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ghost, divination, and magic among the Yi

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Title: Ghost, Divination, and Magic among the Nuosu: An Ethnographic Examination from Cognitive
and Cultural Evolutionary Perspectives
Author: Ze Hong ab1 (ORCID: 0000-0002-5343-3008)
Author Affiliations:
a Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Avenue, 02138,
Cambridge, MA, United States
b Department of Sociology, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, 310058, P. R. China
Keywords: Magic; Divination; Nuosu; Cultural Evolution; Cognition
1 To whom correspondence should be addressed:
Author Biographical Sketch
Ze (Kevin) Hong is a behavioral scientist who studies human behavior and culture from evolutionary
and cognitive perspectives. He obtained a bachelor's degree in Biology from Grinnell College, a master's
degree in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD in Human Evolutionary
Biology from Harvard University. He is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology
at Zhejiang University and a research associate in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at
Harvard University. Research-wise, Hong uses methodologically diverse approaches (e.g., theoretical
modeling, quantitative analysis of historical data, ethnographic fieldwork) to study human behavior and
culture, with special attention paid to information processing at the individual level and information
transmission at the population level. His publication appears in diverse journal venues such as Current
Anthropology, Behavior and Brain Sciences, Human Nature, Human Ecology, Religion, Brain &
Behavior, Journal of Theoretical Biology, and Cognitive Science. His current field sites include the Yi in
southwest China and the Wa in China-Burma border where he focuses on the psychological and social
factors that sustain divination and magic practices.
I present a detailed ethnographic study of magic and divination of the Nuosu people in southwest China,
and offer a cognitive account of the surprising prevalence of these objectively ineffective practices in a
society that has ample access to modern technology and mainstream Han culture. I argue that in the
belief system of the Nuosu, ghosts, divination, and magical healing rituals form a closely inter-
connected web that gives sense and meaning to otherwise puzzling practices, and such belief system is
importantly supported and reinforced by individuals’ everyday experiences. Contemporary Nuosu
people overwhelmingly treat these practices as instruments for achieving specific ends and often
entertain considerable uncertainty regarding their efficacy, which may be over-estimated for a number of
reasons, e.g., 1) the intuitive plausibility of divination for ghost identification and exorcist rituals is
enhanced by the belief in the existence of ghosts as a result of abductive reasoning, 2) negative instances
(divinatory or healing ritual failures) are under-reported, and 3) people’s mis-perception of the
probability of uncertain events’ occurrence often prevents them from realizing that the efficacies of
magical/divinatory practices do not outperform chance. I conclude with some suggestive comments on
the generality of the psychological and social mechanisms discussed.
1. Introduction
In anthropology, magic (divination is usually classified as a subtype of magic) have always been
prominent themes since the time of Tylor (1871) and Frazer (1890). What is the nature of magic, and
why do humans perform these seemingly ineffective actions? Some early theorists treated magic as
having the same goal as modern science: to explain, predict, and control worldly events (Horton, 1967),
while later anthropologists largely reject such intellectualist interpretations and shift their focus towards
either the symbolic and conventional aspects of magic (Keita, 2007; Tambiah, 1990; Tedlock, 2006) or
its social functions (Whitehouse, 2022), such as reducing anxiety (Kracke, 1992), enhancing social
cohesion (Jagiello et al., forthcoming), and justifying political legitimacy (Flad, 2008).
Elsewhere, we have strongly argued for the instrumentality of divination practices drawing from
a wide range of ethnographic and historical sources (Hong & Henrich, 2021). Here, I provide a detailed
ethnographic analysis of magic and divination practices as well as the belief systems that these practices
are embedded in among the Nuosu people in Southwest China. As will be shown, traditional Nuosu
magic and divination have an unmistakable instrumental component, and people emphatically care about
whether or not magic/divination works. This is not to say that the magic and divination do not serve
psychological, social, and political functions; they clearly do. However, anthropological studies of
magic and divination have largely ignored the cognitive aspect1, i.e. why do people perceive
magic/divination as effective means for achieving specific ends (Boyer, 2020)? This is important
because the various psychological, social, and political functions typically depend on some level of
confidence in the efficacy of these practices (Horton, 1968). As such, a cognitive approach can
meaningfully contribute to our understanding of the nature and consequences of supernatural beliefs and
practices in traditional societies.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. After introducing the ethnographic background of
the population and laying out some existing explanations in the literature (section 2), I first describe the
Nuosu concept of the ghost which serves as the theoretical basis for many Nuosu divinatory and magical
rituals (section 3), and then analyze and explain why these rituals are seen as effective and practiced in
everyday life (section 4). Briefly, I argue that people’s belief in ghosts is supported by both intuition and
abductive reasoning (interpreting ambiguous events as involving ghosts), and people’s confidence in the
efficacy of divination and magic is a result of both their theoretical plausibility and under-reporting of
failures. Finally, I point out a cognitive bias where individuals misperceive the probability of uncertain
events happening by chance using fetal sex prognostication through dreams as an example. These
cognitive and social factors, among others, collectively contribute to the persistence of ineffective
technologies such as divination and magic in human societies.
2. Ethnographic background and existing literature on Nuosu magic
The Nuosu people traditionally live in the Liangshan Prefecture of Sichuan province in China, and is
officially classified as the Yi people, the 6th largest ethnic group in the People’s Republic of China with
a population of more than 8 million (Mullaney, 2010). Despite much external influence from the
dominant Han culture and the availability of modern technology, the Nuosu in Liangshan retain a
1 There have been some recent efforts to examine the nature of magic from cognitive perspectives, such as Sørensen (2007)
and Hong (2022a) which point to our cognitive intuitions about magical efficacy, and a series of the studies on the
psychological principles of sympathetic magic by psychologists Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff.
substantial amount of their traditional cultural practices, in particular magic and divination. Although
superstition beliefs and practices are far from extinct in the modern world, they are usually marginalized
by the mainstream culture (Hong & Henrich, 2021). Among the Nuosu, however, it plays a prominent
role in everyday life, especially when it comes to diagnosing and treating illnesses, and to a lesser extent
ensuring general good luck and avoiding bad fortune.
