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Magic, Explanations, and Evil
The Origins and Design of Witches and Sorcerers
In nearly every documented society, people believe that some misfortunes are caused by malicious group mates using magic or
supernatural powers. Here I report cross-cultural patterns in these beliefs and propose a theory to explain them. Using the newly
created Mystical Harm Survey, I show that several conceptions of malicious mystical practitioners, including sorcerers (who use
learned spells), possessors of the evil eye (who transmit injury through their stares and words), and witches (who possess
superpowers, pose existential threats, and engage in morally abhorrent acts), recur around the world. I argue that these beliefs develop
from three cultural selective processes: a selection for intuitive magic, a selection for plausible explanations of impactful misfortune,
and a selection for demonizing myths that justify mistreatment. Separately, these selective schemes produce traditions as diverse as
shamanism, conspiracy theories, and campaigns against heretics—but around the world, they jointly give rise to the odious and
feared witch. I use the tripartite theory to explain the forms of beliefs in mystical harm and outline 10 predictions for how shifting
conditions should affect those conceptions. Societally corrosive beliefs can persist when they are intuitively appealing or they serve
Online enhancements: supplemental material and tables.
“I fear them more than anything else,”
said Don Talayesva about witches. By then, the Hopi man suspected his grand-
mother, grandfather, and in-laws of using dark magic against him.
Beliefs in witches and sorcerers are disturbing and calamitous.
Sterility, illness, death, rainstorms, burned-down houses, bald
spots, attacks from wild animals, lost footraces, lost reindeer
races, the puzzling behavior of a friend or spouse—the enig-
matic, the impactful, the bothersome—all can spark suspicions
of neighbors using magic and dark powers; all can precipitate
violence. The suspects are sometimes normal humans, learned
in dark magic, but other times, they are rumored to be odious
and other. They devour babies, fornicate with their menstru-
ating mothers, and use human skulls for sports. They become
bats and black panthers, house pythons in their stomachs, and
direct menageries of attendant night birds. They plot the de-
struction of families and then dance in orgiastic night fests.
Humans in nearly every documented society believe that
some illnesses and hardships are the work of envious or malig-
nant group mates. Hutton (2004, 2017) reviewed ethnographies
from 300 non-European societies and documented pervasive
beliefs in sorcerers, witches, the evil eye, and aggressive sha-
mans. Of the 60 societies in the Probability Sample File (PSF)
of the electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF)—a pseudo-
random sample of well-documented human societies—59 believed
in some form of human-induced mystical harm, the only exception
being the Kogi of Colombia (“Cross-Cultural Patterns”).
ropean societies have historically held similar beliefs, embodied
in the Roman Strix (Oliphant 1913, 1914), the Saxon Striga
(Cohn 1976), and, most famously, the witches of the Great
Manvir Singh is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse (1, Esplanade de l’Université, 31080 Toulouse
Cedex 06, France [firstname.lastname@example.org]). This paper was submitted 20 IX 18, accepted 4 II 19, and electronically published 25 II 21.
3. The ethnographic texts included in the eHRAF did not describe
mystical harm beliefs in two PSF societies: the Koreans and the Kogi. But
researchers elsewhere have reported sorcery beliefs in Korea (Walraven
1980), so their omission seems due to ethnographers underreporting the
topic.Meanwhile, Reichel-Dolmatoff (1976:286, 1997:141) explicitlystressed
the absence of beliefs in mystical harm among the Kogi. Nevertheless, in
describing Kogi lineages, he made a vague comment suggesting that people
do in factbelieve inmean-spirited, uncanny harm: “Bothgroups, theHukúkui
as well as the Mitamdú, are further regarded as vaguely dangerous and
endowed with rather evil powers”(Reichel-Dolmatoff 1997:250).
1. The quotation comes from the autobiography of Don Talayesva
(Talayesva and Simmons 1942:379).
2. The quotes by Don Talayesva (opening) and the Santal guru Kolean
Haram (“Existing Theories of Mystical Harm”) demonstrate that these
beliefs are disturbing. The destruction mentioned in “Existing Theories of
Mystical Harm”demonstrates that they are calamitous. Table 2 and “Ac-
cusations of Mystical Harm Track Distrust and Suspicions of Harmful
Intent”describe the events that trigger suspicions of mystical harm. Table 3
featuresexamples of animal transformations and attendants. Yamba witches
were said to devour children (Guﬂer 1999), Apache witches had sex with
menstruating family members (Basso 1969), Akan witches used human
skulls for soccer (Debrunner 1961), and Santal witches met naked in night-
time assemblies, danced, and copulated with their spirit familiars (Archer
1974). Nyakyusa witches had pythons in their bellies (Wilson 1951).
Current Anthropology, volume 62, number 1, February 2021. q2021 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.
0011-3204/2021/6201-0002$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/713111
European Witch Hunt (Cohn 1976) and colonial New England
Beliefs about harmful practitioners are profoundly similar
across vastly distant societies (Kluckhohn 1959; Needham 1978).
The European witches of the late modern period were said to
eat human ﬂesh, engage in obscene activities, and assemble
in conspiratorial, orgiastic nighttime gatherings (Cohn 1976).
Similar behaviors were suspected of witches among the Yamba
of Cameroon (Guﬂer 1999), the Santal of South Asia (Archer
1984), and the Navajo of the American Southwest (Kluckhohn
1944), among many other societies (Hutton 2017; Mair 1969;
see “Cross-Cultural Patterns”). And just as people worldwide
believe in sensational and atrocious witches, they also often
suspect that sickness and death are the work of ordinary people
secretly practicing dark magic (e.g., Trobriand Islanders: Mali-
nowski 1922; Tswana: Schapera 1952; Niimíipuu: Walker 1967).
In this paper, I refer to people who are believed to use magic
or supernatural powers to injure others as “practitioners of
This term is broad, including, for example,
beliefs about werewolves, abhorrent witches, people whose
stares transmit illness, and neighbors who use voodoo dolls in
secret. “Magic”refers to occult methods withinstrumental ends,
such as spells, curses, rites, manipulated objects, and everyday
superstitions. Magic can be used to produce socially justiﬁed
ends, such as healing people or succeeding in gambling, as well
as less acceptable objectives, such as inducing illness.
I refer to
harmful magic as “sorcery.”Methods of sorcery include cursing,
stabbing voodoo dolls, and placing charmed poisons in people’s
Sorcerers are people who use magic for malicious ends—
that is, people who use sorcery. Witches, on the other hand, ex-
hibit up to three sets of characteristics: (1) they are existentially
threatening, (2) they have supernatural powers, and (3) they are
morally repugnant. Some practitioners, such as those believed
to both use magic and engage in activities like graveyard con-
spiracies and cannibalism, qualify as both sorcerers and witches.
I justify these deﬁnitions in “Cross-Cultural Patterns.”
The ubiquity of mystical harm beliefs and their striking
similarities raise two basic questions:
1. Why do humans believe in mystical harm?
2. Why do those beliefs take the form that they do?
This paper advances a tripartite theory to answer those
questions. I propose that beliefs in mystical harm and beliefs
about who orchestrates it are the result of three cultural se-
1. Selection for intuitive magic. As people try to induce
others’misfortune, they selectively retain intuitive magic, pro-
ducing compelling spells and charms for harming others. This
produces intuitive harmful magic, but more relevantly, it con-
vinces people that sorcery works and that other group members
2. Selection for plausible explanations of misfortune. People
look for explanations for why things go wrong. When they feel
threatened, they suspect distrusted group mates; when they
believe in sorcery, it provides a straightforward explanation for
how a distrusted rival harmed them from afar. Over time, it-
eratively searching for plausible explanations shapes beliefs
about sorcerers to become increasingly compelling, although
the same process can produce explanations that do not include
sorcery, including beliefs about werewolves, the evil eye, and
3. Selection for demonizing narratives. Actors bent on elim-
inating rivals devise demonizing myths to justify their rivals’
mistreatment. These campaigns often target and transform
malicious practitioners, both because people suspect that ma-
licious practitioners transmit harm and because individuals
accused of mystical harm are easily demonized and abused.
On their own, these three processes produce beliefs and prac-
tices as varied as gambling superstitions, conspiracy theories,
and vitriolic campaigns against heretics, but in societies around
the world, they combine to produce the archetypal, odious
image of the witch.
Researchers struggle over whether beliefs about harmful prac-
titioners are similar across cultures. Many have emphasized
commonalities (e.g., Kluckhohn 1959; Mair 1969), but others
have criticized drawing these comparisons, one scholar con-
cluding that “anthropologists have committed a possibly grave
error in using the same term [witchcraft] for other cultures”
The most important effort in documenting cross-cultural
patterns in these beliefs was conducted by Hutton (2017; see
also Hutton 2004). Hutton reviewed ethnographies in 300
extra-European societies and identiﬁed ﬁve characteristics that
malicious magicians around the world share with the early
modern European conception of the witch. Namely, they tend
to (1) cause harm using nonphysical, uncanny methods, (2) rep-
resent internal threats to their communities, (3) acquire their
abilities through training or inheritance, (4) have qualities that
incite horror and loathing, and (5) provoke strategies of re-
sistance, including counterspells and murderous campaigns.
Hutton also reviewed, among other patterns, similarities in
witches’heinous activities and the social conditions that in-
spire violence toward suspected malicious practitioners.
Hutton’s project was ambitious, but he sampled societies
opportunistically, risking the overrepresentation of peculiar
4. I use the term “mystical”to refer to harm that is transmitted through
either magical means (e.g., spells, buried poisons, voodoo dolls) or super-
natural powers (e.g., transforming into an animal and attacking someone,
inﬂicting misfortune through an inadvertent envious stare). This usage
follows Evans-Pritchard (1937), who contrasted mystical causation with
natural causation, and Needham (1978), who deﬁned a “witch”as “someone
whocausesharmtoothersbymysticalmeans”(26), corresponding closely
with my term “practitioner of mystical harm.”
5. Whenever I refer to the effects of magic (e.g., producing illness) or
the features of a malicious practitioner (e.g., ﬂying and eating corpses), I
refer to beliefs about those traditions rather than actual consequences or traits.
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 3
beliefs. He also chose not to systematically code traits such as
how frequently practitioners are believed to kill people or as-
sociate with animals. These limitations prevented him from
drawing strong inferences about how these beliefs compare
around the world.
I designed the Mystical Harm Survey (MHS) to systemati-
cally capture beliefs about mystical harm in a representative
sample of the world’s societies. The data set covers the 60 so-
cieties of the Probability Sample File of the electronic Human
Relations Area Files, a pseudorandom sample of well-documented
cultures that were selected to make inferences about humanity
more generally (see the supplemental materials, available online,
for more details). The full data set is available at osf.io/492mj
tices) from 58 societies. The analyses reported here exclude lead-
ers (e.g., elders, chiefs, senior lineages) and public magicians (e.g.,
shamans, priests) because these practitioners are public, insti-
tutionalized classes who advertise and perform their powers rather
than simply being conceptions of group mates causing misfor-
tune (including leaders and magicians in the analyses produces
nearly identical results; cf. supplemental table 2; supplemental
tables 1–6 are available online and supplemental table 4).
I used a principal component analysis (PCA) to reduce the
49 raw variables in the MHS (e.g., Does a practitioner consume
ﬂesh? Do they cause economic harm?) to two derived variables
(or principal components),
shown in ﬁgure 1 (for details, see
supplemental materials). This method exposes the axes along
which practitioners vary the most and, thus, the cross-cultural
structure of these beliefs. Both of the derived variables are in-
terpretable: the ﬁrst dimension represents how witchy male-
factors are; the second distinguishes sorcerers, as classically
understood, from the evil eye.
Practitioners high on the ﬁrst variable (PC1) are witches.
They are believed to kill people, cause illness, eat human ﬂesh,
desecrate corpses, use magic, ﬂy, turn invisible, commit atroc-
ities at night and in the nude, congregate in secretive meet-
ings, transform into animals or use them as familiars, and en-
gage in obscenities like incest and nymphomania; shamans and
other magicians are often suspected of being witches (for
loadings, see supplemental table 2). Practitioners low on this
dimension lack these qualities. Contrary to many writers’
6. Hereafter, I refer to this restricted data set as the MHS and to the
data set including leaders and public magicians as the expanded MHS.
Figure 1. Results of a logistic principal component analysis (PCA) showing practitioners of mystical harm. A single point represents a
belief about a practitioner in a society (such as the Trobriand ﬂying witch or the Amhara evil eye); the accompanying numbers refer
to the unique practitioner ID numbers (see supplemental table 1; supplemental tables 1–6 are available online). The points are colored
according to the terms used by the ethnographer(s) who described them. They are scaled according to the number of paragraphs
coded in that society, ranging from one paragraph (practitioner 63) to 1,976 (practitioners 1 and 2). The images refer to the features
that characterize a given quadrant. Eye pevil eye (unintentional harm through stares or words); efﬁgy psorcery (learned magic);
owl pwitchiness (superhuman abilities, moral abhorrence, threat).
8. Several variables, all of which appeared very infrequently in the
MHS, had unstable loadings that collapsed when the data from a single
region were excluded from the PCA (see supplemental materials, sec. 2.2,
and supplemental tables 5, 6). I have not reported these unstable loadings
here, but see supplemental table 2 for the full factor matrix.
7. There are two reasons to report a two-factor solution. First, a scree
plot (supplemental ﬁg. 1, available online) shows a dramatic change in
slope at the third component; after the second component, the additional
dimensions explain equivalent and smaller proportions of variance. Sec-
ond, the third component is uninterpretable (see supplemental table 3).
The ﬁrst and second components explain 23.1% and 16.8% of the total
variance, respectively (39.9% in total).
4Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
impressions (e.g., Chaudhuri 2012; Mace et al. 2018; Sanders
1995), I did not ﬁnd strong evidence that witches are more
frequently women than men.
