Cognitive Daily

Culture, Medicine, and Magic

Modern biological explanations for disease have not been around for long. Before the nineteenth century, explanations of disease transmittal would never have involved “viruses” or even “germs.” Yet today, even the youngest children know that germs can make you sick—at least, in Western cultures they do. But what about other cultures? The folk tradition in Vietnam attributes disease to evil spirits and magic spells. As modern medicine now permeates nearly all cultures, do cultures such as Vietnam’s similarly modify their understanding of the relationship between magic and medicine?

Simone Nguyen and Karl Rosengren designed a study to examine these issues by comparing recent Vietnamese immigrants to America with Americans of European ancestry. They presented both children and adults with brief stories in their native languages: a third of the stories offered biological explanations for disease (e.g. “Jim sneezed all his germs onto Jane…. The next morning, Jane was sick.”); a third offered magical explanations (e.g. “Jenny broke Lisa’s favorite toy. Jenny told Lisa she was going to put a magic spell on her. The next morning, Lisa was sick.”); and a third combined both magical and biological explanations into the same story. In each case, the participants were asked why the person in the story became sick. When just the magical explanation was offered, the results were as follows:


Very young children offered a magical explanation like “the magic got inside her body.” While most Vietnamese-Americans offered a magical explanation, most European-Americans did not. Though the study did not provide results broken down by both age and cultural background, this result suggests that magic is still an important influence in Vietnamese-American culture.

However, when the story offered only a biological explanation for the illness, nearly all participants—children and adults, regardless of cultural background—offered a biological reason for the sickness.

The most interesting results come from the situations where both medical and biological explanations were provided in the same story:


Now, given an implicit “choice” between a magical explanation and a biological one, the biological explanation nearly always took precedence. Vietnamese-Americans did offer statistically more magical explanations than European-Americans, but overall, the biological explanations far outweighed magical ones, for all groups studied.

In a second experiment, Nguyen and Rosengren examined responses when no specific cause was mentioned. They simply asked participants what the causes and remedies for a particular illness might be. Next, they asked if a person could get sick from a particular cause (“Do you think a person could get sick from a magic spell?” or “Do you think a person could ever get sick from someone sneezing on them?”). In the first case, respondents are being asked to generate a particular explanation or cure, while in the second case, they’re only asked to endorse an explanation or cure provided them. Here are the results:


When respondents—children and adults—were offered no specific explanation and were asked to generate their own response, nearly all of them offered biological responses. But when an explanation was provided and endorsement only required a yes or no response, while both groups favored biological explanations, a significant portion of Vietnamese-Americans also endorsed magical explanations.

Nguyen and Rosengren argue that these results suggest that Vietnamese-Americans don’t blend the two cultural explanations for disease, but rather, hold both sets of beliefs simultaneously. Context determines when a biological explanation will be offered, and when a magical one will. While the biological explanation dominates, the magical explanation maintains its own independent status for Vietnamese-Americans. An alternate explanation, Nguyen and Rosengren suggest, is that European-American children learn at a very early age to reject magical explanations for disease.

Nguyen, S.P., & Rosengren, K.S. (2004). Causal reasoning about illness: A comparison between European-American and Vietnamese-American children. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 4.1, 51-78.


  1. #1 Ben Askins
    October 8, 2005

    Very interesting study. Something to note in Buddhist cultures, such as Vietnamese, is that Buddhist philosophy proposes that all things under the influence of cause and effect have both observable and non-observable causes. In your example, where Jimmy sneezed his germs onto Jane, a Buddhist explanation might assert that both the germs and karma caused Jane to get sick. It could be explained as Jane having a karmic predisposition toward getting sick because of karma collected in this or a past life, and that the germs were an observable condition that allowed this karma to bear fruit.

  2. #2 Meg
    October 10, 2005

    Actually, Buddhists have many different views about karma. As a Buddhist, I would say that karma is just cause and effect. Jane got sick because Jimmy sneezed on her – no magic or past lives (neither of which are required beliefs of Buddhists).

  3. #3 Ben Askins
    October 17, 2005

    Oops, should spell check before posting. The book I mentioned is spelt “Abhidharmakosha”. Sorry.

  4. #4 Ben Askins
    October 17, 2005

    Hi Meg, yes Buddhists do have many different views about Karma, just as Christians have many different views about God. My comment above refers to just one explanation of Karma. When I think of Karma I think about the definition given in the Abhidharmaksha, which states “Karma is the movement of the mind and what it motivates”. This encourages me to reflect on how my state of mind influences my experience of the world.

New comments have been disabled.