There has been a vast amount of literature on magic in Nuosu populations in Mandarin Chinese
(For a start, see Bamo 1994). In Nuosu language, to perform a magic ritual (which typically involves
interaction with supernatural2 entities) is called “bi”, and the individuals performing these rituals are
called “bimo3 (“mo” means masters of some craft). In contemporary China, studies of Nuosu magic are
often referred to as “Bimo (毕摩) culture studies” due to the official categorization of most Nuosu
magical practices as “ethnic traditions” to be preserved. Most of these studies, however, treat Nuosu
magic as a kind of art possessed by a class of elite practitioners, with a heavy focus on its manifested
form. As a result, in most published work we often see a detailed description of how these rituals are
performed but not why they are performed. When explanations are offered, they are usually formulated
as a casual combination of Malinowskian accounts of magic and Marxist theory of labor and
productivity: magic rituals are attributed to a gap between people’s subjective desires/abilities and the
objective reality, and the reason for such gap is due to a lack in productive forces (See Liao (2010);
Zhang (1994); Zhang (2015)) . For example, Zhu (2005) outlines such an explanation in the beginning
of his extensive analysis of Nuosu magic:
In situations where there is a huge difference between the forces of nature and the productive
forces of the society, the Yi enhance their self-confidence through the visible activities of magic,
and believe that they could control nature by means of magic. Such belief in magic and ritual
reflects the primitive4 psyche of the early Yi and their desire to control the objective world.
Admittedly there is truth in this type of explanation, yet it is woefully incomplete and often presented in
a way as if no further explanation is necessary. The truth in such an explanation, I suggest, is that a large
expected benefit of achieving some ends (e.g. healing illness) will naturally produce an incentive for
people to perform some action (e.g. healing ritual). However, for individuals to actually perform this
action, this incentive has to be combined with some confidence that the action will likely work. The idea
is that individuals’ decision-making process likely involve a crude cost-benefit analysis: an instrumental
action is performed only when the expected return (the product of belief in the efficacy of the
instrumental action and the benefit that would be obtained if the action is successful) is larger than the
cost of performing the action. Note that here the “belief in efficacy” is probabilistic in nature, meaning
that individuals are aware that these actions do not achieve successful outcomes 100% of the time (Hong
& Henrich, 2021). Additionally, it is not a guarantee that an increase in productive forces (or
technological capability) will lead to a decrease in magic and ritual practices. In his seminal work
Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas (1971/2003) emphatically points out that the decline
2 The concept of “supernatural” is a difficult one in both anthropology (Dein, 2016) and psychology (Lindeman & Svedholm,
2012). With the caveats of conceptual difficulties, in this paper “supernatural” is used from the western intellectual
perspective and refers to entities/causal relationships that violate natural laws or known physical principles.
3 Also “Pi-mu” or “Bi muo” in earlier works of Nuosu magic. According to Mose (1996)’s estimate, there were nearly 7000
bimo in Meigu county, roughly 4% of the total population and 13.7% of adult males in the 1990s.
4 In the West, the “primitive” has largely been abandoned due to its derogative connotations. Here I am using it to translate
the Mandarin word 原 as in the original text.
of various magical beliefs and practices occurred before the technologies at the time were able to solve
the practical problem that people faced. Conversely, in certain societies that are by any measure
technologically advanced such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, superstitious beliefs such as geomancy (feng
shui), auspicious date selection and various kinds of deity worships are widely popular (Emmons, 1992;
Katz, 2003; R. Y. M. Li et al., 2016). A recent, astonishing example is that the Taiwanese government
organized a public rainmaking ritual where officials and local people alike prayed to the sea goddess
Mazu for rainfall during a severe drought in the spring of 2021 (BBC News, 2021).
In the English-language literature, systematic examination of Nuosu magic typically occurs from
a historical perspective that investigates the evolution of Nuosu religious rituals in the unique political
setting of the past few decades (Kraef, 2014) or within an functionalist framework that emphasizes
either the rituals’ psychic benefits or societal level effects, which can take various different forms. For
example, Mueggler (2001, p. 66) suggests that Nuosu divination and healing rituals may be thought of
“as methods for creating an ethics to deal with the violence of state power in daily life”; Swancutt
(2021) argues that Nuosu divination and other predictive methods are used to push back against
adversities caused by ghosts, presumably through the psychic comfort that these activities confer.
Instrumentality is rarely mentioned: whether magic/divination rituals “work” and why they are
perceived to “work” is typically not part of the research agenda.
3. A Cognitive and Cultural Evolutionary Account of Ghost beliefs among the
3.1. Ghost in Nuosu culture: ever-present ancestral spirits
Like many traditional societies in the world, the Nuosu have a polytheistic worldview and believe in life
after death (Bamo, 2003). Specifically, the Nuosu believe that deceased individuals become ghosts
(nuci) and may exert very real impacts on the world of the living by causing certain forms of illness or
misfortune. Notably, in the Nuosu belief system nuci primarily affect individuals of their own clan; that
is to say, nuci-related illnesses are most often attributed to dead relatives of the patient. One reason for
this may be that in Nuosu culture, descendants have a strong responsibility to their elderly generations,
alive or dead. This responsibility is in an important sense material; for example, during festivals married
sons (and to a lesser extent daughters) would visit their parents with a non-trivial amount of gifts.
Similarly, after the death of one’s elderly relatives, it is the later generations’ responsibility to offer
sacrifices to make sure that their deceased relatives are happy in the afterworld (See SM video 1 for a
funeral march). As a result, the Nuosu would perform regular safety-keeping rituals called xiaobu to
satisfy their deceased relatives as well as ad hoc exorcist rituals to appease and send away nuci that
already haunts the patient (Zheng, 2003).
For the Nuosu, nuci can be either good or bad just like living people. Bad nuci, often described
as having insatiable appetites, bothers the living and causes illness (Vermander, 1999). Good nuci, on
the other hand, can attach itself to certain individuals and grant them super-human powers. These good
nuci are called rasa and may decide to attach themselves to their living relatives at any moment in life.
Such attachment initially causes physical discomfort and/or illness, and the host of such rasa needs to go
through a ritual to officially become a suni5, after which not only the illness goes away but the host also
obtains extra-ordinary powers (Yueqi, 2021). The suni can then communicate with his/her rasa for both
informational purposes and exorcism, as will be elaborated in later sections.
