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"The Age of Magical Overthinking" | Reviewed by Carson Mowery

Though we live in a time where we have more access to information than ever before, it’s become more and more difficult to decipher what is truthful and what is manipulated. Technology such as artificial intelligence is only worsening this issue, and the ability to critically think is being pushed aside in favor of sensationalist headlines that keep people glued to social media, minds constantly whirring, never stopping to process the barrage of information they face daily. 

I am an overthinker to my core. At its best, we could call this thoughtful deliberation. At its worst, it becomes incessant worrying. Though I have been diagnosed by a professional with my own flavor of anxiety, my penchant for worry has only intensified since the COVID-19 pandemic and all that has followed since. I know many others who share these feelings, and some days the overwhelm born out of this worrying can feel bleak and debilitating. A major factor leading to this exhaustive state, I believe, is the never-ending quest to process information thoroughly despite the frequency with which information evolves and spreads. 

In “The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality,” Amanda Montell identifies and dissects a handful of the cognitive biases that shape this information age, along with their impacts on society. In the chapter, “Are You Our Mother, Taylor Swift?” Montell examines the halo effect, discussing how fandom culture can lead to blind worship of celebrities and the brutal consequences that arise when a celebrity fails to meet the expectations of every fan.

In a more vulnerable essay, Montell illustrates the sunk cost fallacy by detailing a toxic past relationship where she ignored every single red flag due to the time and emotional investments she had already made in the relationship. Montell also takes on some more lighthearted biases, including the phenomenon of seeing something everywhere after it being mentioned just once (the recency illusion) and the tendency to use personality assessments and astrological signs to excuse bad behavior (confirmation bias). I mean, I have definitely blamed being high-strung on being an Enneagram 1. That’s a problem, I know! 

In the final two chapters (which I find the most compelling), Montell smartly confronts the challenge that rests in the fight between nostalgia and declinism and the commitment to building our future. As an overthinker and worrier, I saw myself vividly reflected in these chapters. I have certainly mentioned the world burning (both broadly and specifically) as a cause for occasional bouts of ennui.

As a linguist, Montell is highly attuned to the effects language can have on its users and carefully selects words that most accurately represent a feeling or cause (which you will notice consistently throughout her books). Montell challenges us to stop normalizing alarmist language; specifically, she writes:

“I have to wonder if there’s any danger in this deadening of our emotional vocabularies. What does it do to us to overuse this defeatist rhetoric, perhaps only ironically at first, but then so cavalierly and with such frequency that one day we forget it’s not earnest, each of us the boy who cried apocalypse?”

This kind of emotional deadening, this semantic surrender to gestures broadly ~the end of it all~ may be one of the most harmful approaches we could take. In the final chapter, Montell implements metaphors of DIY crafting and the IKEA effect (a cognitive bias that explains why people more deeply value things they had a hand in creating) as a call to slow down, think critically and creatively, and be thoughtful in their attempts at building their future.     

So long as the world is still underfoot, Montell argues, we have the responsibility to ourselves and others to pull away from the headlines and productivity dogma to appreciate our surroundings and build meaningful connections. There has always been constant tragedy and violence and suffering, but only relatively recently have we been able to access unlimited details about each of those with only a few clicks. The long-term effects of having all of this information at our fingertips can cause us to become unfeeling, but we cannot relinquish our emotions. Our sensitivity– our capacity for empathy, kindness, and connection–is our greatest strength. 

In closing the book, Montell replicates an excerpt of Sylvia Plath’s 1962 essay “Context,” wherein Plath writes, “For me…the real issues of our time are the issues of every time–the hurt and wonder of loving; making in all its forms–children, loaves of bread, paintings, buildings; and the conservation of life of all people in all places, the jeopardizing of which no doubletalk of ‘peace’ or ‘implacable foes’ can excuse.”

Montell reveals that Plath wrote this essay the same year she began keeping bees, a love that emerged in many of her most beloved poems. “Love, survival, creation by hand,” Montell writes.

“Technology changes faster than the lifespan of a honeybee, but we are the hive.”

Buy the Book.




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