The (possible) Cognitive Naturalness of Witchcraft Beliefs: An Exploration of the Existing Literature

In: Journal of Cognition and Culture
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  • 1 University of Lyon, Lyon, France

Abstract

Cross-culturally, misfortune is often attributed to witchcraft despite the high human and social costs of these beliefs. The evolved cognitive features that are often used to explain religion more broadly, in combination with threat perception and coalitional psychology, may help explain why these particular supernatural beliefs are so prevalent. Witches are minimally counter intuitive, agentic, and build upon intuitive understandings of ritual efficacy. Witchcraft beliefs may gain traction in threatening contexts and because they are threatening themselves, while simultaneously activating coalitional reasoning systems that make rejection of the idea costly. This article draws possible connections between these cognitive and environmental features with an eye toward future empirical examination.

Abstract

Cross-culturally, misfortune is often attributed to witchcraft despite the high human and social costs of these beliefs. The evolved cognitive features that are often used to explain religion more broadly, in combination with threat perception and coalitional psychology, may help explain why these particular supernatural beliefs are so prevalent. Witches are minimally counter intuitive, agentic, and build upon intuitive understandings of ritual efficacy. Witchcraft beliefs may gain traction in threatening contexts and because they are threatening themselves, while simultaneously activating coalitional reasoning systems that make rejection of the idea costly. This article draws possible connections between these cognitive and environmental features with an eye toward future empirical examination.

Worldwide and throughout time, people believe and have believed that when bad things happen to them or their community, it is because another person magically caused it to happen. This, like many supernatural and magical beliefs, is very interesting to a cognitive scientist, as the utility of such beliefs is not immediately apparent, and indeed, the accused can suffer horribly, while witchcraft beliefs in a society correlate with other negative social features, including decreased trust and social support (Gershman, 2016). Why then are these beliefs so common, pervasive, and apparently natural?

This article takes the position that evolved features of the human mind, particularly related to social and threat domains are activated in the case of otherwise unexplainable misfortune, relying on an error-management system that allows witchcraft beliefs and practices to be a culturally stable phenomenon. There is probably not a singular cause, but rather, features of witchcraft beliefs activate the human mind in different but predictable ways. Witchcraft beliefs are not the inevitable result of the cognitive features we will describe, yet they are “natural” in that they can be stable and explainable. In particular, witchcraft beliefs draw on cognitive systems that have been described in three main literatures: religious cognition, threat perception, and coalitional psychology. We will first look at some actual witchcraft beliefs before reviewing the cognitive literatures that we believe are relevant in understanding those beliefs.

Witchcraft Beliefs

In his worldwide survey of witch-hunting, Behringer provides a generalized definition of witchcraft that can be applied to any culture: ‘‘There are evil forces around, and they try to cause harm. Some people, who are essentially anti-social, either incorporate such forces involuntarily, or form alliances with these forces intentionally in order to inflict harm by mystical means…. They not only act as individuals, but rather, through their alignment to evil forces, they act in groups, being part of a conspiracy’’ (pp. 12–13). This is a cross-cultural phenomenon, across time, where people believe in the ability of other people in their community to cause harm through occult powers. These people are used to explain specific ills and misfortunes that befall both individuals and groups (Koning, 2013). In particular, witchcraft seems to be invoked when the origin of the misfortune is unexpected, as in the cases of illness or death, crop failure, and business problems. The witches who commit these malevolent acts are often said to be driven by emotions like envy, jealousy, resentment, hatred, greed, or desire for revenge (Gershman, 2016).

These accusations often co-exist with alternative or additional explanations. For example, Evans-Pritchard notes that amongst the Azande, misfortune may be first understood in terms of general covering laws or as immanent justice due a morally transgressive victim. If the negative event is extreme and cannot be explained away simply by a sense of moral justice, it is then that people suspect that a witch interceded to cause the victim to be at the wrong place at the wrong moment (Barrett & Lanman, 2008; Evans-Pritchard, 1937). It is also the case that around the world, witchcraft models of illness co-exist with a belief in both germs and medicine. In Haiti, tuberculosis patients, knowing that their disease is transmitted by germs and trusting in medical intervention, may simultaneously blame a particular witch for their misfortune (Kidder, 2003). Legare and Gelman make that same connection to their work on disease and particularly aids explanations in South Africa. They categorized co-existence belief types in three groups: juxtaposition, proximal vs. distal, and real vs. fictitious. In the case of juxtaposition, participants simply stated that both biological causes and witchcraft might be at play, without specifying how they interacted or what aspects of the world biology or witchcraft might act upon. For instance, one participant stated, “Having so many enemies causes bewitchment, and maybe unfaithful partners cause aids too.” In the case of proximal vs. distal, participants specified the different roles, such that while biological causes could be pointed to as acting directly, witchcraft might have set the victim on the path that led them to be biologically contaminated. For instance, one participant said, “Witchcraft can fool you into sleeping with an hiv infected person” and another said “A witch can make a condom weak, and break.” In the case of real vs. fictitious explanations, participants pointed out that witchcraft could trick an outside observer by, for instance, mimicking the symptoms of a biologically caused disease. One participant said, “To medical doctors it seems like aids, but it is not (Legare & Gelman, 2008).”