Those who experienced violent or unexpected deaths are believed to turn to an extremely
malicious kind of nuci called ze. Unlike regular nuci, ze is described as having a definitive physical form
and can directly communicate (e.g. having a conversation) with the living. Occasionally, these ze would
“visit” living people who may then decide whether to accept it and thus become its “host”. If a ze is
accepted, it will benefit its host primarily in the form of stealing things (usually food) from other
households and give it to its host6. The host, however, needs to treat ze very carefully as it may decide to
harm the host if it is not satisfied for whatever reason. Readers familiar with the anthropology of
witchcraft may notice that the underlying logic of ze is very similar to that of the practice of keeping the
ghost/spirit of infants with unexpected death as a tool to ensure wealth and good fortune in Southeast
Asia (Watson & Ellen, 1993).
In addition to the above types of nuci, there are numerous other types of ghosts and spirits of
natural objects (mountain spirits, water spirits, etc.) in the Nuosu belief system, characteristic of a
polytheistic worldview (Bamo, 2003). The exhaustive elaboration of all supernatural entities of the
Nuosu people is neither possible nor necessary, as this paper primarily concerns with the general
psychological and social mechanisms that sustain ghost beliefs, a subject that has become the focal topic
in the cognitive science of religion (Barrett, 2007; Boyer, 2001) yet largely ignored by traditional
anthropological studies.
3.2. Ghost beliefs sustained by cultural transmission and abductive reasoning
Why do people believe in the existence of ghosts? One explanation that has been repeatedly
invoked by cognitive scientists is that they are intuitively believable. The literature in cognitive science
of religion has pointed out a few psychological tendencies that contribute to ghost beliefs: first, our
mentalizing ability leads us to project human-like mental states to non-human objects (Barrett, 2004;
Guthrie, 1995), possibly conferring adaptive advantages (Bering et al., 2005); second, mind-body
dualism, which refers to the intuitions that minds and bodies are separate entities, makes plausible the
belief that human soul or soul-like entities may survive death and exert influence on the living (Bloom,
2007). Relatedly, evolutionary theorists have proposed that humans have a “Hypersensitive Agency
Detection Device”, making us more likely to sense the presence of agents in ambiguous situations (J. L.
Barrett, 2000). The idea here is that these psychological tendencies make us more likely to attribute our
experiences as the result of agent-like entities (e.g., ghosts and spirits).
The amount of theoretical and empirical research that focuses on innate intuitions is very large
and I shall not further belabor this point. What I would like to point out is that cultural transmission
often works alongside innate intuitions about ghosts and spirits and reinforces such beliefs, particularly
through abductive reasoning (Coltheart et al., 2010). In short, innate intuitions about ghosts make people
5 In the standard literature on the Nuosu, suni and bimo are categorized as two different types of professionals where suni
resembles a typical shaman that would enter into an altered state of consciousness, whereas bimo are usually literate and are
deemed the possessors of transmitted knowledge. One can “learn” to be a bimo whereas to become a suni divine inspiration
is always required.
6 In a sense, ze is a powerful “helper” of the household, in the field I also collected stories of ze helping his host family
catching fish and finding lost cattle, for example.
more likely to interpret ambiguous situations as ghost encounters7 (inference to the best explanation)
which may then be transmitted to naïve8 individuals as factual testimonies. That is, during the
transmission process the uncertainty involved in the interpretation of the situation may get lost and the
“fill in the blank” memory reconstruction process (Manning & Loftus, 1996; Schacter et al., 2011) may
cause the “ghostness” of the story to be exaggerated. Below I briefly describe how the cultural
transmission process contribute to ghost beliefs among the Nuosu people.
For the Nuosu, cultural information contributes to ghost beliefs primarily in two ways. First,
many public, social activities either implicitly or explicitly assume or “demonstrate” nuci’s existence. In
addition to the aforementioned regular “safety-keeping” and ad hoc healing rituals, there are ample
social gatherings such as funerals and the spectacular cubi ceremony9 which lasts for three days/nights
nonstop to appease the dead when entire generations of individuals have passed away. A more dramatic
ritual that explicitly portrays the existence of nuci is called nucituo (literally, to chase nuci away). This
ritual is performed when the nuci involved is deemed especially malicious (such as ze) and needs to be
chased away in a quite literal manner. It is conducted by the suni who would enter a trance-like state and
allegedly summons his/her rasa in order to see the nuci. The suni then walks towards the presumed
direction of the nuci and chases it back to its grave (chi’he, where the former body of the nuci was
burned, see SM Figure 2), followed by a group of local people cursing and spitting in the presumed
direction of the nuci during the chase. There are variations of this ritual: a simpler version is called
nuciguo where the nuci is only chased out of the house and not all the way back to its grave (see SM
video 3). A more spectacular form of this ghost-chasing ritual is called sijiezi where the suni picks two
(usually young) individuals from the audience to act as a temporary host of her rasa to “chase away” the
nuci (see SM video 16 for a demonstration). The procedure starts with the to-be-possessed people
holding a Y-shaped tree branch with both of their hands. Then, as the suni chants, one of the possessed
people begins to shake his hands (which is said to be caused by the shaking of the tree branch induced
by the rasa). The suni then verbally commands the possessed to chase the nuci; if the ritual is successful,
the possessed person would jump or run (which is interpreted as “the rasa is controlling the person to
chase the nuci”) towards the nuci’s grave. When the presumed grave location is reached, the possessed
would stick the Y-shaped tree branch into the ground which symbolizes the end of the ritual as the nuci
is believed to be sent back to its grave. Occasionally, objects deemed unclean such as dead dogs or
chickens would be dumped onto the nuci’s grave to ensure that it does not come back to the living.
For a naïve person (in the cultural evolutionary sense), the most straightforward explanation for
the above cultural practices and phenomena is that ghosts indeed exist and that certain individuals in the
community possess the ability to interact with them (in practice, almost always sending/chasing them
away). In reality, however, these practices and phenomena may be observed for a variety of other
(naturalistic) reasons. For example, people may perform healing rituals when standard medical treatment
fails due to a simple cost-benefit analysis: the expected benefit of a successful ritual is very large and
7 Of course, there is great individual level variation regarding the propensity to interpret sensory experience as spiritual. See
Luhrmann et al. (2021) for a recent large scale study.
