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.