Real vs. fictitious explanations were also reported in an anthropological text in 2003, though other participants claimed relatives and healers blamed witches in order to cover the shame and stigma of aids (Stadler, 2003). Ashforth also recorded cases where the cause of illness was unclear but that allowed the possibility that it had been sent directly by witchcraft. A woman with a newly deceased family member said that “someone had wanted to see the young man dead and had used witchcraft to send this aids or isidliso to kill him.” (Isidliso means “black poison” and is the evil work of witches (Ashforth, 2002)) It was also found in Ghana that people who believed that aids could spread through witchcraft were less likely to use condoms during sex, perhaps for related reasons (Tenkorang, Gyimah, Maticka-Tyndale, & Adjei, 2011).

Among the Benti and Fang people in Cameroon, in disease and other cases of misfortune, sometimes misfortune is just that. Disease and accidents happen, with no need for further explanation. At other times though, when the victim seemingly could not be blamed for their own misfortune, there is “more than meets the eye” and someone with the witchcraft organ evu caused and profited from that misfortune (Boyer, In Prep).

While widespread, witchcraft beliefs crop up with unequal frequency around the world. Other than in immigrant communities, witchcraft beliefs have largely faded in autochthonous populations (Koning, 2013; Parish, 2011, 2013) but are still present in several Asian and Latin American countries (Callan, 2007; Fandrich, 2007; Hayes, 2007; Kidder, 2003; Schram, 2010). Sub-Saharan Africa has very high rates of belief, though there is still variation between groups of people, with, for example, 96% of people surveyed in Tanzania expressing belief in witchcraft as opposed to 57% of the whole sub-Saharan African sample in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008/2009. In general, it seems that witchcraft beliefs are less common among foraging groups, but are prominent in agricultural communities with young or patrimonial state systems (Koning, 2013).

The importance of this field of research is highlighted by a glance at beliefs about who the witches are and what is done about them. In some cases, witchcraft is considered heritable and in other places, becoming a witch can happen to anyone. In some African cultures, men and women of any age can be witches, but in other places, one gender or age is more likely to be accused. It is not uncommon for people to turn their sights to elderly women and young children (Gershman, 2016; Miguel, 2005). In some groups, witches are anonymous and no one is attacked or accused by the community, but in many others, witches are believed to be members of the community and often even the family to be found and stopped, by ritual, torture, removal/expulsion, or death (Boyer, In Prep; Douglas, 2013). Most familiar to a general audience is perhaps witchcraft crazes in Europe from the 1300s to the late 1600s where the number of dead probably numbers in the tens of thousands, and in the United States in the 17th century, such as in Salem where 200 people were accused and 20 were killed (Blumberg, 2007). Between 1970 and 1988, 3072 accused witches were killed in Sukumaland, Tanzania (Miguel, 2005) and over 600 were lynched in Limpopo province in South Africa in 1996–2001 (Gershman, 2016). Across Africa, hundreds of children have been killed, maimed, and abandoned, accused of being witches by their village, individual community members, and even by family (Adinkrah, 2011).

Witchcraft beliefs may also be harmful to members of the communities who are not themselves accused. Analysis of survey data in sub-Saharan Africa finds a strong negative association between the rate of witchcraft beliefs and multiple measures of trust in societies, even when controlling for many different potentially confounding factors (Gershman, 2016). With the prevalence of witchcraft beliefs, there is also a negative association with charitable giving and participation in religious group activities. The fear of witch activity and the fear of being accused of witchcraft may both de-incentivize cooperation and cause missed opportunities for growth, economic and otherwise. Furthermore, parents who believe in witchcraft inculcate mistrust and other antisocial traits in their children, which is expressed even in second-generation immigrants in Europe (Gershman, 2016). As we saw above, in some circumstances, such beliefs may promote risk-taking if the belief interferes with biological understanding of disease, which also increases the population risk (Tenkorang, et al., 2011).

So why, if these beliefs are so harmful and alternative explanations for misfortune are available and generally called upon, are witchcraft beliefs so prevalent? In the next sections, we will look at findings from three main different cognitive literatures (religious cognition, threat detection, and coalitional psychology) and suggest ways that these features of the human mind may make witchcraft beliefs natural or likely to arise and be sustained under different conditions.