8 Throughout this paper, “naïve” will be used in a cultural evolutionary sense, referring to the cognitive mental state before
receiving any cultural information.
9 For the Nuosu, to properly send deceased individuals to the afterword (so that they don’t bother living individuals in the
form of illness anymore). Before cubi, dead people wander around in the world of the living as spirits that cause illness and
people are willing to “give it a try” even if they are quite skeptical of the efficacy of these rituals (Hong
& Henrich, 2021). Social factors such as norm adherence and peer pressure could also lead individuals
to perform these exorbitant rituals such as cubi. On the practices that allegedly “demonstrates” the
existence of ghost and the extraordinary powers of bimo and suni, a modern reader could easily come up
with naturalistic reasons for them: the suni that correctly identifies the grave of the presumed nuci may
have done so due to chance and selective reporting of successful predictions; it is also quite possible that
he/she uses social cues during the ghost-hunting march to infer the correct location of the nuci grave.
One of my informants told me that he has noticed that certain suni pay close attention to where the
crowd (largely consists of local people who know the grave location) look, and these suni walk towards
the direction of the people’s gaze. We do not know the extent to which these deceptive tricks happen
among the Nuosu, but from classic ethnography we know that deception happens quite a bit and certain
people are aware of such possibility (Evans-Pritchard, 1937). What about the most spectacular and hard-
to-explain phenomenon, sijiezi, where a suni allegedly uses his/her rasa to control other people? Many
of my informants have personally experienced the ritual (holding the Y-shaped branch, shaking and
jumping/running), and report a not fully conscious mental state (e.g. “I don’t quite remember what I was
doing”/ “I saw see a dim light in front of me”) that resembles symptoms of hypnosis10 (Kihlstrom,
2016). Ethnographically, hypnosis is also observed being used in traditional societies to induce altered
state of consciousness either in oneself or others (Bullock, 1950; Lancy, 1996). Therefore, it is highly
likely that the “mind-control” type of magic is in fact a form of hypnotism, a psychological concept that
is almost certainly absent for the Nuosu people. Indeed, a few of my most skeptical informants who
generally deny the existence of ghosts and the efficacy of magic rituals admit that sijiezi is very hard to
explain with naturalistic means. For the Nuosu people who witness it, it must have been an
overwhelming experience which they have no explanation other than that of some supernatural power
attaching itself to a host human to chase the ghost. Table 1 provides a more comprehensive list of the
phenomena that purportedly “demonstrate” the extra-ordinary power of the bimo/suni and the potential
scientific explanations.
Description reference Potential scientific explanation
Bimo/suni correctly identifies
the location of nuci’s grave (Bamo, 2003)
Chance/under-reporting of
failures, intentional cheating
(following the gaze of local
Bimo/suni makes people chase
alleged nuci via chanting Field observation Chance/under-reporting,
Bimo/suni rubbing their bare
feet against/licking hot iron
without being burnt
(Zheng, 2003) Training; the physics of thermal
conduction and heat transfer
(see Coe (1957) and Leikind &
McCarthy (1988) for the
10 Mose Cihuo, a pioneering researcher in documenting Nuosu magic told me another practice that resembles hypnotism even
more: the bimo/suni would induce people into a sleep-like state and use extensive verbal suggestion during their sleep; when
they wake up, the bimo/suni would ask them to describe where they have been to and what they saw in their dreams.
(interview conducted on 07/2021 at Southwest Minzu University)
science of firewalking, and
(Zeuner et al., 2019) for
Leidenfrost effect)
Bimo/suni biting a rope
attached to a goat and swinging
it in circles
Field observation Training
Bimo/suni correctly reveals
information that he/she has no
direct access to in divination
(Zhu, 2005)
Chance/under-reporting of
Bimo/suni makes boiling water
not as hot when whipping the
water onto a patient’s body in
healing rituals using spells
(Zheng, 2004)
Placebo effect; the water does
not feel very hot anyways after
being transferred from the wok
onto the body.
Bimo/suni uses chicken as a
diagnostic device that correctly
identifies the location of illness
of the patient
(Du, 2016) Chance/under-reporting of
Table 1. A list of phenomena that purportedly demonstrate the extra-ordinary power conferred by rasa.
The second way in which cultural information contributes to ghost beliefs is that nuci is talked
about very often in casual settings. People would share their “ghost stories” with each other either in the
form of their own experiences or second or third-hand hearsays. These stories often include vivid details
of the occasion in which nuci are encountered, what nuci looks like, and sometimes what happened after
the protagonists had seen nuci. Unsurprisingly, nuci are almost always seen during night-time.
Regarding nuci’s appearance, although the exact descriptions from different individuals vary, there are
some general features to be noted. First, a nuci’s face cannot be seen which is interpreted by the local
people as either the nuci not showing its face or that all those who have seen nuci’s face have died.
Second, nuci’s figure is often portrayed as vague and blurry. Outcomes of nuci encounters, when
mentioned, are almost exclusively unfortunate events happening to the protagonist. In fact, these
unfortunate events are sometimes used as evidence that the protagonist has indeed seen a nuci. For
example, a man in Meigu County told the following story when prompted to share his nuci experience:
A long time ago I worked as a schoolteacher in a village. I was sitting outside [of the classroom]
eating lunch and saw two people coming towards me. I thought they were neighbors coming to
play around; when they came close, however, they gave me a scare and walked away. It did not
bother me very much, but later I was told that there was an old woman down the road (that the
two people were going towards) who fainted after seeing them, and then I realized that they were
This is a slightly atypical ghost story as the protagonist did see the nuci quite clearly. Here, though the
person telling the story did not suffer an unfortunate fate himself, another person did (the old woman
who fainted) and this was used as evidence that he met nuci that day. Here we observe abductive
reasoning at play: for the protagonist, among all possible explanations of why the woman fainted, the
theory that she met nuci is the most likely one (from a Bayesian perspective, this would be a natural
outcome if the prior belief of ghosts existing and can cause harm is sufficiently high (Powers et al.,
(2017), also see Andersen (2019) for a similar interpretation in the framework of predictive coding), and
therefore he reasons that the strangers that he met were nuci when in fact they could have been two
naughty villagers joking around.
