This Book Pulled Me Out of a Year-Long Internet Spiral

written by EMMA GINSBERG

Nothing I’ve done in the past year has made any sense. I moved far away from my closest friends to a city where I knew no one. I became a Taylor Swift fan by accident. I posted thirst traps with no prey in mind. I Googled “When is humanity going to end” while on the clock at work multiple times as if the question itself was productive. My Instagram feed is a jumble of comedy videos I don’t laugh at, outfits so cute it feels cruel, links to some of the best writing I’ve read in my entire life, and unlimited access to some of the worst (in the comments section).

According to Amanda Montell, author of Wordslut and Cultish and the host of the Sounds Like a Cult podcast, I’m not unhinged—I’m just living in the age of magical overthinking. And if her new book, The Age of Magical Overthinking, is any indication, I’m not the only one who is feeling straight-up confused. In this book, Montell explores the cognitive biases that shape our actions and our lives, providing a snapshot of our own sometimes silly, sometimes scary delusion. Here’s what I loved about reading The Age of Magical Overthinking after hearing Montell’s interview on The Everygirl Podcast.

Amanda Montell
The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality

Author Amanda Montell explores 12 cognitive biases shaping our actions and our lives in the information age.

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My honest review of The Age of Magical Overthinking

In my opinion, the best nonfiction books are able to incorporate personal stories, thorough research, and anecdotal evidence seamlessly. In The Age of Magical Overthinking, Montell strikes this balance perfectly. Reading this book is like taking a tour of the most tangled parts of the human psyche, from our sinister tendency to project godlike characteristics onto celebrities to the awe we feel when we’re immersed in the natural world.

This book is for anyone who feels like their phone replaced their brain while they weren’t looking. If you understand the meaning of the phrase “touch grass,” The Age of Magical Overthinking is for you. Especially as a member of the generation that has grown up sharing some of the most intimate moments of our lives instantaneously online (and as a high-achieving eldest daughter who has always used my overthinking habits to my advantage), I needed to read The Age of Magical Overthinking like I need air.

The Age of Magical Overthinking is organized around 12 different cognitive biases, each of which Montell argues are impacting our daily lives in an era of information overwhelm. From the recency illusion to the sunk cost fallacy to good ol’ confirmation bias, Montell explains how the mental magic tricks that evolved in humans thousands of years ago have impacted her life, the lives of her friends, and the lives of strangers she’s interviewed or interacted with on the internet.

Though Montell’s message is by no means explicitly hopeful, and she has emphasized that The Age of Magical Overthinking is not a self-help book, this book does something more important than provide hope or help: It shifts the reader’s attention. If you doomscroll daily, Montell shifts your attention to the vastness of outer space. If you’re terrified of internet trolls, Montell turns your gaze to folklore. And if you’re addicted to LinkedIn stalking, Montell asks you to consider making friends. The Age of Magical Overthinking is the much-needed change in perspective we chronically online have been searching for.

The lessons from TAOMO that I think everyone needs to hear

1. Social media is set up as a zero-sum game for women.

Montell’s chapter on zero-sum bias, entitled “The Shit-Talking Hypothesis,” explains how our social media feeds are set up to breed unhealthy comparison that picks at our greatest insecurities. If you’re stressed about your appearance, the combination of your own competing-for-resources animal instinct and the Instagram algorithm will serve you pictures (who am I kidding—videos) of women you perceive as prettier or more stylish. If you’re insecure about your wit, this cocktail will show you people who you think are wittier. And since we as women have been conditioned to make upward comparisons, this zero-sum game can leave us feeling supremely icky.

The way that Montell suggests we respond to this ickiness is with a term coined by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow: “Shine Theory.” This is the idea that true confidence doesn’t lie in tearing each other down—instead, it lies in our connections and collaborations. When we see another woman crushing it on social media, while our brain may initially tell us to take her down, we can instead reach out as a friend. As Montell said on The Everygirl Podcast, their light does not mean your darkness. You have the potential to maximize your joint slay.

2. We have a right to stop consuming information.

Far too often, I tuck myself in bed at night having done nothing but oscillate between screens. What Montell emphasizes in The Age of Magical Thinking, and particularly in her chapter on “the IKEA effect,” entitled “The Life-Changing Habit of Becoming a Mediocre Crafter,” is that we need a break from this constant cycle of digital input and output. In this chapter, Montell explores the cognitive bias that causes us to favor things crafted by the human hand, specifically our own human hands. Modern life, from work to “pleasure,” has become super-automated, but our desire to sit down and do a little craft has not changed.

Through a satisfying retelling of her love affair with furniture flipping, Montell shows that taking a break from screens will boost your creativity rather than stifle it. We’re all going to do the best possible work for ourselves and for others when we get off the endless conveyor belt between our phones, laptops, and television screens. Reading this chapter of The Age of Magical Overthinking legitimately made me shut my computer and grab my origami supplies. If you, too, are burnt out on screens, reading this book will be your first step toward breaking the cycle of endless information input and output.

3. “Truth” looks different than it did two decades ago. Correct each other kindly.

“I live in daily fear of being canceled, and I haven’t even done anything wrong,” I said to a friend over the phone a few months ago. As I discovered while reading The Age of Magical Overthinking, I am not alone in this paranoia. In her chapter “Haters Are My Motivators,” Montell explores the illusory truth effect, which is our animalistic tendency to believe a statement is true just because we’ve heard it repeated.

“I have spent my life bedeviled by the tug-of-war between awe and objectivity, beauty and truth,” Montell writes. Same, girl. When so many people are shouting about what is true and false, how are we supposed to parse the real facts? Also, how are we supposed to even remotely enjoy life if all we’re doing is trying to parse said real facts?

“Truth” in the 2020s is a real head case, and though Montell doesn’t necessarily provide a solution, she does emphasize the value of recognizing that truth is not one thing. While someone’s shouting in the comments section about how that one coffee shop the influencer in the video said is her “new favorite” has been around since 1997, the truth is that it is “new” to her. Montell’s exploration of the illusory truth effect shows the importance of kind corrections—and the value of being able to admit you were wrong. “Live your truth” is exactly the kind of proverb that Montell herself would cluck her tongue at, but reading this chapter might just make you feel slightly more empowered to do so.

Final thoughts

I’ve needed a lot of books in my lifetime, but I’ve never needed to read something as much as I needed to read The Age of Magical Overthinking. Montell blew me away with her skillful combination of thoughtful research and vivid storytelling. But even more than that, she made me feel at ease with the fact that nothing I’ve done in the past year has made sense—because right now, nothing does. If you need a book to shift your attention away from the infinite nature of the infinite scroll, you can trust The Age of Magical Information to do so.