Religious Cognition

This article has its foundations in the cognitive science of religion (csr), in terms of the approach to explaining phenomena, the type of phenomena in question, as well as some of the crucial theories and findings. One of the main features of csr is that the problem of defining religion is dodged, in favor of looking at the thoughts and behaviors that make religion up, at least in many or most cases. These pieces are researched and scholars attempt to explain what cognitive features make them or allow them to show up cross-culturally. As Justin Barrett says, “If the explanations turn out to be part of a grander explanation of ‘religion’, so be it. If not, meaningful human phenomena have still been rigorously addressed (2007).” When authors return to the main questions of interest, essentially, “How can we explain religion? Why is it found all over the world throughout time?” it is to the suite of underlying mechanisms that they often go. There is not one unified explanation, but rather a number of different evolved cognitive systems that make such phenomena very likely to occur in individuals and in cultures.

This article is meant to do something similar, if less ambitiously, and for witchcraft in particular instead of religion in general. This will draw on many of the findings already studied and widely discussed in csr, such as the memory advantage for minimally counterintuitive concepts, the hyperactive agency detector, and intuitions of ritual and magical efficacy. As Barrett notes in the case of csr, the components that we study here need not lead inevitably to witchcraft beliefs. Under other environmental circumstances, both in the natural world and in the cultural context, these underlying mechanisms may continue to affect thinking, but make other agent based explanations of misfortune more natural. Indeed, in looking at witchcraft belief data against subsistence mode data in the Standard Cross Cultural Sample database, Koning argues that the same mechanisms that produce witchcraft beliefs in agricultural communities with embryonic or patrimonial state systems leads to more collective forms of social paranoia in more-evolved agrarian societies, such as violent anti-immigrant stances (Koning, 2013). While we can draw from these existing literatures and imagine how cognitive biases and features may interact with one another and environmental conditions, this is, of course, only a first step. By looking at the possibilities below, we hope to uncover rich avenues for future experimental work that may be less obvious than when trying to explain religion as a whole.

mci

Minimally counter intuitive (mci) concepts are often defined as those that violate just one or two of our innate or deep intuitions, in particular, violations of conceptual expectations at the level of domain knowledge, such as about a person, or about an animal. Such concepts are often seen in religious content. These violations provide a memory and attention advantage for the concept over maximally counter-intuitive concepts (that violate many intuitions) and purely natural concepts (Boyer, 2003; Boyer & Ramble, 2001). Experimental work and surveys of religious literature have born this out, while also inviting new and interesting questions and criticism about the exact mechanisms and types of violation that may drive the effect, and how they map on to real religious beliefs (for example, (Purzycki & Willard, 2016)) If we can however grant that there is a memory and attention advantage to concepts that at least largely overlap with mci, we quickly see the relevance to witchcraft.

Witches are usually people about whom all of the usual inferential reasoning applies in terms of folk biology, theory of mind, and social reasoning, the latter of which in particular seems to be activated, given the frequency with which witches are assumed to be jealous or covetous, either of their victims in particular, or in general. However, witches violate some standard expectations; in particular, that they are able to cause misfortune to befall others in mysterious and non-physical ways. Local theories define how witches accomplish this, which makes the particular type of intuitive violation vary between cultures. For instance, as with the Fang discussed above, it is a magical organ, which violates some intuitive biology as well as physics. Despite the particulars of the violations, witches are minimally counter-intuitive agents, so when people talk about them, as when looking for an explanation of the death of a young person in the community, the witchcraft explanation likely enjoys a memory advantage over a purely biological explanation like germs. This makes it slightly more likely that the witchcraft explanation will be transmitted again, or be remembered the next time there is a similar death. The cumulative effects of the memory and transmission advantage may contribute to the stability of witchcraft beliefs in a culture. We are currently pursuing experimental work to more closely examine these specific issues.

Agency

Another classic target of csr investigation is that of attributions of agency. There are a few approaches (Guthrie, 1995), but in the most commonly cited case, it is argued that people are prone to interpret ambiguous signals as intentional agents, because of the high cost of failing to detect them in the evolutionary context and the relatively low cost of incorrectly detecting them. This tendency has been dubbed the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device and has been used in various ways to help explain religious beliefs (Barrett, 2004) though some put more emphasis on the intentionality side than the agency side (Lisdorf, 2007). For instance, such a device would make us “prone to find agents around us, including supernatural ones, given fairly modest evidence of their presence. This tendency encourages the generation and spread of god concepts (Barrett, 2004).” There are many different types of signals that could be interpreted as agent based, however, and it is not clear how these relate to one another. For instance, there may be perceptual biases (Guthrie, 1995; van Elk, 2013, 2015; van Elk, Rutjens, van der Pligt, & Van Harreveld, 2016) that are activated in a very different way from cognitive biases that lead people to see minds or intentionality to a greater extent (Epley, Waytz, Akalis, & Cacioppo, 2008; Waytz et al., 2010) especially when there are existing expectations about agents and certain types of negative affect.