What is perhaps more interesting, however, is when individual level abductive reasoning
combines with population level information transmission dynamics. When an explanation is attributed to
the story which is then told to another individual, it is quite possible that the listener does not view the
transmitted information (e.g., I saw ghosts) as an inference obtained through abduction but as a factual
observation, thus mistakenly increases the receiver’s belief that ghosts exist. In other words, a
probabilistic assessment of the actual situation in the story teller’s mind (I’m 60% percent confident that
I saw ghosts) often turns into a factual statement (I saw ghosts) and may be interpreted by the listener as
such. Of course, the extent to which such mis-inference exists in actual human populations is an open
empirical question, but the many extraordinary ghost stories among the Nuosu strongly suggest some
exaggeration of the original story is happening. Unfortunately, we don’t have systematic data regarding
the extent to which these stories are believed. Much work in epistemic vigilance suggest that humans
likely have evolved cognitive mechanisms that prevent us from believing false information during the
process of communication (Sperber et al., 2010), yet it should be kept in mind that our vigilance towards
communicated information is not foolproof and there are circumstances under which these vigilance
mechanisms fail. For example, it is true that people will check the plausibility of messages against their
background beliefs (Mercier, 2017), but in societies where the prevailing background belief is already
false (e.g., ghosts exist), transmitted information that confirms the existing belief (e.g., I saw a ghost) is
likely to further boost people’s confidence in the background assumption.
4. Magic and divination in everyday context: an instrumental practice
4.1. General description of Nuosu magic and divination
With a basic understanding of the Nuosu concept of ghost, nuci, we are now in a good position to
understand the form and logic of magic and divination rituals. Today, traditional magic and divination
practices are collectively referred to as mixin by the Nuosu themselves, a term that literally translates as
“superstition” in Mandarin Chinese (Ha, 2009) but no longer carries negative connotations among the
locals. In everyday situations, mixin is primarily used to refer to traditional healing rituals which for the
Nuosu are usually various forms of exorcism. Numerous ethnographic studies of the Nuosu have pointed
out that the indigenous theory of illness among the Nuosu is almost exclusively ghost/spirit aggression or
soul loss11 (Bamo, 2003; Zhu, 2005), a phenomenon not uncommon in traditional, small scale societies
around the world12 (Murdock, 1980). Nowadays, mixin in the form of exorcism provided by bimo and
suni coexists with modern medical care provided by doctors in hospitals, and the two ways of treating
11 Even in soul loss (to which children are particularly vulnerable) some malicious spirit is believed to be responsible for
either kidnapping the soul or leading the soul astray.
12 Although recent scholars have emphasized the importance of herbal medicine in addition to exorcism rituals (Y. Li et al.,
2017; Sha, 2016), during my own fieldwork among the Nuosu in Meigu county most of my elderly informants told me that
herbal medicine was rarely used and only for minor wounds, including professional Nuosu scholars at the Bimo Culture
Research Center of Meigu County (美姑县毕摩文化研究所). In fact, many of them emphasize that mixin was the only
healing method for any serious illness when hospitals were not accessible.
illness are strictly viewed as alternatives despite having fundamentally different theories of illness and
corresponding treatment methods (Zheng, 2004).
Given the common goal of curing illness yet different theoretical foundations regarding what
causes illness, one might expect the Nuosu to conceptually divide illnesses into those to be treated by
doctors and those to be treated by bimo. In an important sense this is true: local Nuosu people often
stress that the patient needs the right kind of treatment to regain health. If the illness is caused by nuci
then it is useless to go to the hospital, and if the illness is not caused by nuci then bimo cannot do
anything about it (Tang, 2017). In practice, however, it is not at all clear that the manifested symptoms
neatly categorize the underlying illnesses into the two groups, and many individuals will adopt a “try
one, if not work, then another” strategy or simply employ both traditional exorcism and modern
medicine simultaneously (Wang, 2018). Occasionally, divination methods will be used to decide the
nature of the illness and whether the patient should consult a bimo or visit a doctor (see SM video 2).
When the patient (or his family members) decides that the illness is caused by nuci, there are
generally three steps to take. First, the bimo or suni needs to determine what nuci is involved. Bamo
(2003) lists more than a dozen methods for doing this including the use of eggs, various chicken body
parts, natural signs, and astrological tables13. My own fieldwork indicates that the most common method
of identifying causative nuci is egg divination (vaqihe) (Figure 1. SM video 9-15). According to Bamo
The bimo rubs a raw egg over the patient’s body, and then pierces a small hole on top of the egg
and lets the patient blow his/her breath into the egg from the hole. Then, the bimo brushes the
egg with water using an Artemisia twig and starts chanting. He then breaks the egg and drops its
yolk into a bowl of water and observes the shape, color as well as the distribution of egg bubbles
in order to decide the nature and seriousness of the illness as well as the specific nuci involved.
After such observation, he stirs the egg-water mix and places the broken egg shell onto the
swirling water. When the eggshell stops moving, the bimo can tell whether the soul of the patient
is still with him/her by the orientation of the egg shell. If the soul is lost, then a soul-recall ritual
should be performed… (my translation)
13 The Nuosu astrological tables use a combination of the patient’s age and their zodiac signs to deduce the nuci involved.
Figure 1. A bimo performing an egg divination ritual (vaqihe) for a local woman on the street of Hongxi town.
