Repetitious, time-intensive magical rituals considered more effective, study shows

July 26, 2012

Even in this modern age of science, people are likely to find logic in supernatural rituals that require a high degree of time and effort, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, published in the June issue of Cognition, is the first psychological analysis of how people of various evaluate the efficacy of ritual beliefs. The findings provide new insight into reasoning processes — and how people intuitively make sense out of the unknown.

"One of the most remarkable characteristics of human cognition is the capacity to use supernatural reasoning to explain the world around us," said Cristine Legare, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. "We argue that the characteristics of ritual are the product of an evolved cognitive system."

Cause-and-effect thinking is critical to human survival, Legare said. So it's natural for people to find in supernatural rituals that emphasize repetition and procedural steps. If doing something once has some effect, then repeating it must have a greater effect. For example, if a mechanic says he inspected something five times, the frequency of his actions leads the customer to overestimate the effectiveness of his work.

To find out how people rate the effectiveness of magical rituals, Legare and graduate student André Souza conducted a study in Brazil, a country suffused with rituals called simpatias. Used for solving problems as varied as quitting smoking, curing asthma and warding off bad luck, simpatias are formulaic rituals that involve various steps and repetition.

The psychologists presented 162 Brazilian respondents several versions of these rituals. Each was modified with different characteristics, such as repetition of procedures, number of steps, number of items used, and the presence of religious icons.

As part of the study, Legare asked the respondents to rate the effectiveness of each ritual. According to the findings, three elements of the simpatias had the biggest influence: number of steps, repetition of procedures and a specified time.

To see how magical rituals are perceived across cultures, the researchers conducted the same study with 68 U.S. respondents of various religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. As the researchers expected, the majority of respondents didn't believe in simpatias. Yet similar to the Brazilians, they were more inclined to believe in rituals involving numerous repetitions and steps. For example, they gave a higher rating for this sadness-curing ritual, which involves numerous steps and repetitions.

In a metal container, put the leaves of a white rose. After that, set fire to the leaves. Get the remaining ash from the leaves and put it in a small plastic bag. Take the small plastic bag and leave it at a crossroad. Repeat the procedure for seven days in a row.

Though simpatias are primarily practiced in Brazil, magical rituals and other superstitions are widely accepted in the United States. Findings from the study provide further insight into how people find logic in the supernatural, regardless of concrete evidence.

Explore further: Betting on good luck and 4-leaf clovers: Connection between impulsivity, superstitions

Related Stories

Betting on good luck and 4-leaf clovers: Connection between impulsivity, superstitions

June 29, 2011
Research led by the University of Cambridge has found a link between impulsivity and flawed reasoning (such as believing in superstitious rituals and luck) in problem gamblers.

Midwives use rituals to send message that women's bodies know best

December 16, 2011
In reaction to what midwives view as the overly medicalized way hospitals deliver babies, they have created birthing rituals to send the message that women's bodies know best.

Recommended for you

Researchers link epigenetic aging to bipolar disorder

December 12, 2017
Bipolar disorder may involve accelerated epigenetic aging, which could explain why persons with the disorder are more likely to have - and die from - age-related diseases, according to researchers from The University of Texas ...

Researchers find common psychological traits in group of Italians aged 90 to 101

December 12, 2017
In remote Italian villages nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains lives a group of several hundred citizens over the age of 90. Researchers at the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California San ...

Twitter can reveal our shared mood

December 11, 2017
In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the University of Bristol have analysed mood indicators in text from 800 million anonymous messages posted on Twitter. These tweets were found to reflect strong patterns ...

New therapy can help schizophrenia sufferers re-engage socially

December 11, 2017
A new therapy aimed at helping young people suffering from schizophrenia to reconnect and engage with the world around them has had promising results, according to a new University of Sussex-led study.

Certain books can increase infant learning during shared reading, study shows

December 11, 2017
Parents and pediatricians know that reading to infants is a good thing, but new research shows reading books that clearly name and label people and objects is even better.

Infant brain responses predict reading speed in secondary school

December 11, 2017
A study conducted at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland and Jyväskylä Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Research (CIBR) has found that the brain responses of infants with an inherited ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

danlgarmstrong
not rated yet Jul 27, 2012
These 'simpatia' type of rituals might actually BE effective, insofar they may actually affect an individual's psychological state. Like the example given about getting rid of sadness. If a person desires to change their mood, and is given a set of steps to follow to get the desired result, the belief that it will work and the act of DOING something about their problem could act as a therapy and change their psychological state. I can see these rituals working internally, but obviously, using these rituals successfully to change something external to themselves is scientifically harder to figure out how it could be successful.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.