In another approach, it is argued that anthropomorphic representations are likely to become stable because they activate powerful inferences for mentalistic accounts of behavior, while also being counter-intuitive, and thus getting an attention and memory boost as described above (Boyer, 1996). Furthermore, “when people explain salient misfortune without mentioning supernatural agents, they still assume agents as causally involved (Boyer, 2003).”

This latter example is of particular relevance to witchcraft beliefs and could play a role in both the creation and spread of such ideas. When people do not understand why something happened, or are exposed to an ambiguous stimulus, they may naturally first assume that an agent is involved, particularly when something bad happens. This may contribute to the initial production of ideas that may become fully fledged witchcraft beliefs, as well as make such explanations of misfortune plausible when they are transmitted. This, too, is an active line of research.

Intuitions of Ritual and Magic Efficacy

It may also be that witchcraft beliefs can gain traction and be sustained because people really are surrounded by ritual and magical actors, which may also help inspire the initial production of ideas and make them more plausible in transmission. Intuitions of ritual and magical efficacy is another of the original research topics in csr, with the take away message for our purposes being that people have strong intuitions about rituals and magic working and what makes some sorts of ritual and magic behaviors more effective than others (Barrett & Lawson, 2001; Legare & Souza, 2012; Liénard & Boyer, 2006; Lienard & Lawson, 2008; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Sørensen, 2007).

These beliefs often exist within a codified structure and wider magical and religious worldview, but need not always. Individuals may be convinced of their own power over uncertainty relatively quickly even outside of an established belief system or belief in a particular “specialness” of an object. For instance, while someone might be familiar with the concept of luck or luckiness, they might not actually believe in the concept as playing a role in their life, until a special pair of socks takes on significance after a single “win” or escape from danger. Such spontaneous imbuing of significance can be elaborated and fit into a larger system, either for the individual or in a community or culture, but again, it need not necessarily do so. Indeed, the ritual and magical idiosyncrasies of neighbors may be ignored or accepted by an individual, but the presence of such behaviors and beliefs makes the concept more salient and perhaps available to call on when explaining misfortune, even in the absence of an existing cultural belief in witchcraft. If this person down the road uses and believes in magic, might it not be that she is using that magic against me? If not her, perhaps someone else?

Threat Perception

We turn now to another domain of psychological research that bears heavily on the phenomenon of witchcraft beliefs: the asymmetry in various cognitive domains to threats as opposed to positive or neutral stimuli.

Bad is Stronger than Good

Put simply, threat and negativity seem to exert a disproportionately powerful force on many of our cognitive processes, including perception of stimuli, attention and information processing, emotions, belief, and memory (Fessler, Pisor, & Holbrook, 2017; Rozin & Royzman, 2001). “Bad is stronger than good” in reacting to events of various kinds in life and during a day, in close relationships such as long-term relationships and between family members, as well as in brief relationships and friendships, in the emotional world, including emotional language, emotional recall and emotional effects, and economics (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001; Kahneman & Tversky, 1984) Baumeister et al. argue that being better attuned to bad things in general gave organisms an advantage as they would be more likely to survive threats (Baumeister, et al., 2001). An information processing advantage for negative stimuli should promote survival in so far as it enables the rapid identification and avoidance of potential threat (Baumeister, et al., 2001; Rozin & Royzman, 2001).

It also seems that a threatening context can enhance certain types of processing and memory (Kang, McDermott, & Cohen, 2008; Kazanas & Altarriba, 2017; Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008, 2010; Nairne, Thompson, & Pandeirada, 2007; Soderstrom & McCabe, 2011; Weinstein, Bugg, & Roediger, 2008) but see (Butler, Kang, & Roediger iii, 2009). Furthermore, the greater the threat, the greater the memory advantage (Olds, Lanska, & Westerman, 2014). A couple of “survival scenario” studies even looked at the effect of the presence of a mci agent (Kazanas & Altarriba, 2017; Soderstrom & McCabe, 2011). When the survival scenario involved zombies rather than unspecified predators, participants performed better on the subsequent memory task, and while zombie scenarios were seen as more arousing than the nondescript predators/attackers, this arousal did not account for the differences in recall performance when added as a covariate in the model (Soderstrom & McCabe, 2011). However, in a follow-up study, demons and nondescript predators did not lead to significantly different memory perforamce, though participants in both of those conditions out-performed the participants in a non-mci but bizarre condition (Kazanas & Altarriba, 2017). It is difficult to interpret the relevance of these findings to the question witchcraft apart from saying that there may be an interaction between threat context and supernatural “predators” that bears future investigation.