What Bamo describes here is likely the complete, ideal procedure of egg divination (cf. Swancutt
(2021)’s more detailed description of an egg divination ritual). In practice, the brushing of the egg is
often omitted, and the body rubbing using the egg is not done by the bimo but by the patient him/herself
or a friend/family member. Occasionally, the identification of nuci is not sufficient to determine the
treatment, as the nuci can be potentially satisfied by a number of offerings (i.e. chicken, pig, sheep, goat,
cow). Thus a second step is sometimes performed with either sheep shoulder blade bone (yopiqi; see SM
video 2) or artemisia twigs14 (saiyomo; see SM video 4-5) to determine whether sacrificing certain
animals would satisfy the nuci. In the context of exorcism rituals, both methods require the bimo to ask a
question in the form of “will sacrificing X work?” and then to generate signs by burning the bone to
produce cracks or cutting marks on the twig with a knife and counting the parity of the number of marks
(see supplemental material for a detailed description of the two divining methods). If the sign is
favorable, then the domesticate animal of question will be sacrificed. Finally, the exorcism ritual is held;
depending on the type of nuci identified the ritual may contain slightly different procedures. Generally,
the bimo (occasionally suni) would make effigies using dry grass, plastic ropes and mud which
represents the nuci that will be expelled away (Figure 2), and then the bimo/suni would perform a
number of symbolic/sympathetic actions (See Mueggler (2001, p. 40) for an elaborate discussion of
magic principles involved in Nuosu magic) where the nuci is offered sacrificial meat, induced out of the
patient’s body and sent away (full description of the healing ritual is available in the SM; see SM video
6-8 for how it’s used). Notably, these ritual procedures make a lot of sense from the locals’ perspectives:
anyone who spends some non-trivial amount of time with the Nuosu would get the basic idea of their
14 Note that this type of divination does not require the practitioner to be a bimo or suni; lay people may also learn to perform
such illness diagnosis.
traditional healing ritual (illness caused by ghosts identification of causative ghosts exorcism), and
although the audience of the ritual often do not fully understand the meaning of every single action, they
nonetheless believe that these actions are instrumental to the eventual success of the ritual. The
practitioners of the ritual (i.e., the bimo and suni themselves), on the other hand, almost always know
what they are doing. If we consider the ability to perform an exorcist ritual as a type of specialized
knowledge, then the differential understanding of ritual actions may be viewed as a division of cognitive
labor that has been discussed extensively in philosophy of science (Kitcher, 1990; Weisberg &
Muldoon, 2009) and cognitive psychology (Kominsky et al., 2018; Lutz & Keil, 2002).
Figure 2. Effigies made of grass and mud that represents ghosts (nuci) made by a suni during a exorcist ritual.
On divination, a few more notable types deserve mentioning in addition to the illness-causing
ghost identification methods. First, recall that the suni is believed to possess superhuman powers
conferred by his/her rasa. The suni can then quite literally perform divination using his/her rasa; in a
market setting, the suni may be appropriately called a diviner. The fees that they charge their clients
vary, and very famous suni may charge an exorbitant amount of money. Typically, for a 20-30 minute
session the client pays 20-150 RMB (3-20 USD) in either cash and/or cigarette/alcohol to inquire about
health, career, marriage, or luck in general, though most inquiries are illness related. Although in theory
the suni can just summons his/her rasa for answers, in practice additional information-generating
methods like palm reading or egg divination is often used in combination with invoking rasa.
Other informational methods may also fall under the umbrella term divination, broadly defined.
The aforementioned Artemisia twig divination (saiyomo), for example, may be used as a general
epistemic device for individuals who need to make decisions in situations of uncertainty. One of its
common usages is to indicate directions to search for lost items. Similar to sheep shoulder blade
divination, one first needs to ask a question in the form of “will X (lost item, e.g., cattle) be found in
direction Y (e.g. north, south, west, east)?” If the sign is favorable, then the same question is repeated,
and in cases of a second favorable sign, one may be assured of the answer15. I have also encountered
instances where it is used to help determine whether one should go to the hospital or perform a
traditional healing ritual for specific illnesses.
The Nuosu also use dreams for informational purposes, a very common phenomenon
ethnographically (Grunebaum et al., 1966; Lincoln, 1935). However, there is no professional diviner
who relies on dreams partly because of the idiosyncratic features of dream divination (Hong, 2022b). At
the folk level, though, people often use dream signs to predict the sex of fetus in casual settings. In a
highly patriarchal society like the Nuosu, knowing the sex of the yet-to-be-born is not only a matter of
curiosity but also of practical significance. As the Nuosu family line is carried by the males and
daughters are essentially considered “outsiders” from an inheritance perspective, a Nuosu couple would
not stop reproduction until they have at least one boy. Because of the great interest on this subject, there
are many folk methods to predict fetal sex, including 1) shape of the pregnant women’s belly, 2) timing
of the pregnancy based on some horoscopic calendar, 3) words of young children who just learn to talk,
4) esoteric techniques of individual diviners, etc. Dreams, however, remain the most talked-about
methods for fetal sex prognostication, and will be later used as an important case study to illustrate the
psychological and social mechanisms that contribute to the persistence of magic and divination in later
4.2. The maintenance of magic and divination from an empirical perspective: under-reporting of
From the cognitive perspective, a central question around magic and divination rituals is whether they
“work”. This is a crucial question not only for early anthropologists and ethnographers16 trying to
understand exotic cultural practices but also local people themselves who rely on these technologies for
important, sometimes life-and-death situations. In the summer of 2019, a bimo performed egg divination
for me in the town of Hongxi to see if I have health problems and potential sacrificial rituals to perform.
He ended up offering rather specific predictions about my health and family events. For instance, he
predicted that my father had a sister who died and turned into nuci, which is causing me health issues
(this is unfortunately wrong; my father does have a sister but she is alive and well). Whenever I told my
divining experience to local people, they always asked me “so did your father indeed have a sister who
died?” Of course, the locals may be particularly interested the accuracy of divination in my case because
they want to know whether traditional Nuosu divining procedures work on outsiders as well.
Nonetheless, this anecdote illustrates that people do care about the outcomes of divination, and also
15 See Hong & Henrich (2021) for a list of divination methods that require auspicious signs to appear multiple times to ensure
that the sign is not a result of “noise”.
16 As alluded to, most contemporary cultural anthropologists no longer view this question as crucial or even relevant.
provides a plausible mechanism for why certain diviners are able to charge significantly more money
than others for their alleged accurate predictions. Exactly why certain diviners are perceived to have
better success record than others remains to be investigated, and it is likely the result of a multitude of
factors including luck, prediction precision, familiarity with the client, etc. The same is true for
traditional exorcist rituals: bimo and suni are famous almost always because they have established a
good reputation for their healing success, and stories of their miraculous healing achievements circulate
widely in the community. There are reasons to think that the emphasis on empirical success is quite
general: Lightner et al., (2021)’s cross-cultural study on ethnomedical specialists, for example, shows
that these specialists frequently obtain good reputation for healing success and are able to receive
material payments as a consequence.
