The Spooky Pull of Sympathetic Magic

Ethan’s recent article on the best way for skeptics to dialogue with non-skeptics definitely hit home, and is something I’ve struggled with.  Being confrontational is tempting — after all, who doesn’t love to prove how right they are?  I am certainly sympathetic to the view presented in the comments by some readers that good manners is not of itself a moral imperative, and that even if it were, skeptics aren’t required qua skepticism to take up the battle for hearts and minds.  If I care neither whether the ranks of skeptics swell, nor how I’m viewed by non-skeptics, then why should I be required to take an accommodating stance when engaging with non-skeptics?

I believe there is quite a good reason to do so, based on a very powerful idea found in cognitive psychology: that systematic errors in judgment are a natural side-effect of our native cognitive processes.  If pseudo-scientific beliefs can be shown to be an example of such an error, and thus something innate to human thought, I would argue that there is a moral imperative to be accommodating and empathetic — something akin to the Golden Rule.  After all, if someone’s only crime is to operate their cognitive machinery according to the manufacturer’s instructions, it’s hardly fair to vilify them for it.  We skeptics all did the same thing once upon a time, before we found the sheet with all the cheat codes and Easter eggs.

Golden Rule, Golden Bough

A very large subset of pseudo-scientific belief falls under the heading of “sympathetic magic”, a system codified by the anthropologist Sir James Fraser around the turn of the last century in his opus, The Golden Bough. Fraser identifies two core principles of sympathetic magic.  The first is the Law of Similarity, which says that “like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause”.  The second is the Law of Contagion, which says the “things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.”

This isn’t just about tribal shamans and voodoo dolls, though those certainly loom large in the anthropological literature.  For example, it’s pretty easy to see how homeopathy fits the bill, with like curing like and water having a memory even after the physical contact (i.e. with molecules of the original proved substance) has been severed.  Similarly, those “toxins” we keep hearing about are a contagion, and the “cleanses” we’re exhorted to undertake are a form of purification ritual to remove that contagion, as is our bias toward things “natural”.  Divination (e.g. astrology) is another large subset.  Sympathetic magic isn’t the only form of magical thinking, but it’s one of the broadest, and indeed, Fraser acknowledges that there’s something in us that that makes sympathetic magic appear to be a sort of “natural law”:

For the same principles which the magician applies in the practice of his art are implicitly believed by him to regulate the operations of inanimate nature; in other words, he tacitly assumes that the Laws of Similarity and Contact are of universal application and are not limited to human actions.

There is, in fact, a reason for this, which a century later we’re finally starting to really understand.  It’s rooted in recent research showing that human thought is reliant on a dual process:

System 1 is generally automatic, affective and heuristic-based, which means that it relies on mental “shortcuts.” It quickly proposes intuitive answers to problems as they arise. System 2, which corresponds closely with controlled processes, is slow, effortful, conscious, rule-based and also can be employed to monitor the quality of the answer provided by System 1. If it’s convinced that our intuition is wrong, then it’s capable of correcting or overriding the automatic judgments.

Although humans flip effortlessly (and for the most part unconsciously) between the two systems, much of our decision making is reliant on System 1 for the simple reason that it’s quick and broadly effective.  Also, evolution has honed our thought processes to avoid certain mortal perils, which means such behaviours will seem intuitively and “affectively” (emotionally) correct, and exert a strong pull on us.  System 2 can intervene, but often it has its work cut out for it when it tries.

While humans wouldn’t have gotten where we are as a species without System 1, it certainly has its flaws.  The dark side of heuristic thinking is that it exposes us to systematic biases that can, under certain circumstances, lead us to make very bad assessments.  And these bad assessments will seem just as intuitively and emotionally correct as the good ones that System 1 engenders.

The Magic of Heuristics

And that’s what the psychologists who study Heuristics and Biases believe is at play in sympathetic magic systems.  The relevant research is rooted in a particularly fun sub-discipline — the psychology of disgust.  In short, disgust is an evolved intuitive response to contact with everyday things that can cause us harm, such as feces, rot, dirt, other people, and their icky, icky fluids.  Although the specific objects of disgust are learned, and vary from culture to culture, the response and its mechanisms are universal.

Paul Rozin is the leading light in the field, and his research has shown that those mechanisms include two heuristic processes that we rely on in making the assessments that lead to disgust.  The Similarity Heuristic says that appearance equals reality.  It’s an aspect of the more well-known representativeness heuristic that Rozin says is “related to the principle of generalization in learning, and is almost certainly part of our genetic endowment at birth.” He bears this out in a series of studies that show the heuristic’s power.  In one, participants are asked to eat chocolate shaped like dog feces; in another, to drink perfectly safe juice from a jar marked “Poison”.  The participant knows full well that the food is safe and tasty, yet still there is a strong disgust response.

The Contagion Heuristic holds that:

physical contact between a source and a target results in the transfer of some effect or quality, which we call essence, from source to target.  The source and target may mutually influence each other (exchange essence).  The qualities exchanged may be physical, mental, or moral in nature, and negative or positive in valence.  The contact between source and target may be direct, or may be mediated by a third object, or vehicle, that makes simultaneous or successive contact with both the source and target.