It will be particularly interesting to examine the ways in which negativity and more specifically threat biases might make witchcraft beliefs more natural. Therefore, we will look more closely at how negative information is preferenced in terms of credulity and in terms of understanding agents.

Belief in Threat Information

Of particular interest to the study of witchcraft beliefs is the finding that there is also a credulity bias in favor of negative information over equivalent positive information (Fessler, Pisor, & Navarrete, 2014; Hilbig, 2009, 2012). Crucially, this negative credulity effect is particularly strong among participants who already view the world as a dangerous place (Fessler, et al., 2017; Fessler, et al., 2014). These findings suggest that witchcraft rumors may have a cultural advantage based on their very negativity and threat content. mci concepts, while memorable, might raise some credulity issues, but this incredulity may be lessened by an error management system whereby threat information is given the benefit of the doubt. As these biases are shared to some extent (despite individual variation) in a community, the cumulative effect may help such beliefs become widespread and established. Furthermore, witchcraft accusations and attacks do seem to be correlated with threat and/or resource strain, as may be implied by the findings on individual differences in beliefs that the world is a dangerous place. In particular, it has been noted that extreme rain conditions, either drought or flooding, leads to a large increase in the number of people (in this case usually elderly women) murdered for supposed witchcraft, though there is no increase in other types of murder (Miguel, 2005).

Advantage for Negative Social Ideas

There also appears to be a negativity bias specifically within the social domain. As is the case generally, negative social information is automatically given more attention than positive social information (Pratto & John, 2005). People are attentive to cues that someone might be a bad social exchange partner or that they might be pathogen bearer, which leads us to avoid and stigmatize those people (Kurzban & Leary, 2001). Bad impressions and negative stereotypes form more quickly than positive impressions and stereotypes, and are harder to change in a positive direction (Baumeister, et al., 2001; Skowronski & Carlston, 1989). In addition, negative events may also elicit an expectation that another person is causally involved more than positive or neutral events, even if the probability does not really favor personal over impersonal causality (Morewedge, 2009). As mentioned in the csr section, this is also the case with supernatural agents, where salient misfortune elicits the assumption that agents are involved (Boyer, 2003). Similarly, when the environment is unpredictable, which itself may be seen as somewhat threatening, people are more likely to anthropomorphize (Waytz, et al., 2010).

All of these tendencies could be relevant in a witchcraft context. If you hear that people might be witches, or that one person in particular might be a witch, such negative information might stick and be hard to let go of. While this is already implied by the general threat bias literature, it is important to establish that the effects are found in this particular domain. It will therefore be essential to follow-up on this theoretical application with experimental investigation of how agency and threat biases interact.

Transmission Preferences

Of course, attention, memory, and belief are not enough for cultural success in the absence of transmission between people. However, there is some evidence that, at least in some cases, there are also transmission advantages for threat information. Rumors that contain information about undesirable events are more virulent than those above desirable events, even when matched for importance and believability (Walker & Blaine, 1991). Transmission rates also reflect disgust preference, a sub-category of threat preference (Eriksson & Coultas, 2014; Heath, Bell, & Sternberg, 2001). Another study found that in the process of social transmission, negatively-valenced information is favored, both in survival of information that was originally negatively-valenced, as well as in the resolution of information that was originally ambiguous (Bebbington, MacLeod, Ellison, & Fay, 2017). Urban legends and supernatural beliefs worldwide show a high percentage of hazard information (Fessler, et al., 2014).

However, these transmission results are not completely straight-forward. In some situations, such as when the general domain of discussion is perceived as positive, people prefer to transmit congruently positive emotion, while still preferring to transmit bad news within a negative domain (Heath, 1996). In an analysis of which New York Times articles were emailed on from the site, it was found that highly arousing content, such as articles that inspired awe, anger, or disgust were the most transmitted, especially in contrast to low arousal content, such as sad stories. However, in this study, positive arousal stories were more emailed than the negative arousal stories (Berger & Milkman, 2012). Others found that social information is transmitted more if it has emotional content, including disgust but also happiness, though there are differences in transmission based on audience (Peters, Kashima, & Clark, 2009). This conforms to our intuitive experience of the world. While in some cases negative information seems to be everywhere, focusing on the bad is not always socially appropriate. The context must be right.

Altshteyn and Barrett looked for a threat bias on Twitter, expecting to find high rates of warning information, as there is a low cost to transmit such information, but it should be of high value to the receiver. They further reasoned that recipients of warning information may be indebted to the transmitter and also be stronger allies by virtue of not falling victim to the threat. Indeed, they found that tweets containing threat information were re-tweeted up to 3.13 times more than tweets without threat information (Altshteyn, 2014).

Threat information can take many different forms, and there are domain specific and developmentally natural fears that such information can tap into (Boyer & Bergstrom, 2011). Of particular interest to us, as discussed above, is information about threatening individuals or groups. There is some evidence that social threat information, in addition to social information in general (Mesoudi, Whiten, & Dunbar, 2006), enjoys a transmission advantage. Florian Van Leeuwen used Google’s Ngram to compare the transmission of information about human caused and naturally occurring disasters, matched for number of people killed, time period, and location by continent, and found that the human caused events were mentioned an average of ten times as often (2014). A lethal event that was caused by a witch may thus be more prone to transmission than a lethal event caused by nature.

In our own work, we found that transmitting threat information can provide the sharer with a reputational boost in comparison with someone else who shares useful but threat-neutral information. We imagine that this may apply to witchcraft belief transmission, where someone may be implicitly motivated to share threatening information about witches because of the social benefit (Boyer & Parren, 2015). However, when looking at threat related information and participants’ reported intensions to transmit, we found a more complicated story. Like other transmission research, we found that people do not always prefer to transmit negative or threatening information. People are perhaps more likely to have these preferences when they are communicating with a close friend or when they themselves are low in social support (van Leeuwen, Parren, Miton, & Boyer, 2016). This may be cautiously interpreted in support of our hypothesis that the transmission of threat information such as witchcraft beliefs may be motivated by coalitional reasoning, a subject we now turn to.

Coalitional Psychology

Another essential domain for our understanding of the cognitive naturalness of witchcraft beliefs is that of coalitional psychology (Boyer, In Prep). Witchcraft ideas may be particularly powerful ones in that they activate coalitional reasoning processes that motivate behavior and signaling in a way that other responses to misfortune would not. Here, this article first reviews those processes of coalitional reasoning in terms of their activation, in-group processes, rivalry process, and defection management, before turning to a discussion of how witchcraft ideas may operate in those spaces.

Coalitional Inferences and Group Tracking

As was previewed in our discussions of transmission, humans are uniquely cooperative and rely on groups for a large part of general functionality (Buss & Kenrick, 1998; Fessler, 2006; Pietraszewski, 2013). This reliance on conspecifics prompted and is dependent on a distinct evolved psychology, calibrated by the particulars of the social environment in which one is raised. The problems of cooperation in a group can be computationally demanding. For example, relationships between multiple people can be affected by a single event in many different ways, dependent on the nature of the individual connections between the actors. We have many idioms that point to some of these relationships, such as “the friend of my enemy is my friend.” But what if the two former enemies resolve their differences and become allies? The change in their relationship changes the former friendship as well, without any direct interaction between the once-friends. To understand this and other such dynamics, it is necessary to draw upon sophisticated and selective inferences (Pietraszewski, 2013). Systems are in place that bias people in such a way as to promote the tracking of actual and possible alliances, predict how individuals and groups will act based on those alliances, and how to perform and promote oneself within such a context, particularly for recruiting assistance.

Cue Tracking

It seems that people automatically monitor the world for cues of coalition, looking for patterns of coordination, cooperation and competition. These cues can take may different forms, including clothing or other such markers, shared ideas and knowledge, race, physical closeness, synchronic movements, etc (Fessler, Holbrook, & Dashoff, 2016; Pietraszewski, Curry, Petersen, Cosmides, & Tooby, 2015). These cues can quickly activate coalitional reasoning systems, even when the diagnosticity is new. It is by these mechanisms that “race [can be] erased” when not a cue of coalition, in favor of a more accurate marker, while t-shirt color can quickly take on a the role of coalitional cue when diagnostic of a rival team among children (Bigler, Jones, & Lobliner, 1997; Kurzban, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2001). Study participants showed bias and favoritism toward an arbitrary group with unmistakably insignificant or even no special features (a “minimal group”), apart from the participant being assigned to that group in the lab (Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971; Billig & Tajfel, 1973) and more readily associate minimal out-groups with aversive stimulus than minimal in-group members (Carlos David Navarrete et al., 2012).

Ingroup Support

Despite this flexibility, “group” is a powerful force and people actually tend to see coalitions as stable, where past affiliation can be used to predict future behavior. Being part of a group or a coalition promotes cooperation, of course, including extreme sacrifices of resources, time, and even life, while possible cheating is constantly and unconsciously monitored (Cosmides & Tooby, 2005; Cosmides, Tooby, Fiddick, & Bryant, 2005; Fu et al., 2012; Goette, Huffman, & Meier, 2006; Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971; Yamagishi, Jin, & Kiyonari, 1999; Yamagishi & Mifune, 2008). While coalitional reasoning is activated, people tend to see gains for the group as a gain for themselves, and a gain for someone within the group as a gain for everyone. Similarly, costs are shared. If a member of the coalition is hurt or suffers a misfortune, the other group members perceive that they are hurt as a whole and therefore as individuals. In this sense, the members of the coalition become to some degree interchangeable and there is a motivation to promote the good of all and ameliorate the negative, even if it doesn’t directly affect all the players. It is crucial to be an accepted member of such a group, and the threat of being ostracized is carefully guarded against (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003; Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000).

Outgroup Rivalry

Of course, that strong coalitional support for ingroup members has the converse in rivalrous interactions, real and perceived. Outgroups are readily seen as threatening, similar to types of natural hazards (Carlos David Navarrete, et al., 2012; Olsson, Ebert, Banaji, & Phelps, 2005). People tend to see groups as operating in a zero sum competition, where success and procurement of resources by another coalition is perceived as a loss for one’s own coalition, and vice-versa (Esses, Dovidio, Jackson, & Armstrong, 2001). Furthermore, the “group as one” perception extends from one’s own group to the rival coalitions, where an attack on a member of one’s own group is seen as an attack on oneself, but retaliation is also interchangeable in terms of target in the other group (Crawford, Sherman, & Hamilton, 2002; Lickel, Miller, Stenstrom, Denson, & Schmader, 2006; Vasquez, Wenborne, Peers, Alleyne, & Ellis, 2015). The original attacker need not be punished if another member of his group can be attacked.

Defection Management

In this context, defection from the coalition is a grave offence and people are motivated to punish defectors. People who swap groups are seen as traitorous and are regarded with suspicion in their new group as well. Meanwhile, people are motivated to discourage defection both by checking for and eliciting commitment signals before allowing new members to join their group and by promising punishment for defection. These responses are not necessarily conscious, or are motivated by emotions without the need for careful reflection on them (Boyer, In Prep).

Groups under Threat

We have already examined some of the ways in which threat perception exerts a powerful cognitive force, so perhaps unsurprisingly, threat context influences coalitional psychology as well. The mechanisms covered in this section are easily triggered but also seem to become particularly intense under different domain specific forms of threat. Navarrete et al argue that under threat, and even the idea of threat, social relationships are particularly important for protection and support. When implicitly attempting to gain or retain this support, expressions of commitment to the group or coalition should be particularly strong, for instance in terms of pro-normative attitudes. Indeed, this was born out in cross-cultural experiments in which participants were asked to contemplate aversive scenarios (C David Navarrete, Kurzban, Fessler, & Kirkpatrick, 2004). Pro-group attitudes also again have their converse in stronger anti-out group sentiment under threat (Stephan, Ybarra, Martnez, Schwarzwald, & Tur-Kaspa, 1998). For instance, chronic disease worries activate stronger out-group bias, where people see foreign out groups as dangerous and predicts a less positive attitude toward foreign immigrant groups (Faulkner, Schaller, Park, & Duncan, 2004).

Misfortune as an Attack in the Coalitional Context

We can now turn to looking at how witchcraft ideas operate within a coalitional psychological context. We believe that since witchcraft beliefs are agentive models of misfortune, they should activate coalitional psychology systems and therefore make it more likely that other people will assist the injured party and/or give signals of coalitional commitment that can be drawn on later. Essentially, witchcraft beliefs serve to turn a case of misfortune into a coalitional conflict, in which people must choose a side. The injured party may be (implicitly or explicitly) motivated by their misfortune to promote strong coalitional behavior amongst their fellows, similar to the motivations described in the previous section (C David Navarrete, et al., 2004). Given that they have suffered a loss of some kind, they should be sensitive to threat, making them more sensitive to cues of agency and interested in coalitional support. They may propose the idea that their misfortune was caused by a witch. The idea that a negative event occurred because someone was attacking a group member is enough to activate the coalitional psychology systems of their fellows, which would likely serve the victim better than other sorts of explanations of their misfortune. The victim may go from being perceived as a rival for resources within the group to being perceived as a coalition member essentially interchangeable with everyone else in the battle against the enemy. Group members who reject this witchcraft interpretation of events risk being seen as colluding against the group; a grave risk indeed. While the idea of a single witch attacking the group is enough to activate this coalitional system, it is worth returning to the definition of witchcraft provided by Behringer at the beginning of this article. Based on his worldwide survey, he notes that witches are often seen to “form alliances with these forces intentionally in order to inflict harm by mystical means…. They not only act as individuals, but rather, through their alignment to evil forces, they act in groups, being part of a conspiracy (Behringer, 2004).’’ This perception of coalitional conflict should be powerful and motivating.

To be clear, these coalitional mechanisms were selected independently, but are activated in this new context. Indeed, as we saw in the discussion of societies with witchcraft beliefs, the end result may actually be anti-social and have negative consequences for everyone (Gershman, 2016). None-the-less, the agent-based explanations are relevant to people and mesh with their assumptions and motivations, even if this is at a cost in this particular case.

