Yesterday we discussed the difference between children’s and adults’ beliefs in magic. Today we will continue that discussion, with two more experiments from the same article by Eugene Subbotsky.
Adults generally claim they don’t believe in magic, but they seem to have a different set of rules for fictional objects. While they understand that a real rabbit can’t change into a bird, they believe a fictional dog-bird might just be able to turn into a cat-fish. Kids, on the other hand, seem to have a consistent set of rules for both real and fictional objects.
In experiment three, Subbotsky tested a different kind of magic: the idea that objects can be transformed simply by wishing them to. The procedure was the same as in the magical condition of experiment 1, except in each case, participants were asked to wish for the change, instead of the experimenter pretending to cast a spell on the object. Volunteers were asked to imagine a blank piece of paper, and wish for a picture of a rose to appear on it. Next they imagined the fantastic dog-bird creature and wished it to transform into a cat-fish. Finally the rose-paper trick was performed with the aid of the trick box, but again participants were asked to wish for a rose to appear on the piece of paper. In each case, they were asked if the result was real magic, or some sort of trick transformation. Here are the results:
Six-year-olds still believe that they can change objects simply through the power of wishing. In nine-year-olds, the belief in the power of the wish has begun to fade, but each type of object is treated the same. Adults, while they don’t believe that real objects can be changed by wishing, maintain a separate rule for fantastic objects.
So, is there any situation where adults still believe that magic can happen in the real world? In Subbotsky’s experiment, adults were asked what they would do if a witch tried to cast a spell on them. Since the spell affected them personally, Subbotsky suspected that people might respond differently in this situation than with objects they didn’t care about.
One group was told to imagine a hypothetical situation where they met a woman claiming to be a good witch. The witch offers to cast a spell of happiness and wealth, but claims it won’t work unless the participants give her permission. Next they are asked to imagine an evil witch, who will cast a bad spell which causes the victim to be a servant of evil, again only with the victim’s permission. About half the volunteers agreed to the “good” spell, but none of them would give permission for the evil spell.
The second group was asked the same questions, but instead of responding for themselves, they were asked whether a “scientist” who didn’t believe in magic should consent to the spells. In this case, the advice for the scientist was the same for the good spells, but 6 out of the 16 participants also suggested that he or she consent to the bad spells.
When asked whether they themselves would consent to the good spell, everyone stuck to their original answers, but for the bad spell, all the participants uniformly said “no”—even those who had advised the scientist to consent.
It seems that Subbotsky has found the boundary where adults begin to give some credence to magical powers. When the “magic” has some potential to do them harm, a firm disbelief in magic can be turned on its head. Apparently nearly all of us believe in magic at least some of the time.