idea is reminiscent of "the law of attraction" and other philosophies described in the influential self-help book "The Secret" (Simon & Schuster, 2006), written by Rhonda Byrne.

The law of attraction taps into the idea that people can manifest whatever they want in life by simply speaking it into existence; similarly, lucky girl syndrome encourages individuals to repeat mantras such as "Things are always working out for me, no matter how it looks in any point in time" and "I will attract everything I desire."

Lucky girl TikTok videos may currently be racking up millions of views, but Robert West(opens in new tab), a psychologist and emeritus professor of behavioral science and health at University College London in the U.K., told Live Science that this technique is something that's been seen countless times before. 

"The 'lucky girl syndrome' appears to be just the latest in a long history of magical thinking that we humans find so bewitching," West said. In the Encyclopedia Britannica(opens in new tab), magical thinking is defined as "the belief that one's ideas, thoughts, actions, words or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world." 

"Like most forms of magical thinking, [lucky girl syndrome] draws on a grain of truth but rapidly turns into fantasy," West said. "The grain of truth is that 'people make their own luck.' The flight into fantasy comes from the idea that we can have any impact on the world around us just by imagining." The only way humans can have any influence on their fate is through their own actions, West said.

That's not to say that it's inherently bad to have a positive outlook on life, said West. "But that is different. The danger of believing that we can achieve things just by imagining them is that it actually stops us doing the things that would make our lives, and those of other people, better," he said.

If one potential consequence of lucky girl syndrome is that people fail to take action, another is that they'll make poor decisions, banking on the idea that everything will work out in the end. That's because the philosophy may encourage "positive illusion," defined by the American Psychological Association(opens in new tab) (APA) as "a belief about oneself that is pleasant or positive and that is held regardless of its truth."  

A 2015 review in the journal Frontiers in Psychology(opens in new tab) outlines some of the risks of holding positive illusions, listing unrealistic optimism and an overly inflated sense of self belief as potential problems. The review considered the impacts this bias would have on high-stakes decision making and how the illusion of control can lead to negative consequences. For instance, one might be more likely to be reckless in gambling with the positive illusion that their chances of winning are higher than they are in reality, the authors suggest.

And if by chance, a person's risky gamble does pay off, they may attribute the result to the power of magical thinking.

The human brain is hardwired to look for patterns and will sometimes interpret two events as linked when they're actually unrelated; this phenomenon is called "causal illusion," according to a 2017 paper in the journal Consciousness and Cognition(opens in new tab). Pattern recognition is helpful in cases where a pattern truly does exist; for instance, you can recognize that a plant grows best under certain conditions and nurture its growth accordingly. However, a 2020 paper in the British Journal of Psychology(opens in new tab) suggests that causal illusion makes it more likely that people will believe pseudoscientific theories, such as the lucky girl phenomenon.

"Lucky girl syndrome is not much different from the gambler's 'lucky streak' or 'gut feeling,'" West said. "In both cases, the insidious thing about them is that people can point to examples where they appear to have been borne out. Someone wins the lottery using some magical thinking and claims that it was the magical thinking that did it. Of course it didn't, and millions of other people are testimony to the fact that magical thinking didn't work for them." 

In some ways, lucky girl syndrome also echoes a concept called "learned optimism," said Leslie Gutman(opens in new tab), a professor of Applied Developmental and Health Psychology at University College London in England. 

"[This] is a learned habit of viewing ourselves and the world in a positive light. It is the belief that good things will continually happen in all areas of our life," she told Live Science. Those with learned optimism see problems as transient and usually attributable to specific, external factors, rather than immutable aspects of their lives or themselves, according to the APA(opens in new tab).

On one hand, research suggests that optimistic people tend to be more motivated than pessimistic people and show more goal-focused behavior, which can lead to greater success in their careers, Gutman said. "What is important, however, is those who consider themselves 'lucky' do not attribute their success to luck but understand that their hard work plays a key role in their achievement," she said. In that respect, lucky girl syndrome could feed into harmful biases, perpetuating the idea that "when successful, women are simply lucky, which downplays their ability and hard work," she noted.

Learned optimism may come more easily to those with social privilege — when things usually go well for you, there’s no big mental leap required to be optimistic. The opposite phenomenon, learned helplessness, tends to be prevalent in impoverished communities. A 2014 report published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science(opens in new tab) suggests that childhood poverty has long term effects on mental health and those who experienced childhood poverty displayed a greater susceptibility to learned helplessness later in life.

In short, while optimism and good self esteem can help us to achieve our goals, it is important not to fall into the trap of magical thinking or positive illusions. Experts say it's better to foster and take pride in your own abilities than to rely on the mystical power of manifestation.

Lou Mudge/Live Science

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