Zusne and Jones on magic in traditional and Western societies

Posted on December 5, 2007


Here’s a quote from Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking by L. Zusne and W. Jones (p. 246):

Although the incidence of practice of superstitious magic may be thought to be surprisingly high in Western societies, it would be incorrect to assume that their attitude toward magic is the same as it is among members of traditional societies. Gmelch and Felson (1980) described as the most paradoxical their finding that, although many of their respondents practiced magic, few believed in its strongly. Only 1% of their American respondents said they were “very certain” that magical rituals could bring luck, and another 27% said they were “a little certain.” Although one might argue that the belief in magic continues to exist unconsciously in spite of overt statements to the contrary, it is as plausible to suggest, as Gmelch and Felson did, that people who use magic as simply playing it safe – because they don’t know whether magic works or not but it costs nothing to engage in it, they do, and that the absence of a strong belief is the main distinguishing factor between Westerners who engage in superstitious magic and, say, Malinowski’s Pacific fishermen.

There are a number of things to be said about Zusne and Jones’ argument here.

The argument fits nicely with what Roud says about superstitions becoming weaker and the way that Jahoda compares superstition to disease, i.e. still present but less virulent. The idea that superstitions are practiced on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis also fits in with the Killeen analysis that I like. Still, I am not sure about the way in which the distinction between Western and traditional societies is made here.
The suggestion is that in traditional societies people do not act on magic due to some sort of cost-benefit reasoning and this I find to be unlikely to be the case if such reasoning sits at the back of magic practices in Western societies. Of course, the way the situation is perceived in the two cases, the perceived costs and benefits, will differ greatly but why should there be a difference in the underlying way of reasoning? Also, while the comparison is probably right, it would be good to see an actual comparative study that bears it out. Finally, while talk of unconscious superstitiousness is vague it does point to a problem I have mentioned on numerous occasions – filling out questionnaires is not going to be as good a measure of superstitiousness as looking at how people actually behave. Do the people who say they are “very certain” (is that like being “very dead” or “very pregnant”) about magical sources of luck act on the belief they assert? Are they more likely to cross their fingers or to actually buy a lucky charm? How do their actions change when the perceived costs and benefits are messed about with?