Coalitional Context

Cultural variation in the particular forms of accusation and reaction to witchcraft may arise depending on the pre-existing norms of coalitional support (Boyer, In Prep). This variation in coalitional support, strength, and size, however, is most likely to be within a certain range if witchcraft beliefs are to flourish and/or be sustained.

As we saw, witchcraft beliefs are most prevalent in certain types of agrarian cultures, and much less common in hunter-gatherer or industrial, urban, or “developed” societies (Koning, 2013). Now that we have looked at cognitive elements of threat and coalition, we may better understand why this is. While the same cognitive features are shared by these groups, responses to threat should differ by the coalitional resources and costs that exist in society.

In societies where there is intensification and capitalization of agriculture, there is often a stratification of class and greater imbalance of wealth and opportunity between groups that co-exist. In such a context, coalitional thinking is more readily activated to deal with the structure of farmers against landlords for example. Different misfortunes are emphasized and blamed on out-groups as a whole rather than on specific individuals. This could be seen in the African Great Lakes region, where advanced agriculture and social differentiation coincided with targeting collective groups, like Indian “bloodsuckers” and Tutsi “cockroaches.” Imbalances of resource and population in the context of some fear have been the background for the targeting of Jews, communists, Muslims, and immigrants (Koning, 2013). Coalitional reasoning promotes the drawing together of a group in support of themselves and against an outsider. Supernatural beliefs may then play a stronger role in defining and strengthening group than in explaining the mechanics of misfortune.

Conclusion

This article has intended to suggest that there are cognitively natural aspects to the belief in witches as an explanation for misfortune. Existing work in the cognitive science of religion, such as agency detection, attractors in story transmission, and intuitive beliefs about ritual efficacy all can potentially contribute to witchcraft beliefs. The threat perception literature contributes to this understanding, showing that negative information is particularly powerful and persuasive and has many effects that can potentially promote witchcraft beliefs in individuals and in a culture. Finally, the impact of coalitional psychology cannot be overstated. Coalitional attentions and motivations make witchcraft ideas particularly powerful and difficult to reject in a social context. Religious cognition, threat perception, and coalitional psychology can be activated in many different ways and in different combinations, but under the right conditions they may interact in such a way that witchcraft beliefs are natural and easily become pervasive.

Of course, there is a lot of work to do to establish that this proposed chain resembles the way witchcraft ideas spread, both in terms of further experimental work, but also in on-the-ground observation. We are only at the beginning of investigating the various factors that we believe are at play, and hope to continue to investigate these issues in the future.

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  • Adinkrah, M. (2011). Child witch hunts in contemporary Ghana. Child abuse & neglect, 35(9), 741752.

  • Altshteyn, I. (2014). Evidence for a warning bias in information transmission in social networks.

    • Export Citation
  • Ashforth, A. (2002). An epidemic of witchcraft? The implications of aids for the post-apartheid state. African Studies, 61(1), 121143.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God?: AltaMira Press.

  • Barrett, J. L., & Lanman, J. A. (2008). The science of religious beliefs. Religion, 38(2), 109124.

  • Barrett, J. L., & Lawson, E. T. (2001). Ritual intuitions: Cognitive contributions to judgments of ritual efficacy. Journal of cognition and culture, 1(2), 183201.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of general psychology, 5(4), 323.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin, 117(3), 497.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bebbington, K., MacLeod, C., Ellison, T. M., & Fay, N. (2017). The sky is falling: evidence of a negativity bias in the social transmission of information. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(1), 92101.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Behringer, W. (2004). Witches and witch-hunts: A global history: Polity.

  • Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What makes online content viral? Journal of marketing research, 49(2), 192205.

  • Bigler, R. S., Jones, L. C., & Lobliner, D. B. (1997). Social categorization and the formation of intergroup attitudes in children. Child development, 68(3), 530543.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Blumberg, J. (2007, 2011). A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/.

    • Export Citation
  • Boyer, P. (1996). What makes anthropomorphism natural: Intuitive ontology and cultural representations. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 8397.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boyer, P. (2003). Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(3), 119124.

  • Boyer, P. (In Prep). Why Do People Try To Explain Misfortune? and, Why do it in terms of agents?

    • Export Citation
  • Boyer, P., & Bergstrom, B. (2011). Threat-detection in child development: An evolutionary perspective. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(4), 10341041.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boyer, P., & Parren, N. (2015). Threat-related information suggests competence: a possible factor in the spread of rumors. PloS one, 10(6), e0128421.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boyer, P., & Ramble, C. (2001). Cognitive templates for religious concepts: Cross-cultural evidence for recall of counter-intuitive representations. Cognitive Science, 25(4), 535564.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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