The research here is just as fun.  Would you eat food that had been touched by a cockroach?  What if the food had been frozen for a year after contact?  Or if the roach was sterilized first?  Would you wear a sweater that was once owned by Hitler?  Even if it had never been worn?  What if it had been dry cleaned?  Study after study shows a strong aversion that belies our pretense at rationality.

A La Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Like all heuristics, the mechanisms described above are extremely useful.  Most things are as they seem, and in the absence of germ theory, a natural aversion to feces and other people’s fluids is a pretty good natural advantage.  But they also allow us to intuit sympathetic magic, and to make the leap Fraser describes from the personal to the universal — in short, to see the laws of sympathetic magic as a natural law.

This bias in favour of magical thinking is very difficult to overcome.  Rozin found that the Similarity and Contagion heuristics differ from other heuristics in two ways: (1) they’re associated with a significant emotional resonance, which makes them very strong, and (2) people are, in the studies at least, usually aware of the fact that their assessment is irrational.  “They can overcome this aversion and ‘be rational’, but their preference is not to.”   The contagion heuristic in particular has been associated with insensitivity to dose, time, and the route taken between source and target — in other words, resistant to common scientific arguments.  It also shows a strong negativity dominance — we “catch” bad things more readily than good ones — which is why toxins resonate more than, say, probiotics.

Not all hope is lost of course.  One of the central insights of the cognitive revolution is that we can learn to monitor our thought processes and challenge them prior to making judgments.  But while such meta-cognitive abilities may be innate, not everyone is endowed with these skills to the same degree.

Yet everyone can develop and strengthen them, if someone has the patience and empathy to teach them.  I believe it’s incumbent on skeptics to try.  After all, we’re only human.

7 Responses to “The Spooky Pull of Sympathetic Magic”

  1. Dianne Sousa says:

    You’ve made a good case here for the importance of empathy and patience for skeptics when dealing with non-skeptics and lesser skeptics. We certainly seem to take it for granted that people should develop their critical thinking skills, but give lesser attention to the processes that are involved. Perhaps a systematic approach is key to teaching this, one that aims for a lasting change in how a person thinks. Is it possible or practical to do this with adults?

    • Erik Davis says:

      For adults, I don’t think there’s a top-down way to do so, which is why individual dialogue is so important. I had a discussion with an extended family member recently where it came out that I was an atheist, and the conversation quickly veered in that direction, though not at my steering. What about the human eye, he asked me, and its irreducible complexity? (He didn’t use that term, but that was essentially the argument). I certainly knew enough about the topic to have blasted him, but instead took a step back and said, “I’m no biologist, so I’d be out of my element arguing the point, but I tend to trust the people who do this for a living, and I’m pretty sure that most biologists don’t see it that way. I can send you a reference when I get home if you like.” He accepted (most will) and so I sent him the shortest and most mainstream reference I could find – from PBS’s Evolution Library. I didn’t see him again for about 6 weeks, but when I did, the first words out of his mouth were, “I want to talk more about evolution,” and when we did, he was clearly coming around to the scientific view.

      At no point in the discussion did I hide or misrepresent my own views, but I did frame the argument in such a way as to give him the space to change his mind. That’s the important point — no one changes anyone else’s mind simply by outlining the facts, but you can certainly do so by helping them discover the facts on their own. One of the things the authors on SN often debate among ourselves is whether we’re really just preaching to the converted here, but I maintain that this site and others like it can form a crucial role in those moments of quiet contemplation where minds are changed. It’s also the reason we strive for an even tone…even when every fibre of our being wants to be dismissive — we see some pretty strange shit, and it’s sometimes a struggle to stay well-keeled.

      • Dianne Sousa says:

        Framing an argument to provide space for discussion and discovery can be done, I think, only to a point. This is not to say that it isn’t vitally important in individual dialogue, which you point out. Probably the vast majority of people could have their minds changed effectively this way rather than in a point-counterpoint debate. It might even engender a more permanent change in the way a person thinks about the world. A person has to be able to frame the argument this way for themselves when they’re thinking about what they believe, and that takes particular skill that I fear many don’t have well developed.

  2. gmcevoy says:

    Where I worked, everyone in Tech Support had to take a course on critical thinking. I guess “management by magazine” had determined it would improve problem solving skills. Anyhoo, at least two co-workers were convinced Harry Potter really teaches kids witchcraft. One, a born-again, held that demons caused illness.

    Most people will not give up their dearly held beliefs regardless of how warm and fuzzy the conversation about how baseless and/or ridiculous they are. Magical thinking instilled in the very young through frightening tales of hell and heaven is hard to over come. Add the idea, thanks to politicians, of people who change their minds being wishy-washy flip-floppers and its obviously an uphill battle forever…

    Which isn’t to say stop fighting the good fight because some do realize they’ve been had and see the light of reason – even after reading an article by someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – Randi.

    one of the choir

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Erik Davis put belief systems like homeopathy into context, in the excellent post The Spooky Pull of Sympathetic Magic. [...]

  2. [...] in chelation? Despite anecdotal evidence of success, my sense is chelation is simply another manifestation of sympathetic magic: specifically, contagious magic. Patients remove these non-existent “toxins” and become [...]

  3. [...] in chelation? Despite anecdotal evidence of success, my sense is chelation is simply another manifestation of sympathetic magic: specifically, contagious magic. Patients remove these non-existent “toxins” and become [...]


  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis