"Hidden Forces and Essences" Psychology as Magic

We once believed in magic. Now we believe in psychology. Is there a difference?

Posted Feb 22, 2018

This essay is a guest post by Jason Manning, an Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University, where he specializes in the study of conflict and of suicide. He and sociologist Bradley Campbell are authors of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Campus Culture Wars, which examines changing patterns of morality and conflict in the contemporary world.  You can follow him on Twitter at @SocialGeometer 


Are some of the most famous effects in psychology – priming, stereotype threat, implicit bias – based on smoke and mirrors? Does the widespread credibility given such effects in the face of very weak evidence have a weird kinship with supernatural beliefs?

Lee Jussim, Possessor of The Hidden Psychological Force
Source: Lee Jussim, Possessor of The Hidden Psychological Force

Many findings in psychology are celebrated in part because they were shocking and seemed almost magical. So magical that psychiatrist Scott Alexander argued that many casualties of the replication crisis do indeed bear a strong resemblance to voodoo—the main difference being an appeal to mysterious unobserved unconscious forces rather than mysterious unobserved supernatural ones.

Belief in the efficacy of voodoo itself can by psychologized: Curses work, some say, because believing you are hexed can kill you. There are similar mind-over-matter tales involving implausibly strong effects from placebos and self-affirmations. Priming studies claim that even thinking about the word “retirement” can transfer the weakness of old age into a young body, and make young people walk slower. The idea that people gravitate toward occupations that sound like their names bears a strange resemblance to sympathetic magic: If you name your daughter Suzie, she’s now more likely to wind up selling shells by the seashore, whereas your son Brandon will be a banker.

Supernatural beliefs are a universal feature of human societies. For people in many tribal societies, magic is serious business—a matter of life and death. Sorcerers can make good money by selling their services, while those accused of sorcery might be killed. The same was true in medieval Europe, where many were executed for supposedly using evil magic against their neighbors.

Belief in magic has retreated in modern times. Science has rendered the world less mysterious, technology has given us more effective control over it, and bureaucratic rules make life more predictable. Magic retreated.

Or did it? Any belief as universal as magic may be marvelously adapted to well-worn ruts in the human brain and encouraged by common structures and rhythms of human interaction.

For instance, anthropologist Bronsilaw Malinowski claimed that beliefs in magic tend to crop up when people face uncertain outcomes. Even tribal people who firmly believe in the efficacy of magic recognize it as being a different sort of thing from the practical technologies they use, and they rely on their material technology to the extent they are able. Magic is there to plug the gaps. The Trobriand islanders he studied did every practical thing they could to make their boats seaworthy—believing in magic didn’t mean they thought it was a good idea to set out in a leaky boat. But the ocean is unpredictable, and even the best boat might get swamped by a sudden storm of capsized by a rogue wave. The magical spells that preceded a voyage were there to control what craftsmanship could not.

Lee Jussim, with his Spirit Familiar
Source: Lee Jussim, with his Spirit Familiar

Modern technology is far more advanced than in tribal society, but it has its limits, and we still have difficulty controlling many outcomes. If Malinowksi was right, we ought to expect magical rituals to arise in our own society as well. But in a society where science has great stature and the educated classes often look down on traditional superstitions, perhaps popular magic must wear a coat of scientific paint, bolstered by the research of scientists using what appear to be scientific methods.

Educators have put massive effort into curriculum and pedagogy, so these social technologies are probably near their limits. But some tout short, easy rituals that can supposedly greatly increase student success. The recalcitrant test-score gap between black and white students can be reduced with little additional effort, if you know the (magical?) secret: Have black students spend 15-minutes writing an essay affirming their core values, and it will produce a substantial improvement in their GPA that persists for years.

A claim that a pin stuck in a doll has the same effect as a spear stuck in the gut would be greeted by most of us with great skepticism. But the “affirmation” finding bears a disturbing similarity to the voodoo doll. What makes these claims so attractive – the shocking efficacy of seemingly insignificant interventions – should also make us deeply skeptical of their reality. Such skepticism would prove warranted, inasmuch as this wonderful finding has failed to replicate.

But magic is often dangerous, and evil magic is greatly feared. Human societies are rife with accusations of harmful magic, and many thousands of people have been killed over it. Indeed, suspected witches are still lynched in some parts of the world today.

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

Accusations of witchcraft and sorcery follow the contours of human conflict. Sociologist Donald Black argues that they arise from the same source as many other grievances: the ups and downs of life. A person falls ill, has a crop failure, or suffers some other misfortune—surely there must be someone to blame. And if there’s no natural way for this enemy to have inflicted this suffering, they must have used a supernatural way. On the other hand, if someone else is conspicuously successful, moving ahead while we stand in place—well, they must be using black magic to their unfair advantage.

