Magical Thinking and Rational Thinking on The Office

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Pam tells her storyWe perceive the world from our personal and cultural level of development (a bigger topic than this short article hopes to contain, but which can be seen in other pieces on this site)(like the last section of this one). These levels don't have solid iron doors between them. They're fluid. The levels are a continuum. And we rise and dip between them, sometimes within a single day. There was a good illustration of this on a recent episode of The Office, which aired in late October (the Halloween episode), written by Carrie Kemper.

If you're unfamiliar with the premise of The Office, it's about a bunch of people who work in an office. It's a mockumentary. Periodically, actors address the camera directly in interviews that take place outside the scene.


Pam tells her coworkers of having seen a ghost years before. Jim, her husband and coworker, listens in the background.


Pam tells her ghost storyPhyllis: Bob and I are doing the Scranton Haunted Walking Tour.


Oscar: I always wondered what kind of people went on that thing.


Pam: Oh, hey - if you go by the Banshee Pub, tell the Man in Black I said hello…


There's a pause as Oscar and Phyllis realize they're obligated to ask Pam what happened.


Oscar: What happened Pam.


Jim realizes Pam believes in ghostsPam: Okay, when I was 22, I worked there and everybody said the place was haunted. I didn't believe it, until one day, before we opened, I look up into the mirror, you know, behind the bar? And I see this old man, dressed all in black, but when I turn around, there's no one there. So I tell the cook my story,


Phyllis: Wait - they have food there?


Pam: and he said "That's what everyone sees." That's the Man in Black.



Jim (talking to the camera, laughingly): No! My wife does not believe in ghosts.


Jim tries to talk Pam into a rational explanation

With his firm adherence to rational thought, Jim tries to coax out a rational explanation:



Jim: Hey


Pam: Hey


Jim: Oh - this man in black thing. What do you think that was about?


Pam: What do you mean?


Jim: Was it like trickery in the lights, or maybe you were so primed to see it, then there it was...


Pam: I saw a ghost.


Pam sticks to her storyJim: Mm-hm. What I'm saying is, do you ever wonder what it was?


Pam: It was a ghost. I told you this on like, our first date.


Jim: Yeah, I had just told you about the day that I met the Blue Angels. I figured you had to top it.


Pam: I don't know what to tell you Jim, but I saw a ghost.


She walks away, he looks at the camera, bemused.



Later, in the break room, the discussion has grown to encompass other employees.



general discussion about Pam's storyDarryl: I just don't get it Pam. You're a rational person.


Jim: Thank you.


Pam: Jim doesn't let me wash his NFL jersey during the play-offs. How is this any less logical?


Jim: Careful. Whoa. First of all, it's not like I think that's going to help the Eagles win.


Pam: Really.


Jim: No. That is just a bunch of people participating in a collective thing. And maybe the Eagles will hear about it and want to play better. It's not…


Jim defends his positionKevin: Exactly.


Jim: Thank you.


Jim's rational stance shows the same dip into magical thinking as Pam's (Br. Dierkes describes this in his post on superstition in sports culture) but his rational mind justifies it with reasoning that's laughable to us, reasonable to him. Pam's behaviour is rational in the rest of the series. We never see her enacting lucky rituals, giving someone the evil eye or poking a voodoo doll. She's the office manager for a paper company. She functions well in the rational world. Most of us do. It'd be hard to pay the rent otherwise. But unexplained events or a strong emotional connection to a favourite team that's made the playoffs can yank us a level or three lower for a little while. And what's the harm in that? Spectator sports are more fun when you feel you're participating. Halloween gives a bigger thrill when you let yourself believe in the supernatural the way you did when you were a kid.


We live with these level fluctuations, largely unaware of them. If someone points a given inconsistenty out to us, we rationalize it and go on with our lives. Rarely, if ever, does a person notice this tendency and then set out stamping out that mental pattern. Appropriately, this storyline in The Office isn't given a resolution. 

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