Stated disbelief in magic is “rational,” yet saying we're rational doesn’t make it so. Research shows that so-called irrational, magical thinking lurks right below the skeptical surface of the minds of Western individuals, ready to pop out under conditions of risk. 1/thread Image
Eugene Subbotsky & Graciela Quinteros (2002) performed two cross-cultural experiments to show how a person’s verbal beliefs come apart from their behavior. If a person says one thing but does another, it shows that their state belief does not deeply penetrate the mind. 2/27
In both experiments, Subbotsky & Quinteros compared British university students with rural Mexican participants, examining what they thought about and how they behaved in the face of unusual, apparently magical phenomena. 3/27
In the first experiment, the researchers first asked participants whether they believed that certain magical creatures exist (a centaur, for the British, and a nahual—a person who can shape shift into an animal—for the Mexican participants), & why they believed what they did 4/27
About half the Mexican participants stated that they believed that nahuals existed or that they had seen one, whereas none of the British participants stated that they believed in centaurs. This was a rough index of pre-experimental magical belief. 5/27
The researchers handed the participants an undamaged, rectangular plastic card, and asked the participants whether it really existed, why they thought it existed, and how they assessed its physical condition. Participants were then randomly assigned to 1 of 2 conditions. 6/27
In the scientific condition, participants were shown a wooden box with an unknown device that could make light and sound connected to the box by a wire. The participants were asked to make sure the box was empty and then to put the card in the box and close the lid. 7/27
The researcher then switched the device on for a few seconds and asked the participants whether the card remained the same or had changed. The box was specially designed to switch out the undamaged card for a card that had been cut into three pieces. 8/27
The participant was shown the cut up card & asked whether it was the same card that was damaged, or a different card. If the participant insisted it was a different card, they were encouraged to search the box & asked again to create the impression it was the same card. 9/27
In the magical condition, a similar box was presented but with no device. The researcher told the participant they were going to put a magic spell on the box, closed their eyes, & intoned what sounded like a magic spell. The box was rigged to replace the card as before. 10/27
In both conditions, the participants were then asked whether they would be willing to put their voting certificate in the box and allow the manipulation to occur (either switching on the device, in the scientific condition, or intoning the spell in the magical condition). 11/27
The researchers compared two outcomes: (1) whether the participants believed the manipulation (device on, intoned spell) caused the change in the card; and (2) whether participants forbade the researcher from performing the manipulation on their voting certificate. 12/27
Believers were classified as people who both (1) said that they thought the researcher’s manipulation caused the damage to the card and (2) forbade the researcher from performing the manipulation that might damage their own voting document. 13/27
Results showed a higher proportion of believers in the Mexican sample in both conditions, and comparable numbers of believers in both conditions. Also, about 85% of Mexican participants believed the spell could cause a change, but only 20% of British participants did. 14/27
The researchers followed this up with a second “high risk” version of the experiment with different groups of participants from the same communities (the ethics and disclosures check out for this experiment, don’t worry!). 15/27
The high risk experiment proceeded much the same as the first experiment, but instead of being asked to put their voting documents in the box, participants were asked whether they were willing to put their hand in the box (no hands or documents were harmed in this study!). 16/27
The results were quite different. For Mexican participants, the numbers were essentially the same. For British participants, while only 20% thought the spell could cause harm as in the 1st study, 50% forbade the researcher from casting the spell with their hand in the box. 17/27
The combined results of the two studies show that under lower risk, more impersonal conditions, British participants’ actions go hand in hand with their skeptical beliefs, yet in high risk situations, magical behavior frequently belies a stated disbelief in magic. 18/27
Taken together, the results suggest that the differences between cultures that are permissive and supportive of magical beliefs compared to cultures that discourage belief in magic may be more superficial and less pervasive than they appear. 19/27
In the context of the magic-permissive culture of the rural Mexican participants, belief and action tended to be more consistent: more belief, and more action in line with those beliefs, in both the cases of the apparently scientific device and the magic spell. 20/27
Among British participants, belief and action came apart. Though the British students were culturally trained to not verbally avow belief in magic, their actions showed otherwise when faced with a potential personal risk. 21/27
The researchers concluded that “at a relatively high cost of not believing in magic, Western and non-Western adult participants are likely to engage in magical practices to an approximately equal extent.” 22/27
This is just one study and line of thinking that implies that the rationality, naturalism, and skepticism that gets labeled as “Western” is not only culture-bound, but also perhaps far more superficial than people generally acknowledge. 23/27
In Western, Euro-centric culture, disenchantment and scientific rationality tend to be seen as the natural outcome of normal developmental processes, and enchantment or magical thinking as the suboptimal intransigence of ignorance or cognitive bias. 24/27
Subbotsky & Quinteros’s data are just one piece of evidence suggesting that this view of rationality and magic is an exemplification of the coloniality of knowledge: one way of thinking that benefits those in power becomes reified as an ahistorical feature of human nature. 25/27
It is not enough if we stop at accepting that “other people” have beliefs and practices that are valid in cultural and historical context. The further lesson is that magical thinking is not an acceptable variation, but a ubiquitous, natural mode of cognition and experience. 26/27
Our minds are polyvalent, complex, contextually bound, and frequently inconsistent. What we call rationality and magic coexist in a dappled interplay, and we do violence to ourselves and others when we pretend otherwise. Embrace the whole spectrum of psyche. 27/27

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