Leonarda Cianciulli’s life is summarized by tales of great psychological trauma and superstition. How dreary to think that one’s life can be told only in tales of sadness. Each milestone of life marked by a loss. Her adolescence summed in one sentence. Her marriage overshadowed by the deaths of her thirteen children and her overbearing fear for the surviving four.
As an article appearing in the International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences states, “Superstition has its roots in our species’ youth when our ancestors could not understand the forces and whims of [the] natural world. Survival of our ancestors was threatened by predation or other natural forces.” As a result, superstitions have “evolved” to produce “a false sense of having control over outer conditions,” and reduce anxiety.
No wonder Leonarda Cianciulli believed so strongly in them.
Magical Thinking: the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, wishes and/or actions can influence the course of events in the physical world.
Magical thinking can be a very normal human response with aspects of it being known to have psychological benefits. However, in excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior.
Magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people’s thoughts and behavior processes throughout each and every day. Emotional stress and events of personal significance can push individuals towards magical thinking. Think of a head coach who wears the same outfit, down to the socks, as long as his team is winning, in an attempt to continuously recreate the environment that surrounds his team’s good play. Or of an undergraduate student’s good feelings about her chances for admittance to an exclusive graduate program in psychology after seeing the school’s logo on campus, which she perceived as a ‘sign’ because she “almost never” sees items promoting that particular school where she lives.
“No one told Wade Boggs that eating chicken before every single game would help his batting average; he decided that on his own, and no one can argue with his success. We look for patterns because we hate surprises and because we love being in control.” – Matthew Hutson (Psychology Today, 2008)
The sense of having special powers buoys people during challenging times and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. It may also increase perceived self-effectiveness and have a corresponding improvement on performance. Lancaster University psychologist Eugene Subbotsky explains this concept by stating, that “it’s much more comfortable to think that your fate is written down in a constellation of stars than that you’re one of a certain group of intelligent animals who are lost in frozen space forever.”
This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense; as magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless.
Studies show that only in extreme doses can magical thinking increase the likelihood of mental distress.
Magical thinking can be plotted on a spectrum, with skeptics at one end and schizophrenics at the other. People who endorse magical ideation, ranging from the occasional fear of stepping on sidewalk cracks to ritualized warmup routines and childhood blankies, are more likely to have psychosis or develop it later in life. Obsessive-compulsive disorder provides an example of how superstitions, perhaps harmless at onset, could grow into disabling defense mechanisms.
Individuals who suffer from OCD often display elevated levels of paranoia, perceptual disturbances and magical thinking, particularly “thought-action fusion,” the belief that your negative thoughts can cause harm. They are often nearly paralyzed by the convictions that they must perform elaborate rituals, like hand washing or special prayers, to counteract their intrusive thoughts about unlocked doors or loved ones getting cancer.
Magical thinking is also an aspect of the schizophrenia spectrum of disorders and is one of the defining characteristics of schizotypal personality disorder.
According to Mark Lenzenweger, a professor of clinical science, neuroscience and cognitive psychology at the State University of New York, those whose magical thoughts blossom into full-blown delusion and psychosis appear to be a fundamentally different group in their own right. “Whereas with most people, if you were to confront them about their magical beliefs, they would back down. These are people for whom magical thinking is a central part of how they view the world,” not a vague sense of having special powers, says Lenzenweger.
Peter Brugger, head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich, has found that there’s a key chemical involved in magical thinking. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that the brain uses to tag experiences as meaningful, floods the brains of schizophrenics, who see the significance in everything.
SCHIZOTYPAL PERSONALITY DISORDER (STPD) is an ingrained pattern of thinking and behavior marked by unusual beliefs and fears, and difficulty with forming and maintaining relationships.
People with schizotypal personality disorder are often identified as having an eccentric personality. These individuals may have odd beliefs or superstitions and tend to distort reality – making the disorder appear as a mild form of schizophrenia, a serious brain disorder that distorts the way a person thinks, acts, expresses emotions, perceives reality and relates to others. People with STPD avoid socializing and derive little pleasure from interacting with others, a hallmark of the schizoid personality. Due to this, they have few, if any, close friends although they may marry and maintain jobs. The disorder, which may appear more frequently in males, surfaces by early adulthood and can exacerbate anxiety and depression; with roughly half of people with STPD having experienced at least one episode of major depression.
Researchers do not understand exactly what causes schizotypal personality disorder, but they believe it is a combination of genetics and environmental factors. People with a first degree relative with schizophrenia are at an increased risk for developing the condition. For those genetically pre-disposed to developing STPD, experiencing psychological trauma or chronic stress can also increase the risk of symptoms emerging.
Additionally, if you have STPD, you’re at an increased risk of developing major depressive disorder and other personality disorders.
Although we can’t definitively say what the psychology of Leonarda Cianiculli is. From the description of the disorder and the extremeness in which Cianiculli reacted to her own magical thinking, it appears as though schizotypal personality disorder is the most likely diagnosis for our Italian Soap Maker.
- Fritscher, Liza. Magical Thinking Benefits and Concerns. Very Well Mind. 2019.
- Carey, Benedict. Do You Believe in Magic? The New York Times. 2007.
- Schizotypal Personality Disorder. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/schizotypal-personality-disorder#1
- Smith PhD, Kathleen. Schizotypal Personality Disorder. Psycom. 2018.
- Martel, Janelle. Schizotypal Personality Disorder (STPD). Healthline. 2016.
- Psychology Today. Schizotypal Personality Disorder.
- Hutson, Matthew. Magical Thinking. Psychology Today. 2008.
- Sandoiu, Ana. How do superstitions affect our psychology and well-being? Medical News Today. 2019.