The second derived variable (PC2) separates everyday sor-
cerers from those who possess the evil eye. Practitioners low on
PC2 use harmful magic, including spells, voodoo dolls, and
magical poisons. They attack their neighbors and family mem-
bers but sometimes target out-group individuals as well. Eth-
nographers often state that anyone can qualify as one of these
practitioners, although men and public magicians are suspected
more often. Practitioners high on PC2, in contrast, tend to
possess the evil eye or blasting word: they harm people through
their stares and comments, often inadvertently. Their powers
derive from physiological differences, such as special eyes, rather
than from learning speciﬁc methods or rites.
A surprising ﬁnding is that practitioners high on PC2 also
tend to ﬂy and eat human ﬂesh. But this is less characteristic of
the evil eye and more a feature of cannibals, ghouls, and ly-
canthropes (humans who transform into animals). In fact, no
practitioner labeled “evil eye”by an ethnographer was said to
ﬂy or consume human ﬂesh. Cannibals, ghouls, and lycan-
thropes likely appear with the evil eye in ﬁgure 1 because they
all tend not to use sorcery (shifting them high on PC2) and they
lack most other witchy qualities (shifting them low on PC1).
In ﬁgure 1, I colored the points according to the ethnog-
rapher’s name for that practitioner. These colors cluster, show-
ing that terms like “sorcerer”or “witch”in fact capture cross-
culturally recurrent beliefs. Sorcerers (blue) are normal humans
who use efﬁgies, curses, and other spells to harm their rivals.
Descriptions of sorcerers are very similar to descriptions of
people generally knowing and using dark magic (purple). Pos-
sessors of the evileye (yellow) harm people with their stares and
words, often unintentionally. They do not employ spells, and
their powers tend to be inborn rather than actively procured.
Witches (pink) are much more variable across societies, but
they share up to three sets of traits: (1) they are threatening (e.g.,
they kill and conspire in secret nighttime meetings), (2) they are
supernaturally powerful (e.g., they ﬂy and transform into ani-
mals), and (3) they are abhorrent (e.g., they consume human
ﬂesh and desecrate corpses; see ﬁg. 2). These results of the PCA
suggest that witchiness is a dimension rather than a discrete
trait—that is, people in some societies describe practitioners
who are more threatening, supernaturally powerful, and ab-
horrent than the practitioners described in other societies.
The analysis helps reconcile a historic debate about the dif-
ference between witches and sorcerers. Evans-Pritchard (1937)
drew a strict boundary between the two, specifying that ma-
licious practitioners are either normal humans who use magic
(sorcerers) or different entities who do not use magic and
instead attack with supernatural powers (witches). He used the
dichotomous scheme to describe Azande beliefs in particular,
but other anthropologists applied the same typology to dif-
ferent ethnographic contexts (e.g., Reynolds 1963; but see Tur-
Figure 1 reveals that Evans-Pritchard’s witch-sorcerer binary
does not generalize. Some heinous, supernaturally powerful
Figure 2. Witches’Sabbath (A; Goya, 1798; qMuseo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid) and Witches’Flight (B; Goya, 1798; qPhotographic
Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado) depict conceptions of witches held by many medieval Europeans. The witches are nude and
nocturnal; they ﬂy, kill babies, devour human ﬂesh, associate with nighttime animals, and conspire with evil spirits. Despite their
strangeness and particularity, these traits were not restricted to medieval European witches. People around the world—including the
Tlingit (Paciﬁc Northwest), Akan (West Africa), and Trobriand Islanders (South Paciﬁc)—held similar conceptions of witches.
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 5
practitioners (witches) attack only with supernatural stares
and thoughts, such as those of the Azande (9) and Akan (1),
but many are believed to also employ spells, charms, and other
material magic. Some witches, for example, stuffed efﬁgies into
the carcasses of dead puppies (Tlingit: De Laguna 1972:730);
others recited spells to ﬂy (Trobriand Islanders: Malinowski
1922:241) or used horseshoes and keys to conjure evil spirits
(colonial New England: Karlsen 1987:9). Thus, witches re-
semble other malicious practitioners, such as sorcerers or
possessors of the evil eye, except transformed along a dimen-
sion of witchiness, made more threatening, more abhorrent,
and more supernaturally powerful.
Existing Theories of Mystical Harm
The most inﬂuential theories of mystical harm ascribe a func-
tion to these beliefs, often regarding them as group-level adap-
tations. Most popular is the theory that these beliefs discourage
socially unacceptable behavior. According to this theory, if peo-
ple suspect that their irate neighbors will attack them with evil
spells and powers, then people will refrain from upsetting each
other, both to avoid being attacked by mystical harm and to
avoid being accused (Beattie 1963; Walker 1967; Whiting 1950).
Faulkingham (1971) summarized this theory in observa-
tions of the Hausa (Niger): “Sorcery beliefs in Tudù provide
people with strong motivations to be gregarious and to avoid
quarrels. One is hesitant to be silent, alone, or bickering, lest he
be accused of being a sorcerer. Further, people are reticent to
exacerbate quarrels, for they may become ensorceled”(112).
But he also recognized that these beliefs entail major costs:
“While sorcery beliefs have these social control functions, I
believe that the villagers pay a high psychological price, since
hostile emotions are relentlessly proscribed”(Faulkingham
Other researchers have echoed Faulkingham’s second point,
disputing cooperation theories by noting how sorcery and
witchcraft beliefs sow distrust and provoke quarreling (Gersh-
man 2016; see Hutton 2017:35 and works cited therein). Among
the Kapauku Papuans, most wars in one region (Mapia) started
because of presumed sorcery; in another (Kamu), sorcery ac-
counted “for about thirty per cent of the conﬂicts”(Pospisil
1958:154). Other examples of contexts in which sorcery and
witchcraft accusations bred violence abound (e.g., Gebusi: Knauft
2010; Rajputana: Skaria 1997; Yolngu: Warner 1958; Zulus:
Bryant 1929). Suspicions of magical harm can even inspire
vitriol among family members, such as when a Klamath woman
slayed “her own mother for the fatal bewitchment of her child”
(Stern 1965:21). An ethnographer quoted the Santal (South
Asia) guru Kolean Haram, who summarized the sociological
and psychological stresses of witchcraft beliefs: “The greatest
trouble for Santals is witches. Because of them we are enemies of
each other. If there were no witches, how happy we might have
Other scholars argue that beliefs in mystical harm explain
misfortune. Evans-Pritchard (1937) famously proposed this
hypothesis in his report on Azande witchcraft. But the claim
that witchcraft beliefs explain misfortune cannot account for
many features of those beliefs. Most notably, why should
people suspect that group mates engineer misfortune through
magic or supernatural powers when they can already blame
gods, water demons, and other purported invisible harmful
forces? Addressing this gap, Boyer (2001) pointed out that we
are predisposed to think about other people harming us. Hu-
mans are social animals, he observed, constantly engaged in
reciprocal favors. Thus, he hypothesized, we have evolved
psychological mechanisms that often interpret misfortune ei-
ther as someone cheating us or as punishment for apparently
cheating others. As people adopt or develop explanations that
conform to these expectations, they produce beliefs in mysti-
cally powerful cheaters and cheater detectors: “People who
give others the evil eye are overreacting cheater-detectors and
witches are genuine cheaters”(Boyer 2001:200).
I borrow elements of the explanation hypothesis, but Boyer’s
formulation suffers from some of the same ﬂaws as Evans-
Pritchard’s: both leave the content of witchcraft beliefs largely
unexplained, including why people use spells or charms or why
witches transform into animals and mutilate corpses. Boyer’s
account also confronts a problematic inconsistency: if people
with the evil eye are “overreacting cheater-detectors,”then why
is the evil eye linked so often to envy (Dundes 1992), rather
than to feelings of being cheated?
Finally, many researchers connect mystical harm beliefs to
sociological events, such as the envy, inequality, and redistri-
bution associated with social change (Bohannan 1958; Coma-
roff and Comaroff 1999), the control of women (Hester 1992;
Natrella 2014), and scapegoating (Oster 2004). But these ac-
counts remain atomized and disconnected. They focus on
single determinants (such as rising inequality), most of which
apply only in some circumstances, while failing to describe
many of the features of mystical harm beliefs.
I have left out many other explanations for these beliefs,
including ones that invoke repressed sexual impulses (Cohn
1976), distorted perceptions of existing or historic cults (Mur-
ray 1921), the inadvertent consumption of ergot fungi (Alm
2003; Caporael 1976), and delusions resulting from psychiatric
illness (Field 1970). These accounts suffer from many of the
same criticisms as those reviewed above. Not only do they fail to
explain the content of mystical harm beliefs, but also they leave
open the question of how shifting conditions should elicit some
beliefs but not others.
Introducing the Tripartite Theory: Cultural Selection
I propose that mystical harm beliefs develop from the inter-
action of three cultural selective processes. Cultural selection
occurs when people preferentially retain particular practices or
beliefs, such as because they appear to more effectively produce
a desired outcome (Blackmore 1999; Boyd and Richerson 1985;
Campbell 1965; Sperber 1996). For example, the cultural se-
lection of effective killing technology occurs as people adopt
6Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
and maintain tools that kill animals or enemies. As people
modify their tools and keep the effective versions, they itera-
tively fashion technology that is well designed for killing, like
sleek spears or bows and arrows. Notably, cultural selection
occurs whenever people use culturally transmitted practices
for some desired end and they apply regular criteria to evaluate
the effectiveness of those practices. Thus, selection can pro-
duce sleek killing technology, but it can also produce chairs,
cheesecake, Disney movies, and other delights that satisfy
Cultural selective processes are signiﬁcant for two reasons.
First, they produce complex traditions that no single individ-
ual could have devised in a single moment (Henrich 2015). But
just as importantly (although less frequently appreciated), these
processes retain those traditions. A spear, for example, may be
used frequently yet remain unchanged for centuries. Although
it does not evolve, people selectively retain it for assassinating
game and enemies.
Many scholars assume that cultural selective processes are
protracted, involving generations and many individuals, but
they do not have to be. Yes, selective processes can occur over
many generations: myths demonizing Jews, for example, evolved
over decades as people throughout Europe borrowed and mod-
iﬁed each other’s existing productions (Cohn 1967). But cul-
tural selection can also produce complex beliefs on very short
timescales with many fewer participants, such as if several peo-
ple concoct, maintain, and revise heinous myths about a feared
subgroup in the hours or days following a catastrophe.
I propose that mystical harm beliefs develop from three cul-
tural selective schemes that produce and maintain (1) intuitive
techniques of harmful magic, (2) plausible explanations of mis-
fortune, and (3) myths that demonize a subgroup. The three
proposed schemes occur under different circumstances and
frequently act independently of each other, separately produc-
ing superstitions, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. But they
also interact and develop each other’s products, giving rise to
beliefs in sorcerers, lycanthropes, evil eye possessors, and ab-
horrent witches. In the following sections, I elaborate on each
of these selective processes.
Figure 1 shows that people in many societies suspect that their
misfortunes are caused by others using sorcery. Why do people
accept that sorcery works and presume that others practice it?
Here, I argue that these convictions develop from a selection
for intuitive magic. People adopt superstitions because of a
predisposition to note spurious correlations between cheap
actions (such as wearing special underwear) and important,
unpredictable outcomes (such as winning a football game). As
they then select among superstitions, they choose the most
compelling ones, driving the development and maintenance
of intuitive magic (see Singh 2018afor an expanded version of
this argument). As a consequence, people accept the efﬁcacy of
magic, including harmful sorcery, and understand that other
group mates know it and might practice it.
The Selective Retention of Intuitive Magic
People adopt superstitions (magic) to inﬂuence signiﬁcant
outcomes that are important and unpredictable. Rubbing rocks
before giving speeches, wearing special underwear during
football matches, blowing on dice before letting them roll—we
regularly use superstitions to nudge uncertainty in our favor.
Humans adopt magic or superstitions, which I deﬁne as in-
terventions that have no causal bearing on their intended
outcome, when those outcomes are important (roughly, ﬁtness
relevant) and occur randomly (Keinan 2002; Malinowski 1948;
Ono 1987). Such outcomes include victory in war, the arrival of
rain, recovery from illness, and rivals becoming sick, dying,
or suffering economic losses. That we adopt superstitions to
control these outcomes seems a result of a kind of bet-hedging
psychology. When the costs of an intervention are sufﬁciently
small relative to the potential beneﬁts (like wearing special
underwear to win a football match) and when the outcome
seems to occur sometimes after the intervention, individuals
beneﬁt on average from adopting those interventions (Johnson
et al. 2013; McKay and Efferson 2010). The predisposition to
adopt superstitions to control uncertainty provides the basis
for magical practices across human societies (Vyse 2014), in-
cluding, I propose, magic for harming others.
People selectively retain magical interventions that seem the
most effective. Magic should culturally evolve to become more
apparently effective. Humans have intuitions predisposing us
to regard some magical techniques, such as those with more
steps and repetition (Legare and Souza 2012), as more potent
than others. As magic users iteratively innovate and select these
more effective-seeming techniques, they produce intuitive magic.
People around the world share biases about how causality and
efﬁcacy work, so this selective process should produce cross-
cultural similarities in magical techniques (e.g., Nemeroff and
Rozin 2000; Rozin, Millman, and Nemeroff 1986), discussed
Ethnographic Evidence for Intuitive Magic
At its basis, a selection for intuitive magic demands that people
actually attempt to harm each other using magical means. It
also predicts that magic will be effective seeming and that
common intuitive principles will characterize both harmful
magic and other superstitions. Both claims are supported by
the ethnographic record.
People attempt harmful magic. People are notoriously ret-
icent about discussing harmful magic with ethnographers, let
alone admitting to using it (e.g., Ames 1959:264; Nadel 1954:164).
