Many people around the world believe in magic spells and rituals, but that doesn't mean that it's enough to wave a wand and mutter a few unpronounceable words to convince a believer that the magic will work. A new study out of Brazil suggests that people are most likely to believe in the power of a magical ritual when that ritual involves repeating steps and takes a lot of time.

Cristine Legare, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, is interested in studying the way that the human brain uses the supernatural to understand the world. To that end, Legare and graduate student André Souza conducted a study of 162 in Brazil. Taking cues from Brazilian simpatias rituals, formulaic rituals that are used to solve various problems from quitting smoking to warding off bad luck, Legare and Souza invented a number of magical rituals, varying aspects like the number of steps, number of repetitions, number of items used, and presence of religious icons in the ritual. Much like this ritual to cure sadness:

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.

They then asked the respondents to rate the effectiveness of each ritual. The rituals with the more highly rated effectiveness were those that included the most steps, included the most repetitions, and had a specified time length for the ritual. To see if they got the same results in a culture that doesn't as strongly emphasize this type of ritual, Legare and Souza also surveyed 68 US respondents from different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds and found the same thing.


Legare notes that these findings make sense in the human drive to see cause lead to effect. If we perform a task once to an effect, then if we perform the task several times, it must have greater effect, the thinking goes. Still it would be interesting to see if this type of magical thinking proved consistent across more cultures, and if popular culture has any effect. Will kids raised on Harry Potter be more likely to think that rituals are more effective if you pronounce the words correctly or have the proper frame of mind when you perform the ritual? Or will this cause-and-effect thinking trump their familiar fictions?

The findings were published in the July issue of Cognition.


Top image from The Craft.

Repetitious, Time-Intensive Magical Rituals Considered More Effective, Study Shows [ScienceDaily via Disinformation]