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What witch doctors can teach us about climate change

by Eva Voinigescu Jul 28 / 17

Banner image: Guenter Guni

Superstitious beliefs and magical thinking exist in all cultures, from the fear of “unlucky” numbers or faith in horoscopes to belief in witchcraft. Now new research examines how some of these beliefs come about, and can even be beneficial to a society.

A new paper in the American Economic Review examines the persistence of magical beliefs in warfare in the context of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, aiming to translate the study of these beliefs from the field of anthropology to economics.

“Social science postulates that the behaviour of an individual is a function of the beliefs that they have about the world. If you are interested in understanding aggregate behaviour in society and the human consequences of it, understanding that in fact there’s a wide range of beliefs that sustain these behaviours that we still don’t understand is quite important,” says Raul Sanchez de la Sierra (UC Berkeley), an author on the paper and a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar in CIFAR’s Institutions, Organizations & Growth program.

Sanchez de la Sierra and his co-author Nathan Nunn examined the role of magical beliefs in Bulambika, a small village in the province of Sud Kivu, where long-term conflict and fighting between militant groups has created the ideal atmosphere for widespread belief in witchcraft.

Insecurity fostered by repeated pillaging, rape and killings in villages has led to one belief that Sanchez de la Sierra and Nunn were particularly interested in – a bulletproofing spell which protects villagers willing to take up arms to defend their village from raids. The spell ensures that bullets fired at someone under its protection will either miss or bounce off.

To become bulletproof villagers have to participate in a ritual and follow certain conditions, including not stealing, not drinking rainwater or not eating cucumbers. Through a series of interviews with villagers, the researchers learned that once villagers underwent the spell, they stayed and fought during raids rather than fleeing. Over time the villagers began to kill their enemies and acquire their guns. Bulletproofing allowed the village to mobilize and protect itself again raids because it altered the villagers’ beliefs about whether they would die in combat.

Understanding belief formation could inform policy recommendations in the region and beyond.

Villages with the belief in bulletproofing were more likely to survive, encouraging the spell to spread throughout neighbouring villages. Even when villagers died, belief in the spell didn’t falter, as it was assumed that those who died had not followed the difficult to adhere to conditions of the spell.

“I think it provides a colourful illustration of how deeply ingrained these beliefs can be and of the tension between the cost to the individual having these beliefs and the benefit to the group that creates them,” said Sanchez de la Sierra, explaining how the social benefits of these false beliefs allow them to persist.

He draws a parallel between witchcraft in a place like the Eastern DRC and science in western nations to demonstrate how understanding belief formation can help us understand recent political phenomena.

Bulletproofing spells are just one of many military and civilian spells present in the Eastern DRC. Sanchez de la Sierra and Nunn are now working to develop experiments to show how these beliefs map onto behaviour. One approach they are considering is measuring the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system to situations that mimic the presence of an actual threat. Those who are under a protection spell would have less of a physical reaction if they believe in the protection than if they only claim to in order to meet societal expectations.

Understanding belief formation could inform policy recommendations in the region and beyond.

“The type of policy prescriptions that might emerge when you take into account the cultural diversity and the beliefs that people hold are potentially very different,” says Sanchez de la Sierra. He hopes to use his research on power allocation in failed states to reintegrate foundations of human behaviour and social organization into the realm of economics, improving our capacity to intervene successfully in broken states and even prevent them from breaking.

He draws a parallel between witchcraft in a place like the Eastern DRC and science in western nations to demonstrate how understanding belief formation can help us understand recent political phenomena.

“Fundamentally, socially, science and witchcraft are identical in the sense that I don’t understand how a medication works or what biologists talk about, but I trust them because society has given them legitimacy as an institution that produces knowledge.” Similarly, he says, traditional power structures in Eastern Congo legitimize witch doctors.

But the need for the political process to legitimize scientists and witch doctors makes them vulnerable to the legitimacy of political processes themselves. For example, as rising populism causes citizens to disengage from western political systems, scientists are seen as part of the elite and their research as contrary to the interests of the people. Sanchez de la Sierra cites beliefs about climate change as a prime example.

“If you have a belief that someone else has a wrong view of the world, and that they are trying to influence you, you’re going to discredit anything that they tell you, leading certain groups to be completely isolated in a false view of the world, like there is no climate change. Completely arbitrary beliefs can persist and can have drastic implications for political change.”

Sanchez de la Sierra insists that we still don’t understand how beliefs are formed, or their implications on behaviour well enough, and therefore it’s important to start examining them more closely.

“People look at economists for answers,” he says, “That’s why it’s important to change the conversations within economics.”