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 7
Nevertheless, researchers have successfully documented direct
and indirect evidence of people using private sorcery. During
his time with the Azande, Evans-Pritchard discovered two bun-
dles of bad medicine in one of his huts. One was engineered “to
destroy the popularity of the settlement where I lived by killing
some people and making the rest afraid to remain there”
(Evans-Pritchard 1937:402). The other was planted to kill the
anthropologist. Richards (1935) examined the magical horns
collected in a Bemba village during a witch-hunting movement
in what is now Zambia. Although the vast majority were harm-
less medicine containers, “11 out of 135 horns were admitted by
every one to be undeniably bad destructive magic, that is to say,
prepared for the injury of others”(Richards 1935:453). Research-
ers report other examples such as these (e.g., Anglo-Saxon
England: Crawford 1963; Wogeo: Hogbin 1938:231; Tlingit:
Emmons and De Laguna 1991:410), although people’s admis-
sions of using sorcery and even accounts of other people dis-
covering evidence are difﬁcult to interpret because of the pos-
sibility of deception.
Less contestable evidence of people using sorcery is the fre-
quency with which specialists sell harmful services and ma-
gicians or laypeople perform evil magic to harm out-group
enemies. Specialists sold harmful services in 26 of the 58 so-
cieties coded in the expanded MHS, while in at least 10 of those
societies, practitioners used magic and supernatural powers to
attack enemies of rival groups.
Malicious magic is governed by the same intuitive principles
as other kinds of magic. The strongest evidence that magic,
both harmful and otherwise, develops from a selection for
effective-seeming practices is that all kinds of magic are gov-
erned by the intuitive principles of sympathetic magic. Sym-
pathetic magic refers to two causal principles—the law of con-
tagion and the law of similarity (or homeopathy)—which guide
magic around the world (Frazer 1920). The law of contagion
refers to the implicit belief that “physical contact between [a
source object] and [a target object] results in the transfer of
some effect or quality (essence) from the source to the target”
(Nemeroff and Rozin 2000:3). This principle covers contami-
nation or pollution, in which a negative substance qualitatively
changes a target object, as well as notions that acting on a part
(e.g., on a lock of hair) can have an effect on the whole (e.g., the
person who once owned it). That we wrongly but frequently
believe in contagious magic seems in part a misﬁring of psy-
chological mechanisms evolved for noting contamination and
illness transmission and perhaps an overinterpreting of the
lingering effects of objects on each other (Apicella et al. 2018;
Rozin and Nemeroff 2002).
In contrast to contagion, the law of similarity or homeop-
athy refers to the impression that “things that resemble each
other at a superﬁcial level”—like a voodoo doll that resembles
a person—“also share deeper properties”(Nemeroff and Rozin
2000:3), for example, that acting on the doll produces effects
on the imitated target. It remains unclear why people so ha-
bitually make this association, but as with the law of contagion,
it likely reﬂects misﬁring biases in causal reasoning.
Frazer (1920, chap. 3) famously documented examples of
both contagious-and similarity-based magic around the world.
Among his many cases of contagious magic, he noted that
people often believe that one can affect a target by magically
treating the impressions it leaves, such asfootprints. Footprints
feature in malicious magic, as when people tamper with a
target’s prints to induce illness or pain, and in hunting magic, as
when pursuers locate the tracks of animals and doctor them to
slow the target (see table 1). Among his many examples of
similarity-based magic, Frazer (1920) documented thefrequent
Table 1. Malicious magic is governed by the same intuitive principles of sympathetic causality that structure other kinds
Examples of malicious magic
(societies with references)
Examples of other magic
(societies with references)
Treating the footprints of a target, such as to harm a person
(malicious magic) or aid in the capture or warding off of animals
Ainu (Munro 1963:113)
Azande (Lagae 1999:146–147)
Natinixwe (Wallace and Taylor
Fox (Jones 1939:23–24)
Niimíípu (Walker 1967:74) Nlaka’pamux
Siwai (Oliver 1955:87)
Tswana (Schapera 1952:45)
Persians (Massé and Messner
Manufacturing and treating an efﬁgy, such as to injure a target
(malicious magic) or induce birth or drive away neighbors
Ancient Egyptians (Budge
Egyptians (Ammār 1954:89)
Colonial New England
Pomo (Aginsky 1939:212–213)
Sami (Karsten 1955:43–44)
Examples documented by Frazer (1920).
8Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
belief that one can inﬂuence a target by creating and manipu-
lating an efﬁgy of it. Table 1 reviews examples of both malicious
and nonmalicious magic that use efﬁgies.
The selection of intuitive magic convinces people that ma-
levolent magic is effective and that others practice it. How does
this then transform into beliefs about sorcerers and witches
who cause harm?
In this section, I propose that, under certain circumstances,
people’s hypervigilant tendencies lead them to suspect that
group mates engineer inexplicable misfortunes. As they iter-
atively consider how those group mates harmed them, people
maintain a selection for plausible explanations of misfortune.
When they believe that sorcery is effective, people may suspect
and develop beliefs about sorcerers, although they may con-
sider other means of transmitting harm, such as animal trans-
formation, the evil eye, and even governmental conspiracies.
Selection for Plausible Explanations of Misfortune
People suspect distrusted group members in the wake of im-
pactful negative outcomes. Whether we lose a wallet or observe
an epidemic sweeping through our community, we commonly
attribute impactful, hard-to-explain events, especially negative
ones, to the wicked intentions of other humans (Tennen and
Afﬂeck 1990). These tendencies seem to have evolved to vigi-
lantly recognize threat (Raihani and Bell 2018). Our social lives
are marked by conﬂict, so we beneﬁt from tracing and antici-
pating when spiteful others harm us, even if it means making
occasional mistaken attributions (see error management: John-
son et al. 2013; McKay and Efferson 2010).
A growing body of literature, most of it in the psychological
sciences, shows that a person is most likely to suspect other
people for causing some misfortune under four conditions:
(1) the person feels threatened (Abalakina-paap et al. 1999;
Mashuri and Zaduqisti 2015; Mirowsky and Ross 1983; Saal-
feld et al. 2018), (2) they are distrustful of others (Abalakina-
paap et al. 1999; Raihani and Bell 2017; van Prooijen and
Jostmann 2013), (3) they confront an event that is hard to ex-
plain (Rothschild et al. 2012; van Prooijen and Douglas 2017;
van Prooijen and Jostmann 2013), and (4) that hard-to-explain
event is impactful (McCauley and Jacques 1979; van Prooijen
and Douglas 2017; van Prooijen and van Dijk 2014).
These conditions are enlightening for two reasons. First,
they provide evidence for adaptive hypotheses of paranoid
thinking. People beneﬁt from identifying mean-spirited rivals
who conspire to harm them, so it is reasonable that our psy-
chology has evolved to seek out these individuals when they are
most likely to harm us. Second, identifying these conditions
generates predictions for the contexts under which people are
most likely to develop beliefs in mystical harm. If some adap-
tive psychological machinery provides a psychological foun-
dation for sorcery and witchcraft, then the conditions that
trigger that psychology should in turn breed suspicions of
mystical harm. I discuss these predictions in “Ethnographic
Evidence for Plausible Explanations of Misfortune.”
People selectively retain plausible explanations for how group
mates harmed them. Humans constantly seek explanations
(Frazier, Gelman, and Wellman 2009; Lombrozo 2006). When
your money purse goes momentarily missing in a coffee shop
and you suspect the waitstaff or your fellow patrons, you au-
tomatically consider the various ways that they might have ac-
complished their misdeed. You deem some explanations like-
lier than others—for example, that it was stolen once rather
than stolen and returned and then stolen again or that it was
stolen by the grungy crust punk rather than by the well-to-do
suburban family to his left. The process of inferring an expla-
nation by comparing hypotheses against eachother and selecting
the best among them is known as “inference to the best expla-
People suffer many hard-to-explain misfortunes, such as
illness, the death of a loved one, and a burned-down house. I
propose that as they search for explanations for how suspected
rivals engineered those harms, they retain the most plausible
explanations. A distrustful person whose livestock dies, for
example, will search for an explanation for how a rival com-
mitted the act. They will consider explanations that they have
learned, concoct other stories, and ask knowledgeable group
mates. As other people suffer similar inexplicable injuries and
as people share their conclusions and suspicions with each
other, communities spin more and more conceivable tales for
how heinous group members abused them from afar. When
people believe in the efﬁcacy of malicious magic (following
“Magic”), it provides a sufﬁcient and parsimonious answer,
easily accounting for invisible, distant harm.
In societies without strong beliefs in magic, this selective
process still occurs, although it converges on different expla-
nations. One explanation is that powerful governments mas-
termind misfortune. In his analysis on paranoia in US politics,
Hofstadter (1964) noted that people often attribute their trou-
bles to distrusted governments or the puppeteers controlling
them, such as the Catholics, Freemasons, and Illuminati. Bar-
kun (2013) showed that these theories evolve. The conspiracy
theorist Milton Cooper, for example, tweaked and synthesized
existing theories about the Illuminati, the CIA, the Kennedy
assassination, observations of cattle mutilations, and the AIDS
epidemic. His super-conspiracy theories comprehensively ex-
plained both the momentous and the puzzling, producing an
unparalleled appeal. As I was writing this, his 1991 book Behold
aPaleHorse(Cooper 1991) ranked 2,998th among all books on
Amazon.com, besting the highest-selling editions of The Iliad,
War and Peace,andUncle Tom’sCabin.
Beliefs about mystical practitioners should evolve like con-
temporary conspiracy theories. Over time, they should become
more internally consistent and plausible while encompassing a
wider set of inscrutable events.
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 9
Ethnographic Evidence for Plausible
Explanations of Misfortune
I have argued that beliefs in mystical harm develop to explain
how distrusted group mates attacked a person from afar. At
least two basic predictions follow: (1) beliefs in mystical harm
should track distrust and suspicions of harmful intent and
(2) malicious practitioners should be suspected of causing ca-
lamitous, negative events, especially ones for which people lack
alternative explanations. Meanwhile, that these beliefs develop
from a selection for the most plausible explanations clariﬁes
why malicious practitioners often associate with, and trans-
form into, animals.
Accusations of mystical harm track distrust and suspicions
of harmful intent. People who suffer calamity overwhelmingly
suspect individuals with a presumed interest in harming them.
When several girls fell into possessed ﬁts in Salem Village in
1692, many of the girls’families’political rivals were suspected
of attacking the girls and their allies (Boyer and Nissenbaum
1974). Among the Azande, “a witch attacks a man when mo-
tivated by hatred, envy, jealousy, and greed. . . . Therefore a
Zande in misfortune at once considers who is likely to hate
him”(Evans-Pritchard 1937:100). For the Trobriand Islanders,
“the passions of hatred, envy, and jealousy”are expressed “in
the all powerful sorcery of the bwaga’u[sorcerer] and muluk-
wausi [witch]”(Malinowski 1922:395). Many ethnographers
studying other societies have made similar comments (e.g.,
Tlingit: De Laguna 1972:730; Tikopia: Firth 1954:114; Ona:
Gusinde 1971:1102; Tukano: Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971:156–
157; Pawnee: Weltﬁsh 1965:337).
People regard envy in particular as a potent, malicious emo-
tion. Not only do they suspect that envious individuals want to
harm them, but also in societies everywhere, people believe that
the emotion itself transmits mystical harm, such as through
covetous stares (the evil eye) or jealous compliments (the blast-
ing word; Dundes 1992). Beliefs in the harmful effects of envy
likely exist because, as experimental research demonstrates,
envy drives malice. Individuals who experience envy are more
likely to injure better-positioned targets (Miceli and Castel-
franchi 2007; Smith and Kim 2007) and even derive pleasure
when envied persons suffer (Smith et al. 1996; van de Ven et al.
2015). Thus, a person who expresses envy betrays a desire to
harm, making them a key suspect after things go wrong.
The theory proposed here also predicts that beliefs about
witches, sorcerers, and evil eye possessors should prosper in
communities with lower levels of trust compared to those
with higher levels. This explains why mystical harm beliefs
increase with conditions that exacerbate distrust, such as grow-
ing inequality and the resulting rise in envy (e.g., Lederman
Mystical harm explains impactful and unexplainable mis-
fortunes. I argued that paranoid tendencies intensify when the
impact of a misfortune is high and it is unexplainable. If beliefs
in mystical harm develop from these tendencies, people should
fault malicious practitioners for high-impact and inexplicable
People overwhelmingly accuse malicious practitioners of
causing impactful hardship. Of the 83 practitioners or prac-
tices in the MHS, at least 78% were said to cause illness, 77% death,
30% economic trouble, and 16% catastrophes (such as hailstorms
or epidemics). In total, 94% were reported as producing at least
one of those outcomes.
Ethnographic descriptions often focus on the inexplicability
of these hardships (e.g., Nsenga: Reynolds 1963:19; Kerala
Brahmins: Parpola 2000:221). The Navajo attributed illnesses
to witchcraft when they were “mysterious from the Navaho
point of view”or “persistent, stubbornly refusing to yield to
usual Navaho treatment”(Kluckhohn 1944:54). Other strange
circumstances, such as the appearance of unexplained tracks,
were taken as further evidence. When the Tiwi experienced a
decrease in mortality from ﬁghting, raids, and neglected wounds,
they attributed the resulting increase in natural deaths to a rise in
poison sorcery (Pilling 1958:123).
People attribute random calamities aside from death, di-
saster, illness, and material loss to mystical malice. Ten of the
83 practitioners in the MHS were said to produce sterility;
12 inﬂuenced love and attraction. Witches in colonial New
England were rumored to cause clumsiness, falling, ﬁres, for-
getfulness, barrenness, deformed children, spoiled beer, storms,
sleep paralysis, and unusual behavior in animals (such as a cow
wandering off or a sow knocking its head against a fence;
Karlsen 1987). Table 2 includes every example of harm or
misfortune recorded in the MHS that does not qualify as death,
injury, love, sterility, catastrophe, or economic trouble. Nearly
all are inexplicable and bothersome.
