The Frontal Cortex

Voodoo, Religion and Faulty Causation

Ever since David Hume – our first great psychologist – it has been a well known fact that causation is a figment of our imagination. Although we perceive event A as causing event B, this perception is an illusion: necessary causation is not inherent in nature. As Hume wrote:

“We have no other notion of cause and effect, but that of certain objects, which have been always conjoin’d together, and which in all past instances have been found inseparable. We cannot penetrate into the reason of the conjunction. We only observe the thing itself, and always find that from the constant conjunction the objects acquire an union in the imagination.”

This sleight of mind has endless implications. For starters, if we weren’t so addicted to seeing chains of causation everywhere, then science wouldn’t exist. The experimental method is all about disentangling cause and effect, clarifying the mess of variables that underlie reality.

And now, in a witty little study by Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton, scientists have shown that mental causation also underlies “magical thinking,” a polite euphemism for religiosity. The paper consisted of two separate studies, but I’ll just discuss the first one, which used a voodoo hex to spook some Harvard summer students. Pronin’s experiment was simple: Harvard students were shown a voodoo doll and told that they were part of a study of “physical health symptoms that result from psychological factors…in the context of Haitian Voodoo.” (In fact, dolls are not used in Haitian Voodoo but “they were used here to conform to participants’ expectations about Voodoo practice.”) Unbeknownst to the volunteers, the scientists had recruited a “confederate” as part of their experimental design. The confederate dressed and behaved normally with half of the participants – and very badly with the other half. He arrived late, tossed an extra copy of a consent form toward the trash can, but missed and left it on the floor. While the subjects read the voodoo death article, “he slowly rotated his pen on the tabletop, making a noise just noticeable enough to be grating.” In other words, he acted like he deserved a hex.

The test participant was then assigned to play the “witch doctor.” The confederate was the “victim” and wrote his name on a slip of paper, which was attached to the voodoo doll. The newly-minted witch doctor and victim were then asked if they had any of 26 physical symptoms. With the witch doctor listening, the victim said that he had no symptoms.

The witch doctor was then left alone and told to think “concrete thoughts” about the victim. When the victim was brought back into the room, the witch doctor, again acting on instructions, stuck five pins into the Voodoo doll. The victim was again once again asked if he had any ailments. He now complained about a headache.

The witch doctor-participants then completed a subtle questionnaire asking whether they felt responsible for the victim’s headache. Sure enough, subjects confused their ill-intention with actual causation. “The participants led to generate evil thoughts about their victim were more likely than the neutral-thinking participants to believe that they caused his headache” the researchers reported.

In fact, test subjects who had thought bad things about the deserving victim were, on average, twice as likely to feel they were at least partially responsible for causing the headache than those who had neutral thoughts. What’s more, these witch doctors felt no guilt about what they thought they had done. Cronin speculates: “Perhaps participants saw the victim’s headache as a just reward for his unpleasant behavior.”

What’s the moral? Magical thinking is built into our brain at a pretty basic level. Although these Harvard students don’t really believe in Voodoo, a few experimental tricks can seduce them into delusion. A similar psychology probably explains why the vast majority of Americans (between 70 and 85 percent) believe that their prayers are being answered. Reality has a way of tricking the mind.


  1. #1 bob koepp
    September 22, 2006

    “causation is a figment of our imagination”

    I can’t tell from the rest of your post if you intended this as a bit of humor, or if you simply don’t realize that it’s incompatible with your further reference to confusion of ill-intent with actual causation, not to mention the proffered explanations of the behavior of test subjects.

  2. #2 Jonah
    September 22, 2006

    Perhaps I was unclear. Hume’s point was that causation is never perceived: it is imagined. Often, our imagination seems to be correct, such as when we notice that gravity causes things to fall towards earth. But the point is that we don’t see the cause; we just see the fall. What this experiment was trying to prove is that our imagination often generates completely nonsensical theories of causation, such as believing that ill-intent causes a hex.

  3. #3 somnilista, FCD
    September 22, 2006

    This is tangentially related:
    Ghosts ‘all in the mind’

    …Reporting the case in tomorrow’s issue of Nature, the weekly British science journal, the doctors said that when they sent a small current to the woman’s left temporoparietal junction, she said she had the impression there was somebody behind her…

  4. #4 Jason Malloy
    September 22, 2006

    In ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ Daniel Gilbert lists a number of ways regular people have an illusion of control (e.g. feel more confident of winning the lottery when they can pick their own numbers). This little white mental lie appears to be critical to self-esteem; the one sub-group who is immune to these illusions are the clinically depressed.

  5. #5 Roy
    September 24, 2006

    Now why does the author have to go and say that Magical Thinking is simply a friendly euphamism for religiosity? First, it implies that religiosity is the far graver and more serious accusation (or it wouldn’t need a euphimism); and second, it confuses two highly distinct and distinguishable things. Magical thinking appeals to what are percieved to be occult sources of power, mysterious forces not known to most, but indeed known to a few, like shamans etc. Religiosity is the subscription to a coherent theology and denotes the meaning and purpose we find in the world.

    I long for the day when glib secularists ridicule the notion that the Universe could be anything more than random chaotic noise in the same breath as they ridicule “religiosity”.

  6. #6 lurker22
    September 25, 2006

    “coherent theology”
    You win the oxymoron of the day award.

  7. #7 Matt Dunn
    September 25, 2006

    I’m worried that this doesn’t tell us anything about magical thinking. It just shows us that people can be tricked. Which is not surprising. It’s much more akin to simple to somebody making an unwarrented inference, something people do every day. In other words, I think this study is very similar to this: someone eats fish tonight and tomorrow they have a headache and blame it on the fish just because they rarely eat fish and maybe they think they remember having read somewhere once in an article on a plane (or in one planted in an office during a study of people’s inference making abilities) that fish can cause headaches. Now this isn’t magical thinking. The person assumes that there is a perfectly reasonable causal-physical story to tell about how eating fish may lead to headaches.

    Voodoo is thought of as magical and crazy to believe in because we know that it doesn’t work. In other words, voodoo has never worked before so we don’t think it’s possible. IF voodoo started to work, say when you have an actor PRETENDING to be affected by voodoo, then people might be more inclined to say that it does work…because they are seeing it work! even without any good physical-causal story about how it works. Take the actor away and I bet very few of the students would have endorsed magical thinking for the very simple reason that none of the people that were hexed would have said they were having symptoms. In other words, a prediction: I bet the number who endorse magical thinking would be very closely correlated with: the number who happened to see a person they didn’t like be hexed AND who just happen to have a headache for example at the same time. And I bet all these things would very rarely align.

    As far as religious thinking goes, it’s magical too and I’m not religious for the very same reason I don’t believe in voodoo: I’ve never seen it work. If all the sudden religious things started happening to me, like my prayers were answered etc., then I might be more inclined to be relgious. ALSO, if I was part of a huge television show, like the Truman Show, where everything was staged by actors and the production company etc. to make it appear that relgious thinking worked, that voodoo worked, I would also probably be very inclined to be relgious. But I don’t (?) live in that world.

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