Legare and Souza’s “Evaluating Ritual Efficacy”

Many readers have no doubt seen this article on a study done at the University of Texas at Austin.  I tracked down the piece in the journal Cognition, so I can share more of the details.

Simpatias, the authors tell us, are short rituals for various purposes common in Brazil – similar to those found in The Long-Lost Friend, if the examples given in the article are any indication.  To learn why simpatias were considered efficacious, the researchers tracked down many different examples and then recombined the various elements to construct their own rituals.  After running an initial trial to ensure that participants would see these as authentic, the researchers slightly altered aspects of their constructed rituals and showed them to people from the city of Belo Horizante, Brazil, to ask which ones sounded more authentic.  They went on to show the same to college students, to prove the cross-cultural similarities – save that they seem to have assumed that college students were secular, and didn’t ask about religious and spiritual belief.

Overall, the researchers found three factors that seemed to encourage the participants to label a simpatica as effective:

1)  The performance of the rite at a specified time
2) The greater number of steps in the procedure
3)  The greater number of repetitions necessary for the procedure

I have to say I approach this article with some degree of skepticism – it would certainly need to be conducted with other bodies of ritual from other cultures to make me feel confident as to results.  Still, I’m wondering if this couldn’t inform the study of the history of magic, in terms of the following hypotheses:

1)  All other factors being equal, magic performed at specific times, that includes a great number of steps, and that is repeated over time has a greater impact and a greater potential to survive in the historic record.

2)  All other factors being equal, if a magical ritual is change, the changes will likely be from unspecified times to specified times, from lesser numbers of steps to greater, and from fewer or no repetitions to greater numbers of repetitions.

I’ll keep an eye out for these when reading the source material, and perhaps other readers could do the same.

The findings also might have something of relevance to practitioners writing their own rituals, but I’ll leave that to others to articulate.

Published in: on August 14, 2012 at 5:59 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. While I think there’s a valuable insight there – certainly there’s some historical evidence for, say, religious ritual and ceremony to become more elaborate and dogmatic, the opposite is also true: magical and religious rituals and practices may be degraded from more elaborate belief systems, to the point of being little more than superstition (abracadabra as a fever charm might be an example).

    Both practices, I think, are synthetically realized by religious and magical reformers: the elaborate ceremonial magicks of the Golden Dawn vs. the relatively simple rites of cunning men and witches; and the simplified neo-pagan ceremonies that were a reaction to that overly fussy, detailed, and difficult procedure. Or, if you’re in mind for a religious example, the resurgence of more informal low-church worship as a reaction against the more staid and hidebound high church services in the United States in the 60s and 70s.

    • Noted. To refine this, when magical rituals are taken from dominant religious or other ideology, it often involves decontextualizing and simplifying the original material (e.g. using a Bible passage as a charm). After it travels into the corpus of magic, I hypothesize, the tendency will be for it to fall into the pattern noted above.

      I’m also not sure if the dictums above apply to religious ritual, as in most institutionalized faiths the movement toward either complexity or simplicity is handled differently and in a more collective manner.

      • I guess a large part of it is that folk rituals or beliefs are mostly taken out of context of whatever philosophy or system they might have originated from. I’m reminded of a passage from Kipling’s ‘Kim’ – a woman that wants a child has asked a holy man for an amulet or charm, and after much nagging he finally gives her a scrap of paper on which is written “the names of seven silly devils” and perhaps some additional instructions.


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