Animals associated with mystical harm explain impactful
misfortune and invisible harm. Those animals associated with
malevolent supernatural practitioners provide further evi-
dence that these beliefs serve as compelling explanations of
misfortune. Table 3 displays all of the animals associated with
harmful practitioners recorded in the MHS, separated into
those animals believed to be transformed practitioners and
those animals that act as their servants, steeds, or helpers.
A cursory glance reveals that many of the animals fall into
one of two categories. First are those creatures responsible for
calamities, such as human-killers and crop destroyers. Snakes,
bears, tigers, wolves, and crocodiles all attack humans, leaving
9. Analyzing Pew survey data in 19 sub-Saharan African countries,
Gershman (2016) reported a robust negative correlation between the
prevalence of mystical harm beliefs and several measures of trust. He
acknowledged that the evidence was correlational yet preferred the in-
terpretation that mystical harm beliefs erode trust. This is reasonable—
people who understand illness and death to be the handiwork of evil group
members should grow more distrustful of them—but the proposed theory
also predicts the opposite direction of causality. As I discussed, people who
distrust others should suspect them of causing unexplainable misfortunes,
and sorcery provides a parsimonious explanation.
10 Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
wounded individuals searching for explanations. Hypervigi-
lant people should immediately suspect their enemies, and
ethnographic descriptions show that this frequently occurs. To
the Akan, snakes bring “sudden and most unpleasant death,”
so “anyone who has a narrow escape from a snake comes to ask
who sent it and why”(Field 1970:130). Archer (1984:486)
recorded an incident among the Santal of South Asia when a
man was mauled by two bears. He soon consulted a witch
ﬁnder to learn who was behind the attack.
Another class of ruinous misfortune is the destruction of
crops. The Akan accused witches of becoming squirrels, rats, crop
worms, antelopes, bushpigs, cows, bulls, dogs, and red deer—but
all of those suspicions followed incidents when those animals
consumed or destroyed a person’s harvest (Debrunner 1961).
The second major category includes those animals, such as
owls, nightjars, ﬂying foxes, and ﬁreﬂies, whose alliance or
transformation explains how dark practitioners commit their
wickedness unseen. In all of these instances, people seem con-
ﬁdent that a group mate harmed them and, noticing these
animals ﬂitting about, consider their appearance to be the miss-
ing explanatory piece for how a distrusted rival harmed them.
Several animals do not fall into the above categories, but
their associations with malicious practitioners still seem to
parsimoniously explain puzzling events. The Tlingit believed
that witches could become porpoises and sea lions, but these
suspicions occurred when those animals behaved enigmati-
cally, lacking “the normal fear of human beings displayed by
ordinary wild animals”(de Laguna 1972:731). Thus, an ailing
sea lion that remained near people’s houses and porpoises that
swam too close to shore were suspected of being metamor-
Hyenas were associated with malicious magicians among
the Wolof, Amhara, and Lozi, in addition to many cultures not
included in the MHS, such as the Kaguru of Tanzania (Bei-
delman 1975) and Persians in medieval India (Ivanow 1926).
This association seems to be the result of demonizing narra-
tives feeding back on plausible explanations. If people believe
that certain individuals have superpowers and feast on human
ﬂesh (as shown in ﬁg. 1 and discussed in the next section), they
should start to suspect transformation when they witness
nocturnal hyenas digging up corpses.
The above two processes fail to explain the extreme heinous-
ness of witches, such as their cannibalism and graveyard con-
spiracies. Here, I propose that these features develop from a selec-
tion for demonizing narratives—speciﬁcally, from a selection for
those traits that justify the mistreatment of accused prac-
titioners and even spur other group mates to remove them.
Selection for Demonizing Narratives
People promote demonizing narratives when they want to jus-
tify mistreatment of a group. The cannibalism, conspiratorial
Table 2. Every example of harm or misfortune recorded in the Mystical Harm Survey (MHS) that does not relate to death,
injury, sickness, love, sterility, catastrophe, or economic trouble (citations appear in the MHS data set)
MHS practitioner ID Harm or misfortune
Akan, obayifo/witch, 1 Accidents (including lorry accidents), bad behavior of wife, becoming a drunkard, burned-down
house, cracks in buildings, ill luck, poor performance on school exams, pregnant men
Amhara, buda/evil eye, 3 Croaking or worsening of singer’s voice
Aymara, laiqa/sorcerer, 8 Accidents, failure in ﬁshing
Azande, aboro mangu/witch, 9 Burned-down hut, coldness of prince toward subject, failed magic, ruined performance
of witch doctor, sulkiness or unresponsiveness of wife
Azande, aira kele ngwa/sorcerer, 10 Outcome of divination (poison oracle)
Azande, irakörinde/possessor of teeth, 11 Broken items, including stools, pots, and bowls
Azande, women’s sexual magic, 12 Bad luck
Chukchee, sorcery, 22 Losing strength while wrestling, slowing down in a footrace or reindeer race
Chuuk, souboud/sorcerer, 23 Disturbed growth, falling or tripping during competition (basketball)
Dogon, yadugonu/witch, 27 Temporary muteness
Highland Scot, buidseachd/witchcraft, 40 Stuck or overturned truck
Hopi, bowaka/witch, 42 Malicious gossip, misbehavior of children
Iroquois, witch, 47 Confusion in sports competitions
Lau Fijians, raw eyes, 61 Skin discoloration (i.e., becoming tan)
Lozi, muloi/witch, 64 Inability to perform acrobatics, inability to score during football
Ojibwa, windigo/cannibal spirit, 71 Overturned canoes
Pawnee, witch, 74 Stopped rain
Santal, sorcery, 77 Deception
Saramaka, sorcery, 78 Boat accidents
Tarahumara, sukurúame/sorcerer, 89 Outcomes of competitions (e.g., races), twins
Tiv, mbatsav/witch, 91 Appearance of bald spots, bad dreams, burned clothes, “whatever goes wrong if there is no more
Tlingit, land otter sorcery, 93 Disappearance
Italicized name is the indigenous term for the practitioner or practice, followed by the ethnographer’s term or translation.
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 11
meetings, and existential threat posed by witches are peculiar
commonalities, but they are not unique. Sociologists studying
moral panics and elimination campaigns in Western contexts
have documented similar “folk devils,”with target groups rang-
ing from youth subcultures (Cohen 1972) to Jews (Cohn 1966,
1967). Their analyses, together with insights from psychological
research, reveal why these narratives recur with such consistency
around the world.
Folk demonization usually occurs because one group, here-
after, the Campaigners, wants to justify the mistreatment of
another, hereafter, the Targets (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009).
Targets can be social groups, such as Jews or heretics, but they
can also be those people who engage in a particular behavior,
like LSD users (Goode 2008).
Campaigners demonize Targets for several nonexclusive
reasons, including (1) competition, such as when removing
Table 3. Every example in the Mystical Harm Survey (MHS) of practitioners either transforming into animals (including the
practitioner’s soul entering or becoming an animal) or working with animals (including spirit familiars taking animal form;
citations appear in the MHS data set)
MHS practitioner ID Animals into which practitioners transform
Akan, obayifo/witch, 1 Antelopes, bulls, bushpigs, centipedes, cows, crop worms, crocodiles, dogs, hyenas, leopards, lions,
lizards, owls, rats, red deer, snakes (including poisonous ones), squirrels, tsetse ﬂies
Amhara, buda/evil eye, 3 Hyenas
Azande, aboro mangu/witch, 9 Bats
Bahia Brazilians, lobishomem/werewolf, 15 Wolves
Dogon, lycanthrope, 28 Eagles, panthers
Eastern Toraja, topokantoe/sorcerer, 29 Snakes
Eastern Toraja, taoe mepongko/werewolf, 30 Buffalo, cats, deer, dogs, pigs, white ants
Garo, lycanthropy, 36 Any beast or reptile, including crocodiles, snakes, and tigers
Hopi, bowaka/witch, 42 Animals including coyotes, foxes, lizards, and wolves
Iroquois, witch, 47 Any animal, including dogs, pigs, turkeys, and owls
Kapauku, meenoo/cannibal, 53 Dogs, hawks
Lozi, muloi/witch, 64 Hyenas, lions
Mataco, ayīeu/sorcerer, 68 Horses, jaguars, venomous reptiles (including rattlesnakes)
Santal, tonhi/witch, 76 Bears
Serbs, vještice/witch, 79 Insects, reptiles, sparrows
Tiv, mbatsav/witch, 91 Chicken leopards (?), crocodiles, foxes, leopards, lions, monkeys, owls, witch cats (?), other birds
Tlingit, nukwsati/witch, 92 Cranes, geese, owls, porpoises, sea lions
Trobriand Islanders, yoyova/ﬂying witches, 94 Fireﬂies, ﬂying foxes, night birds
Wolof, doma/witch, 101 Ants, cats, donkeys, hyenas, monkeys, owls, snakes, vultures
Animals associated with practitioners (e.g., familiars, mounts)
Akan, obayifo/witch, 1 Antelopes, bats, chameleons, cocks, crabs, dogs, eagles, electric ﬁsh, goats, horses, houseﬂies,
leopards, lions, lizards, lice, owls, rats, smart hawks (?), snakes (including black mambas, black
snakes, green mambas, puff adders, pythons, spitting cobras, thrush striped snakes), soldier ants,
tsetse ﬂies, wasps, weaver birds, wolves
Amhara, buda/evil eye, 3 Hyenas
Aymara, laiqa/sorcerer, 8 Nighthawks, owls
Azande, aboro mangu/witch, 9 Nocturnal birds and animals including bats, jackals, and owls
Bahia Brazilians, lobishomem/werewolf, 15 Dogs
Bemba, muloshi/witch, 17 Magical birds, owllike birds
Blackfoot, medicine, 18 Spiders
Chukchee, sorcery, 22 Dogs, reindeer
Eastern Toraja, taoe mepongko/werewolf, 30 Black cats, snakes
Eastern Toraja, taoe meboetoe/werewolf, 31 Black cats
Garo, lycanthropy, 36 Animals that live in the forest, including elephants, crocodiles, snakes and other reptiles, and tigers
Hopi, bowaka/witch, 42 Lizards
Lozi, muloi/witch, 64 Jackals, lizards, nightjars, owls, rats, water snakes
Ojibwa, witchcraft, 72 Snakes, wolverines
Pawnee, witch, 74 Owls
Santal, tonhi/witch, 76 Dogs, tigers
Serbs, vještice/witch, 79 Birds, insects, small reptiles, snakes
Tarahumara, sukurúame/sorcerer, 89 Invisible birds
Tiv, mbatsav/witch, 91 Cats, nightjars, owls, snakes
Tzeltal, witch, 100 Snakes
Italicized name is the indigenous term for the practitioner or practice, followed by the ethnographer’s term or translation.
12 Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
Targets opens up resources, (2) existential fear, such as when
Targets are believed to threaten Campaigners, and (3) moral
campaigns, such as when Campaigners want to curb a certain
behavior. The foundations of these motivations can be legiti-
mate, like if removing victims frees up beneﬁts that the Cam-
paigners can enjoy (e.g., Philip IV’s motivation to arrest the
Knights Templar: Barber 2006), or mistaken, such as when
Campaigners wrongly understand Targets to be threatening
(e.g., panics about satanic groups: Victor 1989).
To mistreat Targets, Campaigners must often gain the ap-
proval of other group mates—hereafter, the Condoners. They
can secure this approval by promoting sensational myths that
justify abusing the Targets. People might craft these myths
deliberately, as in many propaganda campaigns(e.g., Desforges
1999), but they can also do so unconsciously. People reﬂexively
attend to and exaggerate evidence that supports their goals and
their claims (Kunda 1990; Nickerson 1998), a tendency argu-
ably designed to sway others (Mercier and Sperber 2011).
As Campaigners reﬁne portrayals of Targets that justify and
urge violence, they selectively retain demonizing narratives.
The iterative crafting of heinous myths about Jews illustrates
this process. For example, Cohn (1967) tracked the history of
The Rabbi’s Speech, a fabricated speech by a chief rabbi de-
scribing the Jews’plot to control ﬁnance and undermine
Christianity. The speech started as a ﬁctional chapter in an
1868 novel recounting a conspiratorial meeting between rep-
resentatives of the 12 tribes of Israel and the Devil. In the
years afterward, the chapter was borrowed, modiﬁed, distrib-
uted in pamphlets, and reprinted as purported fact. In an 1881
version from France, the many speeches had been consolidated
into a single address, the satanic element was absent, and a
note was included explaining that the document came from a
forthcoming book by an English diplomat, vouching for its
Demonizing narratives develop and are maintained during
stressful uncertainty. For demonizing narratives to ﬂourish,
Condoners need to believe them. But this is often not the case
because people are armed with cognitive adaptations that
recognize and protect against deception (Sperber et al. 2010).
In fact, ethnographers occasionally report people’s skepticism
about the existence or portrayals of evil magicians (e.g., Tswana:
Condoners should be gullible or credulous in at least two
conditions. First, they should accept information when it comes
from inﬂuential or trusted sources, such as religious authorities
or the media. Second, and more relevantly, people should be-
come receptive when they need valuable information, especially
during times of unexplainable stress. Research on social learn-
ing and gossip shows that uncertainty, especially about impor-
tant events, motivates individuals to pursue social information
(Boyd and Richerson 1988; Laland 2004; Morgan et al. 2012;
In conclusion, times of unexplainable disaster breed para-
noid suspicion while leaving injured parties intensely credu-
lous. This combination of mistrust and gullibility allows fearful
or exploitative campaigners to invent abominable witches.