Regarding the efficacy of divination and magic in general, we have previously shown that many
Nuosu individuals are able to give a subjective estimate in the form of percentages (Hong & Henrich,
2021). Figure 3 shows the combined data collected during five months of fieldwork among the Nuosu in
Meigu county between 2019 and 2021. We can see that most subjects believe that magic and divination
rituals are quite efficacious, with a mean of reported success rate of 66%. While we cannot take these
numbers too literally, they do show that local Nuosu people have some rudimentary understanding of
percentages/proportions, as high reported percentages are almost always associated with positive attitude
towards the use of traditional rituals, and low reported percentages associated with negative attitudes.
Figure 3. Distribution of subjectively perceived mixin efficacy. N=85. Red dashed line (x=66.24) represents the mean of the
How do we account for the apparent empirical success of various divination and magic
practices17? There are two possibilities. First, certain traditional healers indeed have extra-ordinary
powers and can cure their patients either by successfully exorcising the ghost that bothers them or by
some other means, and diviners have the ability to correctly foretell future events due to their rasa. In
fact, some anthropologists implicitly hold this view by invoking some mysterious forces that humans do
not yet fully understand18. Second, there may be some general social and psychological mechanisms that
make magic and divination practices appear more effective/accurate than they actually are. Importantly,
these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive: magic and divination may be genuinely effective and
at the same time their effectiveness can be over-estimated. For psychologists and cognitive scientists, the
first possibility is usually not seriously entertained, and I will similarly focus on the second possibility
and examine the extent to which there exists factors that bias people’s assessment of the efficacy of
magic and divination.
In the literature, psychological factors such as placebo effect for traditional healing rituals
(Hong, 2021; Humphrey, 2018) and regression to the mean (i.e. illness recovers regardless of any
treatment applied) (Linden, 2013; Morton & Torgerson, 2003) have been well-studied and they certainly
contributes to the perceived efficacy of healing rituals due the mind’s suggestive power and the fact that
illnesses frequently recover on their own without interventions (Zheng, 2004). However, these factors do
not explain the perceived success of divination practices where the generation of accurate information is
typically not affected by suggestion or regression to the mean (e.g. whether one will find his lost cattle
by going north). Therefore, some more general mechanisms may be needed to account for the high
perceived success of these traditional practices.
In Hong & Henrich (2021), we have formally modeled the process of individuals updating their
belief regarding the efficacy of some technology and the parameters that could bias individuals’ efficacy
estimate during the information transmission dynamics at the population level. One key parameter that
leads individuals to over-estimate the efficacy of some technology is the extent to which negative
instances (ritual failure) is under-reported. In subsequent empirical evaluation of the model, we have
identified substantial reporting bias in both traditional rainmaking and dream divination using historical
data (Hong, Slingerland & Henrich, forthcoming; Hong, 2022), and conclude that under-reporting of
negative evidence of some socially-approved technology is likely a common, recurring feature in human
societies that contributes to the persistence of magic and divination in general. Among the Nuosu, I
primarily examine such reporting bias in the most prevalent kind of magic practice, traditional exorcist
healing rituals (roughly accounts for 80% of mixin rituals, see Mose, 1996) and a particular form of
divination (loosely defined), fetal sex prognostication through the use of dreams.
Between summer 2019 and summer 2021, I opportunistically interviewed 72 Nuosu participants
and asked the following questions in the form of vignettes:
17 One suggestion from some Han people who run business in Nuosu villages is that most people suffer from malnutrition in
the past, and because the meat of the animals sacrificed in exorcist rituals was cooked and shared by the ritual participants,
the patient would feel better after consuming the much-needed calory input. This is unlikely to be the whole story because in
many exorcist rituals the meat is considered to be sacrificed to the ghost, and although it is cooked and shared, the patient
suffer from the illness is forbidden from consuming the meat for fear of the ghost attaching itself back to the patient.
18 This position is especially prevalent among Chinese anthropologists and ethnographers (see Du (2016)). Though not
always appear in formal writing, genuine, extraordinary powers of healers and diviners are often invoked and attributed to
some mysterious forces that science cannot account for in casual conversations.
Q1: “If a friend of yours feels ill, and after a mixin ritual is performed he does not recover and
still feels ill, to what extent are you willing to tell this (incident) to others?”
Q2: “If a friend of yours feels ill, and after a mixin ritual is performed he recovers and doesn’t
feel ill anymore, to what extent are you willing to tell this (incident) to others?”
Participants were instructed to answer this question on a 5-point Likert scale (very willing – willing –
don’t care– unwilling – very unwilling) and to provide verbal justifications for their choice when
possible. Figure 4 shows the distribution of participants’ answers to the two questions. Note that the only
difference between the two questions is the outcome of the illness recovery: the protagonist recovers in
Q2 and does not recover in Q1.
Figure 4. The frequency plot of willingness of Nuosu participants to tell the traditional healing experience to others, broken
down by the outcome of the healing ritual. Mean (did recover)=4.01, SD (did recover)=0.49; mean (didn’t recover) = 3.25,
SD (didn’t recover) = 1.02.
From Figure 4 we can see that while a substantial proportion of individuals (~15%) are unwilling
to share their stories of ritual failures, in the case of ritual success most participants choose to share the
story with others. Relatedly, the proportion of participants who choose “very willing” and “willing” is
significantly higher in the vignette scenario of recovery than in that of non-recovery, meaning that
individuals are more likely to share a story with a good ending (illness recovered) than one with a bad
ending (illness not recover/death). Formal statistical test shows that the difference in score of the two
vignette scenarios are highly significant (t-test,
There are some general patterns in participants’ responses regarding why they are unwilling to
reveal a healing failure to others. First, people are quite explicit in making the point that in the case of
recovery, of course one is willing to share the good news whereas if the patient doesn’t recover, people
do not wish to talk about it because of the negative emotions it may incur. Indeed, the underlying
psychology of preferentially thinking and talking about positive experience has been extensively studied
in social psychology (Gable et al., 2004; Langston, 1994). Second, since people know that these rituals
are not meant to work 100% of the time, failures can be easily explained away by invoking technical
issues or fate (the patient is destined to become ill/die), and as such the bimo (occasionally suni) who
perform the ritual is not responsible for the ritual failures. In a sense, the bimo is helping the host family
to negotiate with the nuci by offering it meat, etc., and the audience of the ritual can clearly see this19.
