A study published in Religion, Brain & Behavior provides new insights into how sorcery beliefs and practices in Mauritius are related to rule-breaking and resource-sharing behaviors.
Shamanism, ancestor worship, witchcraft, and other magical beliefs are found throughout the world. But while a good deal of psychological research has examined religion and belief in an all-knowing god, very little research has investigated beliefs related to local supernatural agents. The authors behind the new research wanted to learn more about the effects of sorcery beliefs and practices on interpersonal relations.
“There were two main inspirations for this project — one was a larger theory concerning the co-evolution of religion and morality, namely how different religious ideas and beliefs influence human behavior,” explained study author Eva Kundtová Klocová, a research coordinator at Masaryk University’s Experimental Humanities Lab and a research fellow at the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion.
“This theory focuses mainly on the evolution of so-called moralizing gods beliefs — beliefs in deities (and other entities) that have unique access to all and any information, are invested in how humans behave (toward each other), and can and do punish those who transgress against moral rules of a given society (see Purzycki et al., 2016 and Lang et al., 2019 for more detail).”
“The other inspiration came from Mauritius, where we collected the data for the main studies (the two mentioned before) among the Hindu population. We were asking our participants about a belief in spirits called ‘nam,’ which were chosen in the original study as a contrast to a moralizing god (Shiva in our case),” Klocová said.
“We soon noticed an ambiguity in this belief — those spirits were sometimes seen as protective, benevolent souls connected to deceased family members and ancestors, but some people also talked about evil ghosts causing all kinds of misfortune, which could however be used by (black) magicians to fulfill the wishes of their clients. This inspired us to examine, whether this dichotomy also shows some effect on human behavior (towards other anonymous people).”
The current study analyzed data collected from 168 Hindu participants from Pointe aux Piments, a rural village on the northwest coast of Mauritius. “Black magic practices, although ubiquitous, are usually taboo. On Mauritius, they are even explicitly illegal,” Klocová explained. “This means it is difficult to study them and their effects directly.”
To uncover disguised sorcery beliefs, the researchers indirectly inquired about the participants’ beliefs by asking them to list what the nam like and dislike. “Ancestral spirits appreciate prayers and offerings (mostly in form of food, flowers, and cigarettes), and dislike sorcery and bad deeds,” the researchers explained. “The spirits connected to sorcery despise prayer, good things, good people, and god, and enjoy bad deeds and harming people.”
Klocová and her co-authors used two economic games to assess rule-breaking behavior and religious impartiality. Sixty-five participants played four rounds of a random allocation game, while 103 participants played four rounds of a dictator game. In both games, the participants allocated money between two groups that differed in religious affiliation and geographical location. During some rounds, the participants were also able to allocate money to themselves.
Participants who viewed the nam as primarily malevolent entities were more likely to bend the rules of the random allocation game to benefit themselves and their local community, compared to those who viewed the nam as primarily benevolent ancestral souls. However, this was only true for those who reported actively directing rituals at the nam.
The findings indicate that “beliefs in and taking part in magical practices that are used for personal gain are connected with selfish behavior and rule-breaking for personal enrichment,” Klocová told PsyPost.
However, “diverse beliefs and practices are not necessarily exclusive — some people may pay for a magical ritual one day and then go to pray to a moralizing god on another,” she noted. “It would also be worth using other measurements of the behavioral outcomes, as we followed the design of the original study we could not target other aspects of behavior.”
“While ‘black magic’ and ‘sorcery’ might sound exotic, those beliefs and practices are in fact very common around the world in different shapes and flavors,” Klocová added. “They seem to be connected with distrust (both in institutions and personal connections) and envy.”
The study, “Cigarettes for the dead: effects of sorcery beliefs on parochial prosociality in Mauritius“, was authored by Eva Kundtová Klocová, Martin Lang, Peter Maňo, Radek Kundt, and Dimitris Xygalatas.