Ethnographic Evidence for Demonization
Witches are well designed to induce punitive outrage. In
“Cross-Cultural Patterns,”I showed that witches exhibit many
common features, two of the most striking being (1) their
threatening nature and (2) their moral abhorrence, especially
their cannibalism and deﬁlement of human bodies. These
behaviors ignite severe punitive ire, encouraging violence to-
ward those actors.
Depicting a group as an existential threat—organized and
secretive yet powerful and conspiratorial—is effective because,
in short, people want to remove threats. A vast literature shows
that people are more willing to invest in collective action when
they feel existentially threatened (e.g., Berry 2015; Johnson and
Frickel 2011; Maher 2010). Meanwhile, researchers note that
people use past harms committed by a group to justify violence
and mistreatment toward it (Sullivan et al. 2012) and people
forgive aggressors when reminded of these wrongs (Wohl and
Branscombe 2009). If narratives develop to maximally support
and provoke violence toward demonized Targets, Targets should
be portrayed as representing as large a threat as is believable.
Aside from conspiratorially plotting destruction, witches en-
gage in atrocious behaviors, most frequently cannibalism and
corpse desecration but also acts such as necrophilia (e.g., Navajo:
Kluckhohn 1944) and incest (e.g., Apache: Basso 1969; Kaguru:
Beidelman 1963). What accounts for their pervasiveness? As read-
ers can attest, these acts trigger an intense, visceral moral outrage
(Haidt, Björklund, and Murphy 2000). For the !Kung, “the two
worst sins, the unthinkable, unspeakable sins, are cannibalism
and incest”(Marshall 1962:229), while among the Comanche,
“the very idea that one of them might under stress eat another
person was vigorously repulsed”(Wallace and Hoebel 1952:70).
In fact, the repugnance at cannibalism is so intense that some
societies even claim to forbid the consumption of animals that
resemble humans, exempliﬁed in taboos on the Amazon River
dolphin and nutria (a large semiaquatic rodent) among the
Warao (Wilbert 1972:69).
One possible reason for our revulsion at acts like cannibalism
and necrophilia is that they indicate that an actor is dangerous
and not to be trusted. People may have evolved psychological
mechanisms to select social partners who are predictable and
safe. Any individual who even considers an atrocious behavior,
like consuming ﬂesh, having sex with dead bodies, or mutilating
corpses, reveals an underlying preference that makes them per-
ilous social partners (Hoffman, Yoeli, and Nowak 2015; Tetlock
2003). Our revulsion at these acts may be enhanced by feelings
of disgust, which have been shown to heighten moral judgment
(Schnall et al. 2008).
Regardless of why we abhor cannibalism and other obscen-
ities, the broader point is that those acts invite severe punitive
outrage, making them potent for justifying and urging elimina-
tion. Should some other set of behaviors provoke greater outrage,
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 13
the proposed theory predicts that witches will engage in those
instead (assuming that people will believe the accusations).
Witches resemble the demonized targets of other moral panics
and eradication campaigns. The traits of witches are sensa-
tional and atrocious, but they are not unique. Other panics and
campaigns of mistreatment—such as attacks on heretics and
dissidents, moral panics during times of stress, and conspiracy
scares—similarly transform targets into witchlike demons. Ta-
ble 4 lists some examples. Note how frequently these groups
supposedly pose existential threats and violate sacred values.
The Origins of Sorcerers, Lycanthropes,
the Evil Eye, and Witches
Table 5 displays the three cultural selective processes hypoth-
esized to be responsible for shaping beliefs in practitioners of
mystical harm. Figure 3 shows how those processes interact
to produce some of the malicious practitioners identiﬁed in
ﬁgure 1 (sorcerers, the evil eye, lycanthropes, and witches).
According to the theory outlined here, sorcerers are the
result of both a selection for intuitive magic and a selection for
plausible explanations. The selection for intuitive magic pro-
duces compelling techniques for controlling uncertain outcomes,
including rain magic, gambling superstitions, and magic aimed
at harming others, or sorcery. Once people accept that this
magic is effective and that other people practice it, it becomes
a plausible explanation for misfortune. A person who feels
threatened and who confronts unexplainable tragedy will easily
suspect that a rival has ensorcelled them. As people regularly
consider how others harm them, they build plausible portrayals
Beliefs about werewolves, werebears, weresnakes, and other
lycanthropes also develop from a selection for plausible ex-
planations. Bafﬂed as to why an animal attacked them, a per-
son suspects a rival of becoming or possessing an animal and
Table 4. The targets of moral panics and elimination campaigns resemble witches, especially by posing existential threats
and violating sacred values
Selected groups Traits ascribed (with references)
Christians, 100s, Roman Empire Worship a donkey god or genitals of priest; engage in secretive meetings, infanticide, child cannibalism,
and nighttime incestuous orgies; “threaten the whole world and the universe and its stars with
destruction by ﬁre”(Felix and Rendall 1972:337–341)
Knights Templar, early 1300s, France Deny Christ; spit, trample, and urinate on the cross; engage in homosexual practices, including disrobing
newcomers and kissing them; collect in secret meetings at night; are bound by oaths enforced by death;
swear to advance the Order at all costs, lawful or not (Barber 2006:202–203)
Fraticelli de opinione (radical Christian
sect), 1466, Rome
Enjoy nighttime orgies in crypts; sacriﬁce a small boy, make powder from his body, and consume
it communally in wine during mass (Cohn 1976:46)
Catholics, mid-1800s, United States “The anti-Catholics invented an immense lore about libertine priests, the confessional as an opportunity
for seduction, licentious convents and monasteries. . . . Infants born of convent liaisons were baptized
and then killed”(Hofstadter 1964:80–81)
Mau Mau rebels, 1950s, Kenya Mutilate victims’corpses; take secretive oaths at night that involve obscenities like public masturbation
and drinking menstrual blood (Lonsdale 1990:398–400)
Communists, 1965, Indonesia Murder, torture, and castrate generals; woman’s Communist group dances naked at night;
plot nationwide purge of anti-Communists (Wieringa 2011; Henry 2014)
Tutsis, early 1990s, Rwanda Send women to seduce Hutu and inﬁltrate positions of power; plot a war to reestablish control, massacre
Hutu, and establish Nilotic empire across Africa; admire Nazis and engage in cannibalism; elders kill
and pillage and rape girls and women (Desforges 1999:72–83)
Table 5. The three cultural selective schemes responsible for beliefs in practitioners of mystical harm
Cultural selective scheme: What is
being selectively retained?
Contexts: When should
we expect it to occur?
Features of beliefs in mystical harm: Which features
of mystical harm beliefs does this process produce?
Intuitive magic (sec. 5): effective-
seeming interventions for harming
or killing others
When people want to harm rivals That harm can be transmitted through sympathetic means
(contagion, similarity); that harmful magic is effective
and that others do it
Plausible explanations (sec. 6):
explanations for impactful misfortune
Following unexplainable, harmful
misfortune, especially when people
are distrustful or persecuted
That impactful and unexplainable harm is caused by magic
and supernatural powers; that malicious practitioners are
envious or offended; that they associate with animals,
especially human-killers and nighttime or tiny animals
Demonizing narratives (sec. 7):
narratives that justify and urge
mistreatment of a target group
When inﬂuential individuals aim
to remove a subgroup; during
That malicious practitioners are threatening (e.g., conspire,
kill); that they violate sacred values (e.g., eat corpses)
14 Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
stalking them at night. This explanation becomes more con-
ceivable as the lycanthrope explains other strange events and
as conceptions of the lycanthrope become more plausible.
Many societies ascribe transformative powers to other mali-
cious practitioners (see table 3), suggesting that people also
suspect existing practitioners after attacks by wild animals.
Beliefs in the malignant power of stares and words likewise
develop to explain misfortune. As reviewed above, people
around the world connect jealousy and envy to a desire to
induce harm. Thus, people who stare with envy or express a
compliment are suspected of harboring malice and an inten-
tion to harm. A person who suffers a misfortune remembers
these stares and suspects those people of somehow injuring
them. In regularly inferring how envious individuals attacked
them, people craft a compelling notion of the evil eye.
Why suspect the evil eye rather than sorcery? There are at
least two possibilities. First, an accused individual may ardently
vow not to know sorcery or to have attacked the target (see
these claims among the Azande, both described in text [Evans-
Pritchard 1937:119–125] and shown in ﬁlm [Singer 1981, min-
ute 21). Alternatively, given beliefs that effective sorcery re-
quires powers that develop with age, special knowledge, or
certain experiences, it may seem unreasonable that a young or
unexperienced group mate effectively ensorcelled the target. In
these instances, the idea that the stare itself harmed the target
may provide a more plausible mechanism.
The famous odious, powerful witch, I propose, arises when
blamed malicious practitioners become demonized. People who
fear an invisible threat or who have an interest in mistreating
competitors beneﬁt from demonizing the target, transforming
them into a heinous, threatening menace. Thus, witches rep-
resent a conﬂuence of two and sometimes all three cultural se-
In ﬁgure 1, I show that beliefs about malicious practitioners
exist along two dimensions. The tripartite theory accounts for
this structure. All of the practitioners displayed are plausible
explanations of how group mates inﬂict harm. One dimension
(sorcery, evil eye) distinguishes those explanations of misfor-
tune that include magic (sorcerers) from those that do not (evil
eye, lycanthrope). The other dimension shows the extent to
which different practitioners have been demonized. In short,
all beliefs about harmful practitioners are explanations; some-
times they use magic, sometimes they are made evil.
The proposed theory generates many predictions for how
shifting conditions should drive changes in beliefs about ma-
licious practitioners. I refer to several of these throughout the
paper. Here are 10 such predictions (the sec. of the paper is
noted in quotation marks when a prediction is discussed):
1. People are more likely to believe in sorcerers as sorcery
techniques become more effective seeming.
2. People are more likely to ascribe injury to mystical harm
when they are distrustful of others, persecuted, or otherwise
convinced of harmful intent (“Accusations of Mystical Harm
Track Distrust and Suspicions of Harmful Intent”).
3. The emotions attributed to malicious practitioners will
be those that most intensely and frequently motivate ag-
gression (“Accusations of Mystical Harm Track Distrust and
Suspicions of Harmful Intent”).
4. People are more likely to attribute injury to mystical
harm when they lack alternative explanations (“Mystical Harm
Explains Impactful and Unexplainable Misfortunes”).
5. The greater the impact of the misfortune, the more likely
people are to attribute it to mystical harm (“Mystical Harm
Explains Impactful and Unexplainable Misfortunes”).
6. Practitioners of mystical harm are more likely to become
demonized during times of stressful uncertainty.
7. The traits ascribed to malicious practitioners will become
more heinous or sensational as Condoners become more trust-
ful or reliant on information from Campaigners.
8. Malicious practitioners will become less demonized when
there is less disagreement or resistance about their removal.
9. The traits that constitute demonization will be those that
elicit the most punitive outrage, controlling for believability
(“Witches Are Well Designed to Induce Punitive Outrage”).
10. Malicious practitioners whose actions can more easily
explain catastrophe, such as those who employ killing magic
compared with love magic, will be easier to demonize.
The Cultural Evolution of Harmful Beliefs
Social scientists, and especially those who study the origins of
religion and belief, debate over whether cultural traditions
Figure 3. Shown are the three selective schemes responsible for
beliefs in practitioners of mystical harm: intuitive magic, plausible
explanations, and demonizing narratives. Practitioners of mystical
harm are in boldface; examples of other practices and beliefs are in
roman. The intersection of demonizing narratives and intuitive
magic is ﬁlled because no beliefs should exist there—any demon-
izing narrative in which the target uses magic should also blame the
target for terrible events, shifting them to the center.
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 15
evolve to provide group-level beneﬁts (Baumard and Boyer
2013; Norenzayan et al. 2016). Reviving the analogy of society
as an organism, some scholars maintain that cultural traits de-
velop to ensure the survival and reproduction of the group
(Wilson 2002). These writers argue that traditions that un-
dermine societal success should normally be culled away, while
traditions that enhance group-level success should spread (Boyd
and Richerson 2010).
In this paper, I have examined cultural traits with clear so-
cial costs: mystical harm beliefs. As sources of paranoia, dis-
trust, and bloodshed, these beliefs divide societies, breeding
contempt even among close family members. But I have ex-
plained them without invoking group-level beneﬁts. Focusing
on people’s (usually automatic) decisions to adopt cultural
traditions, I have shown that beliefs in witches and sorcerers
are maximally appealing, providing the most plausible expla-
nations and justifying hostile aims. Corrosive customs recur as
long as they are useful and cognitively appealing.
I thank Mia Charifson for research assistance and Steve
Worthington at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social
Science for statistical help. Nicolas Baumard, Ronald Hutton,
Graham Jones, Ted Slingerland, Dylan Tweed, Max Winkler,
Richard Wrangham, two anonymous reviewers, and members
of the Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution Lab at Harvard
University shared comments on the manuscript. Luke Glowacki
provided detailed feedback on the manuscript. This paper and
the ideas presented in it are much clearer as a result of his in-
cisive suggestions. This research was funded by a graduate re-
search fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
College of Arts and Sciences, Washington University, CB 1114,
1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, Missouri 63130-4899, USA
(email@example.com). 23 VI 20
Cultural Attractors and Mystical Harm: How to
Extend and Reﬁne Singh’s Model
One major obstacle to the emergence of a proper evolutionary
anthropology is the lack of systematic databases. Evolutionary
biology developed on the basis of the vast accumulation of facts
from natural history. In the same way, we badly need evidence
for cultural variation and recurrent representations. So Manvir
Singh should be commended for carefully documenting re-
current notions of mystical harm and witchery—a theme that
all anthropologists know is of enormous social import in many
human societies, yet is often explained in impressionistic terms.
