Bruce Hood Ph.D.

The Self Illusion

The Natural Origins of Voodoo

How misconceptions about photographs reveals an implicit sympathetic reasoning

Posted Jul 06, 2013

For most of us, defacing an image is more than just a symbolic act. In many countries, public desecration of the national flag is an offence. In some religions, defacing an image of a deity is sacrilegious. One of the demonstrations I have used in my public lectures is to find a couple in the audience and then take a Polaroid picture of one of the partners. I then go on to talk about voodoo and wait until the photograph has developed, at which point I return to the couple and ask the other partner to stab the photograph through the eyes. It works both ways, if they are reluctant or hesitant as indeed most are, then I point out the irrationality of their reticence. If they happily deface the image, I tell them they need to seek counseling.

One of the principle laws of magic described by James George Frazer in his anthropological masterpiece on religion and magic is the correspondence between things that look alike. If you damage one, the other is similarly affected by sympathetic magic. It is a universal principle found in many magical belief systems where practitioners harm or help a representation in order to induce some cause on another. The most familiar practice is the voodoo doll where actions directed at the doll, harms the intended victim. Other sympathetic magical practices include folk remedies using plants that resemble body parts or ailments. For example, the mandrake root is said to resemble a shriveled human body and has been used for magical practices for thousands of years. The fact that it is also the source of a strong hallucinogenic alkaloid added potency to this belief.

Where do sympathetic correspondence belief originate? In my book, SuperSense (2009), I argued that many supernatural magical beliefs systems can be traced to misconceptions that arise naturally during child development. My former student Katy Donnelly has just published a paper in Cognition where we show that preschool children harbor beliefs that are consistent with sympathetic magical reasoning. Three- to four-year-olds were shown a balloon in some trials and a box in others which was then hidden in another room. A sticker was placed on a photograph of this target and children, asked to retrieve the referent. They were faced with a choice between a stickered and un-stickered object. Children brought back a stickered distracter object, as if the action to the photograph had modified the object. We showed that this bias was not due to memory failure or a bias for stickered objects. In one study we poured water on the photograph and they brought back the wet object! All we can conclude is that children do not fully understand the nature of the relationship between photographs and referents.

Of course, adults would not make the same mistake. Possibly not but in some African countries, photographs are used to enact voodoo. Even in the West, we are not necessarily immune to this early misconception. One of the principles I outlined in SuperSense is that even though we can suppress irrational misconception, they never really go away and may re-emerge during times of stress or become manifest on implicit measures. We recently demonstrated that male fans asked to cut up photographs of their wives or girlfriends and images of their beloved Newcastle United soccer team showed elevated arousal as measured by galvanic skin response compared to destroying images of strangers. Luckily for the men involved and the state of their relationships, there was no difference between the increase in anxiety during destruction for the photograph of their partner compared to that of their sports club!

More Posts