Why do women, on average, score lower on math tests than do men? A hex put on them in the form of negative stereotypes, which by power of the unconscious, hamper their performance during tests. The same sort of curse accounts for racial and ethnic gaps in test scores. By using devious mental forces that might not even be recognized by the victims, some are able to hamstring and thus outperform others. Fortunately, the curse can be countered by a simple healing spell: According to some popular interpretations of the research, using a different phrase to describe the test to participants can counteract the harmful magic and level the playing field.  Again, skepticism would have been both warranted and justified

Those who inflict curses on others are not necessarily conscious of doing so. Various cultures around the Mediterranean traditionally believed in a curse known as evil eye, which springs from someone else’s jealous gaze. Some consider the evil eye to be an automatic reaction, and it can be inflicted unintentionally. In this way, it is similar to supposed effects of implicit biases, which supposedly refer to automatic prejudices people hold that they may not even be aware of holding.

To be clear: Racial, sexual, ethnic, and other biases certainly exist, as does discrimination. But tests of implicit bias are not about identifying racism or sexism in the ordinary sense of these words. They seek instead to reveal invisible biases that dwell undetected, deep in the minds of people who sincerely reject racism and sexism. These hidden biases can only be discovered using special techniques (spells?), and do not appear to predict much discriminatory behavior in the real world.

Yet many academics and administrators, and even former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, now discuss the results of these tests as showing that the evils of racism and sexism lurk everywhere as a widespread unconscious curse, much like Evil Eye. Supposedly, they cause major problems for women and minorities, such that counterspells (interventions) are necessary to combat it. Thankfully, our modern specialists may be able to cure someone who harbors this curse by chanting the proper formula to their unconscious while they sleep.

But some evils are difficult to cure. Though we often use the terms “sorcery” and “witchcraft” interchangeably, anthropologists distinguish between them: While sorcery is a learned ability, witchcraft is innate and always malevolent. Witches are just a different sort of person. Among the Azande people E.E. Evans-Prichard studied, witches were said to be born with a viscous black witchcraft-substance in their bodies. The magical substance – which was heritable – conveyed the power and compulsion to harm others through supernatural means.

Similarly, some today – particularly in the social sciences and humanities – claim that certain types of people carry something much like this evil, one that causes them to harm others with their implicit biases, negative stereotypes, and microaggressions. It is a mental substance known as whiteness, and it is dangerous.

Stella Mars
Source: Stella Mars

There is no denying that some white people are racist against non-whites, that in the past this racism was widespread and severe, and that it creates obstacles for minorities in the present. Ethnic and racial hostility around the world and throughout history has a legacy of horror.

Nonetheless, some modern and academic discussions of “whiteness” bear a disturbing kinship with witchcraft beliefs. Sometimes, whiteness is discussed as a kind of evil substance, one that makes all who possess it dangerous by definition, regardless of their nature as individuals. For example, according to one Berkeley professor, it is inherently violent. Others, such as this high school teacher, hold that it automatically creates racism, whether intentionally or not: “To be white is to be racist, period.” No one who carries the curse is innocent: pop singer Taylor Swift might not appear threatening, but to some, she emanates an unbearable whiteness.

Like many forms of spiritual pollution, whiteness is sometimes alleged to contaminate all it touches. Thus some prominent sociologists (who don’t share psychologists’ emphasis on maintaining at least the form of science) complain of others in their field using white logic, white methodology, and asking white questions. Farmers markets might even be unclean spaces that contain and normalize whiteness.

Thankfully, there are witch-doctors and witch-hunters who specialize in combating these curses. Universities now have entire classes devoted to witch-hunting (identifying and countering the problem of whiteness) and are instituting special cult-like trainings to deal with evil essences and spirits such as implicit biases and stereotype threat. As the social sciences and humanities move from teaching critical thinking to teaching Critical Theory, which often rejects reason, evidence, and science as tools of a capitalist, imperialist, white supremacist patriarchy, belief in the power of curses and counterspells may increase. Whether or not the most rigorous studies find evidence of their effects will cease to be important; after all, some argue that academic rigor itself is a tool of whiteness, much as doubt is a tool of the Devil. Maybe the disenchantment of the West will turn out to have been a passing phase, and future generations will take magic as seriously as those in the past.


Comments on this post are welcome, but please read my guidelines for engaging in civil discussions before doing so.

Lee Jussim tweets as PsychRabble, and you can follow him here: https://twitter.com/PsychRabble where he covers issues of science reform, diversity, prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, and political psychology.