Singh does much more than that in this target article, pro-
viding a statistical account of associations between the many
features of witchery/mystical harm notions, as well as a set of
hypotheses about their psychological underpinnings. Taking
these ﬁndings as a starting point, it might be relevant to ask
how we could go further in accounting for this remarkable
1. The results of principal component (PC) analysis are in-
triguing, as they suggest two components, glossed by Manvir
Singh as “witchiness”(PC1) and “sorcery/evil eye”(PC2). It is
of course slightly speculative to treat these as dimensions, but
that is also hard to resist. Speciﬁcally, these may seem to cor-
respond to two relevant dimensions of the ways harm doers are
construed. In this view, PC1 would describe the extent to which
cultural representations of the perpetrators include attention-
grabbing elements such as supernatural, counterintuitive fea-
tures, or salient norm violations (higher for “witches”and much
less so for sorcerers). By contrast, it seems that PC2 charts the
extent to which the agents are described as deliberate rather
than unwitting vectors of harm. Evil eye is frequently described
as involuntary—just feeling envy may make you a source of
misfortune for others. Would Singh consider this a plausible
2. Notions of witches, evil eye, sorcery, and more constitute
cultural attractors, that is, positions in conceptual space that
are more likely than others to be instantiated in cultural rep-
resentations as a result of transmission and reconstruction
(Claidière, Scott-Phillips, and Sperber 2014). These notions are
perpetually reinvented and reshaped as a result of communi-
cation and inference, creating local as well as cross-cultural
attractors (Morin 2016). A common interpretation for the oc-
currence of particular attractors across many cultures is that
they “ﬁt”(in a way to be deﬁned more precisely) some intuitive
expectations common to human minds (Sperber and Hirsch-
In “Introducing the Tripartite Theory: Cultural Selection,”
Singh writes that harm beliefs result from various “cultural
selective schemes,”but it is not clear where those schemes
reside. Do they consist of attractors, that is, mere probabilities
of occurrence? Or are they more than that, being causal factors
that inﬂuence the frequencies of speciﬁc cultural traits? That is
very much what the rest of the discussion implies, describing
the different schemes in terms of psychological dispositions,
for example, for superstition, explanation of misfortune, and
ostracism. In each case, then, claims concerning the cultural
effects of a scheme crucially depend on how much strong and
independent evidence we have for the various dispositions in
question. Clearly, Singh is careful to avoid ad hoc stipulations
here. Yet the model would beneﬁt from a more speciﬁc de-
scription of the psychological processes involved. For instance:
3. Consider the disposition to seek what Singh calls “plau-
sible explanation[s] for misfortune.”Singh is probably on the
right track here, but we may need a much more speciﬁc psy-
chological model before this cultural selection scheme can be
considered explanatory. Singh describes these accounts of mis-
fortune as “plausible,”which they certainly are, given speciﬁc
cultural assumptions. As he describes it, people in a small-scale
16 Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
community may “consider explanations that they have learned,
concoct other stories [so that] . . . communities spin more and
more conceivable tales for how”witches inﬂict misfortune on
others. This description assumes that explanations become
better as they are more widely circulated, which may well be the
case (although we do not really have many empirical studies of
the process), prompting the question, What guides this con-
structive and reconstructive process? Assuming that the stories
get honed through transmission toward a local attractor, what
psychological processes explain the speciﬁcpositionofthat
attractor in conceptual space? Singh does mention several psy-
chological facts, for example, that humans “regard envy in par-
ticular as a potent, malicious emotion.”But that is unsatisfac-
tory. We explain people’s belief that misfortune is caused by
jealous witches as a result of their assumption that jealousy is an
emotion that can transmit harm. But that latter assumption,
surely, is a crucial part of mystical harm belief, something that
the model should explain rather than consider the explanation.
4. This leads to a more general issue, to do with the use of
psychology in the description of the cultural selection schemes.
Singh makes use of psychological generalizations that seem
plausible enough but are themselves left unexplained. To take
the most central one, it is probably true that people everywhere
want an explanation for whatever misfortune befell them. But
why is that the case? We may all think of this urge as natural,
but that is only because, as normal human beings, we share it.
That is not an explanation. What evolutionary pressure would
result in a mind that focuses on such questions? In what sense
does this focus contribute to ﬁtness? Assuming that we hu-
mans focus on past misfortune to avoid it in the future will make
us fall from the pan into the ﬁre. Now we must explain why
human minds focus on aspects of misfortune that are clearly
irrelevant to prediction and precaution. Thinking that your car
crash was caused by your in-laws’jealousy is not helpful at all.
The model needs more work, it seems. It is vulnerable to
criticism, including my rather extravagant demands for more
research, more psychology, more evolutionary modeling, and
more, but that is because it actually says something precise and
relevant concerning a crucially important social phenomenon,
in contrast to many previous anthropological theories that
were not even wrong, as physicists would say. We can antici-
pate much-needed progress in our models of mystical harm
beliefs in evolutionary anthropology and psychology, stimu-
lated by this splendid comparative work.
Peter T. Leeson
Department of Economics, George Mason University, MS 3G4,
Fairfax, Virginia 22030, USA (firstname.lastname@example.org). 29 XI 19
Harmful Magic, Helpful Governance
Singh explains the development of harmful magic “without
invoking group-level beneﬁts.”Suppose that his explanation is
correct. Harmful magic may still provide group beneﬁts, and
where it is prevalent, it probably does.
Just as a screwdriver can open cans although it was devel-
oped to drive screws, so can a belief or practice serve the group
although it developed to please psychologies, explain misfor-
tunes, justify hostile acts, or do anything else. Consider, for
example, shamanism. According to Singh (2018a), shaman-
ism, similar to harmful magic, develops from cultural selection
for cognitively appealing superstitions—to gratify the mind,
not serve the group. Nevertheless, as Singh (2018b) acknowl-
edges, “Shamans likely provide beneﬁts to clients or the
group”(48). By the same token, so does harmful magic.
Belief in harmful magic enables a technology for governing
the group: the expectation that members you have rankled will
target you with such magic. It is wise, then, to try to avoid
rankling members of your group and, when that fails, to re-
solve matters with those you have rankled. Belief in harmful
magic practitioners who are evil—witches—extends this tech-
nology. It encourages participation in activities that are per-
sonally costly but that beneﬁt the group, like partaking in group
sanctions of problematic members and hazarding your life
in combat with enemy groups. Perception of such parties as
witches magniﬁes their perceived threat and hence your per-
ceived payoff for contributing to actions against them. It also
magniﬁes the deterrent to becoming a problematic group mem-
ber or defecting to an enemy group, lest you be perceived as a witch.
These incentives have protected real and intellectual prop-
erty rights (Leeson 2014a; Suchman 1989), enforced contracts
(Leeson 2013a, 2014a), strengthened tax compliance (Leeson
2013b), resolved conﬂicts (Leeson 2014c), and supported so-
cial insurance (Posner 1980) in groups where harmful magic
beliefs and related superstitions are prevalent. Alas, they are
not the only incentives that harmful magic creates. Harmful
magic, like conventional weapons, may be used for predation
as well as protection, and witch beliefs that encourage partic-
ipation in activities that beneﬁt the group may also be ex-
ploited for personal gain at the group’s expense.
only is harmful magic a source of property rights and public
goods but also, as Singh stresses, “as sources of paranoia,
distrust, and bloodshed, these beliefs divide societies, breeding
contempt even among close family members.”A dubious
governance technology, without question. Yet that technology’s
effect on group welfare hinges on a different question that Singh
ignores: Compared with what?
Compared with a governance technology such as modern
American government, harmful magic is “societally corrosive”
indeed. American government, too, sometimes sows paranoia,
distrust, and bloodshed (e.g., the 1992 Los Angeles riots),
breeds division and contempt among family members (e.g.,
estate litigation), and even produces the odd “witch hunt”(e.g.,
10. I thank A. Fuente Añejo for stimulation.
11. For one (infamous) example, see Leeson and Russ (2018).
12. This question is critical to understanding seemingly suboptimal
institutions in general but especially those based on superstitions. See,
e.g., Leeson (2012, 2014b).
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 17
the Smith Act trials). Still, it governs vastly better than harmful
Compared with a governance technology such as modern
Liberian government, however, harmful magic fares differ-
ently. Liberian government is corrupt, dysfunctional, and of-
ten inaccessible (International Crisis Group 2006; Isser, Lub-
kemann, and N’Tow 2009; Leeson and Coyne 2012).
harmful magic—witch-hunting warts and all—govern better
than this technology or no governance technology at all? Harm-
ful magic does not need to govern well or even halfway decently
to beneﬁt the group; it just needs to govern better than the
That is a low bar to clear when the group’s governance op-
tions are severely constrained. Unlike harmful magic, the ap-
purtenances of superior governance—adequate police forces,
competent judges and lawyers, clerks, jailers, ﬁne collectors,
institutions to control these agents—require enormous re-
source outlays, and many of their costs are ﬁxed. Thus, while
wealthy societies can afford superior governance, poor socie-
ties cannot. Poor societies may skirt this constraint if they in-
habit nation-states that provide superior governance and they
have ready access to state institutions. But where nation-states
provide lousy governance or such access is lacking, the gov-
ernance menu for poor societies is short and grim: there are
dubious governance technologies like harmful magic, and
there are probably worse.
Which begs the further question: Where is harmful magic
prevalent? If Singh’s examples are representative, it is preva-
lent where the governance alternatives are probably worse
than harmful magic. The societies in Human Relations Area
Files’Probability Sample File are “tribal and peasant societies”
(Behavior Science Notes 1967:81), in other words, societies
whose governance options are severely constrained.
poor; further, most are located in dysfunctional nation-states or
nation-states with governance that is hard to access.
century Europe was poor and poorly state governed, too.
Despite this, Singh describes harmful magic beliefs as ubiq-
uitous. That may be true in one sense: a sufﬁciently large pop-
ulation is bound to contain some people who profess belief
in most anything. What seems far more important, however, is
variation in the prevalence and social signiﬁcance of harmful
magic beliefs, variation that I suspect is immense and tracks
variation in the severity of societies’governance constraints.
No doubt, some members of wealthy societies believe in
harmful magic, but their share, I hazard, is comparatively
small. Who needs sorcery when you have responsive police,
reliable courts, and the rule of law?
I have supposed that Singh’s explanation of how harmful
magic develops is correct. In fact, while I ﬁnd his account fas-
cinating, I am skeptical that social scientists can learn the
psychological roots of people’s beliefs. I am conﬁdent, how-
ever, that we can learn how people’s beliefs affect their incen-
tives and, therefore, behavior. The incentives that harmful
magic creates and thus also its governance outcomes are se-
riously ﬂawed. But they are probably less ﬂawed than the al-
ternatives amid severe constraints, and it is amid such con-
straints that harmful magic seems to be prevalent.
Ryan McKay and Richard P. Bentall
Department of Psychology, University of London, Royal Holloway,
Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, United Kingdom (email@example.com
.uk)/Department of Psychology, University of Shefﬁeld, Cathedral
Court, 1 Vicar Lane, Shefﬁeld S1 2LT, United Kingdom. 12 XII 19
Malign Magic and Delusional Belief
Singh presents a rich cross-cultural analysis of “mystical harm”
beliefs. Here we brieﬂy discuss the strengths of Singh’s anal-
ysis, which addresses a form of human belief that is easily
dismissed by Western readers as irrational. We then take up
Singh’s rejection of psychiatric explanations of mystical harm
phenomena and use this as a springboard for considering some
broader issues, particularly the relationship between patho-
logical and nonpathological belief.
Singh observes that attributions about malign magic are
found in “nearly every documented society”and goes on to
explain this phenomenon in terms of cultural selection pro-
cesses, by which beliefs are retained, elaborated, and propa-
gated according to their apparent effectiveness in interpreting
the world. Three such processes are identiﬁed, with all three
being required for the belief in harmful magic: selective re-
tention of intuitive magic that seems to “work,”selection of
plausible (other blaming) explanations of misfortune, and se-
lection of demonizing narratives that stigmatize rivals in terms
of negative traits. A strength of this analysis is that it leads to
testable predictions that Singh enumerates, but it is also worth
highlighting that beliefs are unlikely to be retained if they donot
in some sense “mesh”with widely held cognitive dispositions
(which may be biologically evolved or culturally entrenched).
If magical harm beliefs are the result of cultural selection,
sustained at the individual level by cognitive biases, it is puz-
zling that these beliefs are not evident in the developed, in-
dustrialized nations. Singh hints at several points that con-
spiracy theories might be an analogue, and indeed there is now
a considerable literature documenting how widespread con-
spiracist beliefs are in European and North American society
(Brotherton 2015). However, as these beliefs concern how
everyone is victimized by untrustworthy agents, a better ana-
logue might be paranoid beliefs in which individuals believe
that they are speciﬁcally targeted for victimization. Although
paranoid beliefs are a common symptom of psychosis, there
is compelling evidence that they exist on a continuum with
13. This despite the nominal similarity of Liberian and American
14. The Probability Sample File excludes “modern, industrial socie-
ties”(Ember and Ember 2019), hence also the subset that is wealthy.
15. See the Fragile States Index (http://fragilestatesindex.org/).
16. See the Maddison Project Database (http://www.rug.nl/ggdc
18 Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
subclinical forms of suspiciousness about others’intentions
(Elahi et al. 2017).
This observation raises the question of the relationship
between pathological and nonpathological belief. In develop-
ing his account of mystical harm beliefs, Singh explicitly avoids
invoking “delusions resulting from psychiatric illness.”While
we do not ourselves posit an equivalence between clinical de-
lusions and culturally sanctioned beliefs in “malicious mystical
practitioners,”we believe that it is instructive to consider the
parallels and differences between these phenomena (see Ben-
tall 2018; Ross and McKay 2017, 2018).
Although standard diagnostic manuals provide scope for
delusional beliefs to be shared among individuals (Arnone,
Patel, and Tan 2006; Langdon 2013), this kind of sharing is
rare, and patients with clinical delusions typically reject the
beliefs of other deluded patients, even if the beliefs are similar
(Rokeach 1964). Prominent theoretical models therefore ex-
plain clinical delusions in terms of endogenous deviations from
normal cognitive processes, reﬂecting the prevailing psychiatric
view that they are detached manifestations of underlying pa-
thology (Radden 2011). Indeed, a disjunction between an in-
dividual’s beliefs and those widely accepted in their sociocul-
tural milieu may be precisely what renders them delusional
(Bentall 2018; see Murphy 2013).
Consistent with this view, Bell, Raihani, and Wilkinson (2019)
have recently argued that explanations of delusions should in-
corporate a role for coalitional cognition (Boyer, Firat, and van
Leeuwen 2015). Other theorists have suggested that we can
signal our benevolence to fellow group members by the kinds of
beliefs we adopt and express (Kahan 2016; Levy 2019). In this
view, beliefs are like tattoos or uniforms, markers of group
membership. Indeed, holding steadfast to certain beliefs in the
face of patently contradictory evidence (Schaffner and Luks
2018) may be the doxastic equivalent of taking part in a painful
ritual, a costly signal of commitment to a cultural group on
which one depends (Soler 2012; Xygalatas et al. 2013). In delu-
sions, however, the incorrigibility is arguably not instrumental—
it is not a means of sending adaptive social signals. Deluded
individuals, in this view, cannot effectively marshal belief to
negotiate social situations, and they also cannot exploit social
information to calibrate their beliefs (Bell, Raihani, and Wil-
kinson 2019; Bentall 2018).
These differences notwithstanding, delusional and nonde-
lusional beliefs may have much in common. An ironic fact: a
failure to identify with social groups may be a key risk factor
for the development of delusions (McIntyre, Wickham, and
Bentall 2018), yet just as social relationships are a preoccu-
pation for healthy individuals, most delusions are socially
themed (Bell, Raihani, and Wilkinson 2019). We have already
noted the obvious parallel between persecutory delusions and
the beliefs in malicious mystical practitioners that Singh anal-
yzes. A vivid example of such coextensive contents is provided
by Connors and Lehmann-Waldau (2018), who report a Cau-
casian patient who believed that his penis had been stolen and
replaced with someone else’s (he cited reduced penile length as
evidence for this belief). The parallel with social epidemics of
the belief that one’s genitals can be magicked away by malicious
practitioners is unavoidable (e.g., Ilechukwu 1992) and implies
a homologous relation.
The analysis of any widely held belief system requires at-
tendance to (i) the cognitive propensities that undergird the
contents of the relevant beliefs (Miton and Mercier 2015) and
(ii) the cognitive and cultural factors that determine the par-
ticular forms these beliefs take and their dissemination in spe-
ciﬁc groups (Mesoudi 2016). With regard to beliefs in malevolent
practitioners, one might invoke a continuum of susceptibility
to intentional agent explanations of anomalous experiences
(e.g., ﬂuctuations in penis size), itself underpinned by differ-
ences in cognitive style (Ross, Hartig, and McKay 2017). Ab-
sent a cultural schema of relevant malevolent practitioners
(e.g., penis thieves; Bures 2016), only individuals at the extreme
of this continuum of coalitional cognitive dysfunction (Bell,
Raihani, and Wilkinson 2019) will develop full-blown perse-
cutory beliefs (e.g., Connors and Lehmann-Waldau 2018), and
without cultural scaffolding, these individuals will attract
medical attention. In the context of cultural support for “ma-
levolent agent”explanations, however, individuals across a
larger portion of the continuum may adopt the belief, at which
point relatively minor deviations from rationality at the level
of individuals may generate serious pathology at the group level.
Sarah Peacey and Ruth Mace
Department of Anthropology, University College London,
14 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW, United Kingdom
(firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com). 6 XII 19
We welcome Singh’s novel and intriguing use of quantitative
methods to examine the phenotypes of practitioners of mys-
tical harm. Singh’s principal components analysis (PCA) dem-
onstrates for the ﬁrst time, in a systematic way, how the
characteristics of possessors of the evil eye and witches are
different but not distinct and are recurrent in diverse societies.
Although there is a substantial body of work on witchcraft
beliefs, mainly by social anthropologists and historians, there is
so far only a limited amount of quantitative cross-cultural re-
search on the subject. This is a useful contribution to this growing
interest in the subject in the evolutionary behavioral sciences.
In terms of the tripartite theory that Singh proposes, we
were unclear on how the selection for more credible-seeming
magical techniques and particularly those of harmful magic
would work in a practical sense. As Singh notes, the use of
harmful magic is a difﬁcult area to document or test with ac-
curacy. For these beliefs to exist in populations, they must
appear credible, and spurious causal connections, rituals, and a
search for explanations also contribute to this. But we would
query how necessary the performance of harmful spells and
charms actually is in some societies with a fear of witchcraft,
which includes strong fears of being accused. Although indi-
viduals do attempt to use black magic to harm others, as Singh
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 19
and ethnographers have noted (Mair 1969), this may not be
necessary for accusations to take place or for belief in mystical
harm to be widespread within certain societies.
It seems that “cultural selection”here means something al-
most the same as cognitive bias. We would place greater em-
phasis on the second and third processes of selection: plausible
explanations of misfortune and demonizing narratives. While
Singh is not commenting that those performing harmful magic
are necessarily the same as those who are accused of it, doc-
umented accusations seem to be less preoccupied with the
mechanism of witchcraft and more with the identiﬁcation and
motivation of the witch (e.g., Thomas 1971), for example, fol-
lowing conﬂict between the accused and the accuser. In nu-
merous cases, it seems unlikely that “witches”have attempted
to bring misfortune on others, such as with accusations docu-
mented against children, which frequently occur in speciﬁc
contexts. There are instances when children are brought up by
stepparents or distant relatives, and a witchcraft accusation
may remove the need to provide for a burdensome individual
(Cimpric 2010; Secker 2013). The same can be inferred from
accounts in which the elderly are accused of witchcraft
(Foxcroft 2017; Miguel 2005a). Accusations may provide
(through their demonizing narrative) a convenient way of
severing ties while protecting the reputation of an accuser: it
may be better to be seen as expelling a heinous witch than a
harmless but unproductive relative who is a drain on resources.
Witchcraft can also be conceived of as an unconscious, in-
nate trait (e.g., McCulloch 1952), which illustrates, as dem-
onstrated by Singh’s PCA, the tendency of supernatural beliefs
to overlap with one another. Many of those accused of witch-
craft unrelated to the evil eye are young, particularly in more
recent years (e.g., Adinkrah 2011; Foxcroft 2017; Secker 2013).
Similarly, evidence from a number of societies suggests that
individuals with the evil eye are not thought to be particularly
young (Chaudhuri 2012; Reminick 1974; Spooner 1970), but
further research is required in this area. As mentioned above,
often the plausibility of an individual’s ability to undertake
harmful magic seems less important than the circumstances
leading to accusations or suspicions (Sarah Peacey, unpub-
lished PhD thesis).
It is also worth noting that when the distinction between sor-
cerers and witches, as originally observed by Evans-Pritchard
in the Azande (1937), was investigated by subsequent anthro-
pologists in a number of societies (Douglas 1967), it became
apparent that the Azande’s precise distinction between the
types of practitioner did not generalize to all cultures (e.g.,
Douglas 1967; Hutton 2017; Mair 1969; Thomas 1971).
We support Singh’s concluding observation that witchcraft
beliefs are not a group-level adaptation. Mace et al. (2018)
found no evidence to suggest that those accused of witchcraft
were uncooperative. In some instances, individuals accused of
witchcraft are described as antisocial in ethnographic accounts;
this does not seem to apply to all cases (Sarah Peacey, unpub-
lished PhD thesis). Witchcraft beliefs and accusations do not
seem to us to operate as a mechanism for intragroup cooper-
ation. Instead, it appears that they are largely explained by their
adaptive functions as a causal explanation for misfortune and as
a means of removing competitors and burdensome individuals.
Robin Schimmelpfennig and Michael Muthukrishna
Department of Organizational Behavior, University of Lausanne,
Bâtiment Internef, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland (robin
.firstname.lastname@example.org)/Department of Psychological and
Behavioural Science, London School of Economics and Political
Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, United Kingdom
(email@example.com). 13 XII 19
What Ultimately Predicts Witchcraft and Its
Variation around the World?
Witchcraft and related beliefs, such as evil eye, are a normal
feature of life for many across the world. Our scientiﬁc sepa-
ration of these “supernatural”forces from the natural is ar-
guably weird (Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan 2010; Saler
1977), but since the proposed mechanisms that turn malicious
intent into maleﬁcent outcomes contradict our best under-
standing of how the world works, their persistence and ubiq-
uity require explanation. Singh offers a compelling explanation
building on known psychology, but because this explanation
relies on universal psychology, it falls short of explaining why
these beliefs have varied across societies and over time. Figure 4
(Winkler 2017) illustrates both how widespread these beliefs
are and how much they vary. And as a range of studies (e.g.,
Gershman 2016; Mace et al. 2018; Schnoebelen 2009) illustrate,
while witchcraft still affects everyday life in many places in
Asia, Africa, South and Central America, Oceania, and even
parts of south, central, and eastern Europe, many western
Europeans, Americans, and Australians may have never even
heard of evil eye. How do we explain this variation?
Here, we propose a cultural evolutionary theory to explain
this cross-cultural and cross-temporal variation that forms
part of our ongoing work on competition between scales of
cooperation (Muthukrishna 2017; Muthukrishna et al. 2017).
Evil eye in particular is a puzzling belief because it incentivizes
people to reduce conspicuous consumption and other forms of
status signaling (Dundes 1981) that would otherwise lead to
inﬂuence, mating opportunities, and other social beneﬁts. We
argue that these beliefs can be rationalized as culturally evolved
adaptations to different levels of resource availability that
change the disparity in relative returns on competition (the
ratio of payoffs between winners and losers; “disparity in rel-
ative returns”) and the different degrees to which wealth can be
accumulated and protected (what we might call “property rights”
as a shorthand). This explanation also helps explain why hunter-
gatherers have relatively lower levels of witchcraft and evil eye
beliefs and relatively higher levels of egalitarian norms (Boehm
2001; Cashdan 1980; Guenther 1992; von Rueden 2019).
The explanation is as follows: In all societies, people com-
pete, and the returns on this competition lead to social beneﬁts
such as inﬂuence, mating opportunities, and offspring outcomes,
20 Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
but the nature of that competition differs among societies. In
some societies, the relative returns to winners compared with
losers are much higher. For example, if resources are scarce
and the world is more zero-sum, then one person’s success
predicts another’s failure. The winner has taken a piece of a
small pie that the losers can never get back. In contrast, if
resources are plentiful, the world may be more positive sum,
and one person’s success may be predictive of another’s suc-
cess. For example, in a growing economy, if the coffee business
is booming, you would do well to open a café yourself. The
relative returns on this competition lead to differences in rel-
ative status and the pathways to relative status, in turn leading
to different optimal behaviors. In the zero-sum world, harm-
ing others, even at a cost to oneself, may raise one’s relative
status. In a positive-sum world, working harder to secure yet-
untapped resources may be a more fruitful strategy. That is, the
former incentivizes destructive competition and the latter
productive competition. We see some evidence of this behav-
ior in cross-cultural work on the Joy of Destruction game, in
which players can destroy another’s endowment at a cost but
with no direct beneﬁt to themselves. The tendency to do this is
much higher in Namibia than in Ukraine or the Netherlands
(Abbink and Herrmann 2011; Abbink and Sadrieh 2009; Pre-
diger, Vollan, and Herrmann 2014), and even within the Na-
mibian sample, Prediger et al. (2014) show that pastoralists
from more resource-scarce areas engaged in signiﬁcantly more
destructive behavior compared with pastoralists from high-
yield areas. Connecting this to witchcraft beliefs, Miguel (2005)
ﬁnds similar patterns in a positive relationship between ex-
treme rainfalls (ﬂood and drought) and witch killings.
The second dimension in our explanation is the level of
property rights, the degree to which property can be accumu-
lated and protected. A society with high property rights dis-
incentivizes destructive behavior. Many of these dynamics are
captured by Gershman (2015, 2016), who also shows that witch-
craft beliefs correlate with levels of competitiveness, property
rights, and inequality and affect productivity and economic
growth, human development, and social well-being. Gershman
argues for evil eye beliefs as a culturally evolved mechanism for
reducing conspicuous consumption and status signaling under
conditions that incentivize destructive competition. Building
on this reasoning, we argue that relative returns and property
rights, which are a joint function of the environment and in-
stitutions, shape destructive versus productive competitive be-
haviors and furthermore behaviors associated with witchcraft
and evil eye beliefs. We can derive the following predictions,
which are stylized in ﬁgure 5.
To summarize our argument, evil eye is a culturally evolved
mechanism reducing the temptation to advertise status in a
world in which that higher relative status would incentivize
destructive behavior. Witchcraft is an intuitive mechanism, as
Singh argues, for representing the tendency of others wanting
to harm the successful in unobservable ways to avoid retalia-
tion. We predict that those with high or increasing status are
more likely to suppress signaling their success under condi-
tions of weak to moderate property rights and moderate to
high disparity in relative returns. We further predict that harm
will be directed at those with higher or increasing status and
with whom we are in direct competition. Elon Musk sending
his Tesla Roadster into orbit is cool, but my neighbor buying a
Tesla is annoying. We have no speciﬁc prediction as to who
will be perceived as a witch; however, we expect that within
these same societies, witch hunts are triggered by factors that
create unexpected inequality, such as heterogeneity in mis-
fortune (or fortune). The destruction of everyone’s houses in a
hurricane may increase destructive competitive behavior by
Figure 4. Shown are witchcraft and evil eye beliefs around the world (Winkler 2017) based on the Pew survey question “Do you
believe in the ‘evil eye’or that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone?”
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 21
creating a more zero-sum situation but is less likely to trigger a
witch hunt than is the destruction of only a subset of houses.
Rather than recognizing their place in a probability distribu-
tion, people target those who escaped misfortune or increased
their fortune. Extending this argument, decreases in economic
growth leading to increased inequality and increased resource
scarcity (Piketty 2017) might lead to an increased perception
of zero-sumness triggering relatively more destructive compe-
tition (tempered by the strength of property rights). We hope
that this perspective offers an ultimate theory to complement
Singh’s fascinating argument and together explains both the
existence of these beliefs and their variation.
Science, Delusion, Explosive Cockroaches, and Other
Issues Surrounding Witchcraft and Sorcery
The commentators ﬁnd value in the systematic comparison,
beg for clariﬁcation, challenge empirical claims, propose alter-
native explanations, and, in one case, express skepticism about
whether psychology can tell us much about the origins of be-
liefs. All agree that mystical harm beliefs are puzzling and im-
portant. All are enthusiastic and thoughtful. Thank you.
The commentators’many points can be organized into ﬁve
What Do the Principal Components Mean?
Boyer understands the two components of the principal com-
ponents analysis (PCA) to be “relevant dimensions of the ways
harm doers are construed.”I agree. He writes that PC1, which
tracks features like cannibalism, ﬂight, and nighttime conspir-
acies, captures the extent to which representations of per-
petrators are attention-grabbing. That differs from my inter-
pretation, which is that PC1 represents how demonized a
representation is, that is, the extent to which it inspires outrage
and violence toward the accused. It is true that outrage-
inducing descriptions are also attention-grabbing, but Boyer’s
interpretation raises a simple question: Why these attention-
grabbing features? Lots of things, including torn scrotums, rats
living in a person’s anus, and cockroaches exploding out of a
person’s arm, grab attention (Heath, Bell, and Steinberg 2001),
yet PC1 includes a particular set of features: heinous acts, su-
pernatural powers, and threatening behaviors. Given that these
also inspire punitive collective action (“Witches Are Well
Figure 5. Shown are predictions for different disparities in relative returns and property rights mapped to stylized versions of dif-
ferent societies. Our identiﬁcations of different types of societies are only examples; the world is more complicated than the model. For
example, there are hunter-gatherer societies with more accumulation of wealth and property rights and corresponding higher witchcraft
and evil eye beliefs; within any nation there are differences in resource availability, disparity in relative returns, redistribution, security of
property rights, and so on. Nonetheless, we do expect that this model can explain broad patterns.
22 Current Anthropology Volume 62, Number 1, February 2021
Designed to Induce Punitive Outrage”) and that people level
them at other despised subgroups (table 4), I favor the de-
Boyer also writes that PC2 appears to distinguish deliberate
from unwitting vectors of harm. I agree with this interpretation
and add that deliberate harm is often tied to learned harmful
magic, while unwitting harm is often tied to inherent traits.
What Is Cultural Selection, and How Does
It Connect to Human Psychology?
Two sets of authors (Boyer; Peacey and Mace) ask for clariﬁ-
cation about the theory of cultural selection used in the article
and its relation to cognitive biases. Cultural selection, as dis-
cussed in the article, is the mechanism by which cognitively
attractive culture develops. As the taste designer Harold Mar-
kowitz observed, “The mind knows not what the tongue wants”
(Gladwell 2004:130). Cultural products can be appealing, yet
they still require a process of experimentation and exploration
to be discovered. People have ends that they are motivated to
achieve, such as attacking rivals, explaining misfortune, and
spurring or justifying violence against subgroups. As they pur-
sue these ends and preferentially adopt and pass on variants
that seem to work best, they over time craft culture into forms
evaluated as best achieving these desires. I have referred to this
process—the selective retention of variants subjectively eval-
uated as best satisfying psychological goals—as subjective or
evaluative cultural selection (Singh 2020).
Do Some Aspects of the Tripartite Theory
Lack Empirical Support?
Boyer writes that there is little evidence that explanations be-
come “better”(e.g., more plausible) as they are circulated. In
the article, I cited research suggesting that conspiracy theories
become broader and more appealing with time (Barkun 2013),
but I recognize that more work should be done.
Peacey and Mace question whether the fear of mystical harm
really requires that people perform harmful spells and charms.
Rather, they suggest, beliefs about witches and everyday sor-
cerers might develop mostly from the second and third pro-
cesses (plausible explanations and demonizing narratives).
Although I suspect that fears of evil sorcery will intensify when
others actually use dark spells (prediction 1 in “Ten Predictions”),
it is possible that beliefs in sorcerers can emerge and spread
without anyone using magic. Even if this were true, the larger
argument would hold: mystical harm beliefs develop not be-
cause of their individual- or group-level beneﬁts but because
they culturally evolve to satisfy ends that humans are moti-
vated to achieve (explanation and demonization).
Are Beliefs in Mystical Harm
Peacey and Mace support my conclusion that witchcraft be-
liefs are not group-level adaptations. Yet two sets of authors
(Leeson; Schimmelpfennig and Muthukrishna) disagree. They
argue that witchcraft beliefs promote group-level beneﬁts and
that such functional hypotheses should be taken seriously,
especially because they can explain the decline of witchcraft
beliefs among rich, educated, industrialized Westerners.
Echoing a long-standing anthropological literature (e.g.,
Whiting 1950), Leeson presents what we can call the good
neighbor hypothesis: If people believe that others have dark
powers, they are better behaved. They avoid offending others,
and when they fail, they work harder to resolve conﬂict. Be-
lieving that wrongdoers are heinous, people are especially mo-
tivated to sanction them, and they are further deterred from
acting badly to avoid being branded witches themselves.
I argued against the good neighbor hypothesis, highlighting
that mystical harm beliefs just as often seem to undermine co-
operation by sparking distrust and social schism. Leeson agrees
that the beliefs have these effects yet contends that mystical harm
beliefs are better than the alternatives, such as governments that
are “corrupt, dysfunctional, and . . . inaccessible.”But the
alternatives to witchcraft beliefs are not corrupt governments
(or no governments at all). They are gods and local spirits.
They are supernatural forces that punish bad behavior without
sowing suspicion and ill will (Boehm 2008). The Mbuti of
Central Africa described a forest being, Toré, who punished
quarrels and disrespect by unleashing leopards, withholding
game, and causing trees to fall (Turnbull 1965). The Mentawai
people of Siberut Island, Indonesia, claim that a punitive water
spirit attacks nonsharers—a belief demonstrated in their will-
ingness to pay for costly healing ceremonies at the expense of
other treatments (Singh and Henrich 2021). And the Saramaka
of French Guiana expect that anything that triggers anger leads
to retribution—not (just?) because the offended person uses
evil magic but because their avenging spirit devotes itself to
tormenting the matrilineal relatives and descendants of the
offender (Price 1975). Societies seem capable of sustaining be-
liefs in moralistic supernatural enforcement without inciting
the turmoil and paranoia characteristic of witchcraft beliefs.
Schimmelpfennig and Muthukrishna present a slightly dif-
ferent account that I will refer to as the smothered envy hypoth-
esis. They argue that beliefs in mystical harm curb destructive
behavior. In zero-sum contexts, they point out, people are
motivated to destroy each other’s relative gains. The belief that
envious people can transmit harm inspires rich people to hide
their wealth, in turn reducing others’motivation to destroy.
You might want to smash my car if I ﬂashily drive it around,
but if I suspect that your envy can hurt me, I will hide the car
away, conveniently removing your destructive impulse. The
smothered envy hypothesis predicts that witchcraft beliefs
should be most common in contexts where destructive be-
havior is most likely: particularly, those in which competition
is zero-sum rather than positive sum and destructive behavior
is most possible (“lower security of property rights”).
I commend the authors for outlining a hypothesis that makes
clear predictions. And I agree that empirical evidence suggests
that suspicions of mystical harm increase with rising local
Singh Magic, Explanations, and Evil 23
differences in wealth (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999). But as
currently formulated, the smothered envy hypothesis confronts
two important limitations.
The ﬁrst is that it is unclear why beliefs in mystical harm are
required. Suppose that we live in a society ripe for the sort of
destructive behavior Schimmelpfennig and Muthukrishna
describe: Competition is zero-sum, and property rights are
insecure. Any rich fellows who ﬂaunt their things invite others
to attack them. Do we really need beliefs in witchcraft and the
evil eye? Or will people simply stop showing off their wealth
once they learn that doing so invites trouble? People regularly
engage in higher-order thinking to evade violence: They avoid
certain neighborhoods. They walk with buddies and in lit streets.
They carry weapons. They are quick to retaliate to maintain
honorable reputations. Is the implication that they are capable
of all of this, plus much more, yet they fail to realize that ﬂashing
their wealth invitesviolence and theft? This seems unlikely. As I
currently understand the smothered envy hypothesis, mystical
harm beliefs seem unnecessary.
The second limitation is that the mechanism of the hypoth-
esis remains unclear. Suppose that a society rapidly transi-
tions from positive sum to zero-sum. If beliefs in witchcraft
shift soon afterward, as Schimmelpfennig and Muthukrishna
suggest, how does this happen? One answer might be cultural
group selection (CGS), but which mechanism of CGS is ca-
pable of such rapid adaptive change? Evidence from warring
New Guinea groups suggests that interdemic CGS occurs on
the scale of hundreds, even thousands of years (Soltis, Boyd,
and Richerson 1995). Migration-based CGS similarly seems
too slow (Boyd and Richerson 2009). CGS by success-biased
transmission might be fast enough (Boyd and Richerson 2002)
but still seems unlikely: variation presumably needs to be
generated rapidly enough to quickly produce beliefs in mys-
tical harm yet also slowly enough that such beliefs stick around
long enough to produce appreciable effects on group-level suc-
cess. Another possibility is that inﬂuential leaders concoct
group-functional beliefs (Singh, Glowacki, and Wrangham
2016; Singh, Wrangham, and Glowacki 2017), but it is unclear
why they should so frequently rely on this particular means of
stiﬂing destructive behavior rather than on the other super-
natural beliefs discussed above.
These are limitations of the group-functional accounts, but
they are not insurmountable. I have spent so much space ad-
dressing these accounts because, as Boyer put it, those accounts
aim to say “something precise and relevant concerning a cru-
cially important social phenomenon.”Although I have been
critical, I am excited at the prospect of sharpening and testing
alternative explanations of mystical harm beliefs.
Why Have Mystical Harm Beliefs Declined
in Industrialized Western Countries?
Beliefs in mystical harm are still widespread and destructive
(Forsyth 2016; Singh 2019). They are notoriously sticky (Legare
and Gelman 2008). Yet as several commentators point out, they
are far less common in contemporary industrialized Western
Group-functional accounts attribute the decline in mystical
harm beliefs to their no longer being useful (Leeson; Schim-
melpfennig and Muthukrishna). But their decline coincided
with a dramatic upheaval in worldviews, at a time when many
beliefs apparently unrelated to cooperation also disappeared
(Wootton 2015). Compare, for instance, an average educated
Englishman in 1600 to one in 1733, two years before the En-
glish Parliament made it illegal to accuse someone of practicing
witchcraft. According to Wootton (2015), the Englishman in
1600 believed not only in witches but also in werewolves, uni-
corns, alchemy, astrology, sympathetic magic, dreams as omens,
rainbows as omens, the factual nature of The Odyssey, the
spontaneous generation of mice in straw, and the tendency for
murdered bodies to bleed in the presence of murderers. His
1733 counterpart believed in none of these. During the inter-
vening years, a new epistemological tool kit—one that focused
on direct experience and rigorous experimentation—developed
and spread. The decline in mystical harm beliefs seems a result
not of their shifting social value but of the scientiﬁc revolution
and the corresponding transformation in how people evaluated
information. This supports the point by McKay and Bentall
that “beliefs are unlikely to be retained if they do not in some
sense ‘mesh’with widely held cognitive dispositions (which
may be biologically evolved or,”critically, “culturally entrenched).”
Still, I agree with McKay and Bentall that analogues of
mystical harm beliefs exist in industrialized societies today and
that it is useful to consider the parallels between mystical harm
beliefs and persecutory delusions in particular. The two are not
equivalent, as they note, but the common ﬁxation on malev-
olent intentions suggests shared cognitive underpinnings.
McKay and Bentall write that shared delusional beliefs are rare,
but, insofar as clinical delusions and mystical harm beliefs can
shed light on each other, these seem the most informative case
studies. Whether people suspect that their penises were stolen,
that they have been impregnated with puppies (Chowdury et al.
2003), or that their lives are being broadcast on a reality tele-
vision show (Gold and Gold 2012), a shared delusion must
percolate through a network and, it seems, take a form that
appeals to a wider swath of the population than does a solitary
delusion. Shared delusions might clarify not just the cognitive
foundations of mystical harm beliefs but also the social dy-
namics shaping their form and distribution.
Abalakina-paap, Marina, Walter G. Stephan, Traci Craig, and W. Larry
Gregory. 1999. Beliefs in conspiracies. Political Psychology 20(3):637–647.
Abbink, K., and B. Herrmann. 2011. The moral costs of nastiness. Economic
Inquiry 49(2):631–633, https://doi.org/10/cr6rpr. [RS/MM]
Abbink, K., and A. Sadrieh. 2009. The pleasure of being nasty. Economics
Letters 105(3):306–308, https://doi.org/10/fdq2fm. [RS/MM]
Adinkrah, M. 2011. Child witch hunts in contemporary Ghana. Child Abuse
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