Because the bimo are often friends or relatives of the host family who invite them to perform the healing
ritual, people are generally concerned that spreading these failures to others may negatively affect their
reputation. Even if the incompetence of bimo is suspected, there is the more serious worry that since
bimo are believed to have super-human powers, if they come to know that whoever has said bad things
about them (e.g. attributing healing failures to their incompetence), they may curse these people and
cause material harm. Therefore, a common response among the Nuosu is that “if a bimo fails to cure the
illness, just don’t ask him to perform the ritual again; no need to tell this to others.”
To check the robustness and generality of the under-reporting pattern, we asked the same two
questions in an online survey in three nearby colleges. Because subjects in the survey are largely Han
individual who may not know about mixin, we changed the wording “after a mixin ritual is performed”
into “after going to a hospital”. The same pattern is observed (Figure 5): people are more willing to
report their experience to others when the outcome is positive, though the reporting bias is not as
pronounced as in the mixin case among the Nuosu (but still statistically significant; t-test,
19 The voluntary nature of inviting bimo to perform healing ritual is often emphasized, that is, nobody forces the host family
to invite any particular bimo and there is an implicit agreement that the bimo’s effort to trying to cure the illness should be
acknowledged and appreciated regardless of the therapeutic outcome.
Figure 5. The frequency plot of willingness of college subjects to tell the hospital experience to others, broken down by the
outcome of hospital treatment. Mean (did recover) = 3.70, SD (did recover) = 0.85; mean (didn’t recover) = 3.34, SD (didn’t
recover) = 0.91.
Now let us turn to the divinatory practice of fetal sex prognostication to better observe the
potential reporting bias in action. Because we know that the probability of a pregnant women giving
birth to a boy or a girl is roughly the same (50%) (Orzack et al., 2015), the chance efficacy of fetal sex
prognostication is 50%; that is, if one only randomly guesses the sex of fetus he/she will achieve a long
term success rate of 50%. If we assume that common folk methods for fetal sex prognostication do not
outperform chance (See Hong & Zinin (submitted) for why this should be a reasonable assumption),
then any significant deviation from 50% in people’s reports of predictive success and failures would be
evidence for a reporting bias.
Figure 6. The number of predictive success and failures (broken down by sex) from participants’ reports (N=39). Error bars
represent 95% confidence interval.
We first asked participants if they know of any folk methods of predicting fetal sex, and then
specifically inquired whether they have either personally experienced or heard about predictive
successes or failures. Importantly, we emphasized predictive failures by repeating the question “have
you heard of any predictive failures?” Figure 6 shows the average number of predictive success and
failures by sex for participants who reported at least one incidence of fetal sex prognostication. We
immediately observe the overwhelming pattern that reported predictive successes vastly outnumber
failures. In fact, out of all 39 subjects only two participant (one has received formal medical training and
is very skeptical about folk methods of fetal sex prognostication, the other dreamt of girl-related items 7
times yet every time gave birth to a boy; she concluded that her pregnancy dreams were “opposite” to
others) reported predictive failures. Of course, we cannot definitively rule out the possibility that some
folk methods are indeed effective; for example, telling the sex of fetus by the shape of the pregnant
women’s belly. In our sample, most individuals reported the use of dreams as a predictive device (if the
pregnant woman or her close relatives dream of boy-related items such as gun or knife then she’ll give
birth to a boy, and girl-related items such as earrings or bracelet then she’ll give birth to a girl), and to
my knowledge there is no scientific evidence showing that pregnant women’s dream content correlates
with the sex of their baby. Moreover, if we take participants’ subjective report at face value, the “success
rate” of fetal sex prognostication is 94%!
The results above thus suggest a very large reporting bias. In fact, it is so large that what we
observe in Figure 6 is likely more than just under-reporting of failures; other factor such as retrospective
inference (e.g. inferring/misremembering that one must have dreamed of boy-related items after a boy is
born, see Hong 2022b). It is possible, however, that individuals are aware of the existence of such bias
and take it into consideration when evaluating the efficacy of fetal sex prognostication. My fieldwork
indicate that this is not the case; during focus group discussions many individuals expressed strong
confidence in the correlation between dream contents and fetal sex. Indeed, from the perspective of
cultural transmission, the learner must find the evidence for various types of fetal sex prognostication
overwhelming. Additional psychological mechanisms such as confirmation bias and norm adherence20
that give rise to under-reporting have been suggested in Hong & Henrich (2021): people have a tendency
to selectively attend to and remember information that confirms their existing beliefs (Nickerson, 1998)
and there may be normative pressure against revealing failures which would challenge the validity of
culturally prevailing beliefs (people may nonetheless hold private doubts; see Boyer 2020). The bottom
line is that the resulting under-reporting of negative instance will recursively maintain individuals’
confidence in fetal sex prognostication over generations at the population level.
4.3. misperception of chance in evaluating the efficacy of magic and divination: evidence from
fetal sex prognostication
For scientists, the empirical reason that we deem some technology with uncertain outcomes as
ineffective is almost always that it does not outperform chance. However, as Hacking (2006) points out,
the modern understanding of probability did not emerge until rather recently in human history, and we
do not have a very good understanding of whether and how ancient people without formal statistical
training compare the efficacy of some technology with chance. Here, we use fetal sex prognostication as
a case example to examine this important question in the field. Crucially, we want to explore the extent
to which Nuosu individuals realize that the empirical requirement for some technology to be effective is
that it needs to outperform chance. Fetal sex prognostication again is an ideal case here because we
know that its “chance efficacy” is roughly 50%, and with this knowledge we can examine individuals’
understanding of technological efficacy and chance in a straightforward setup.
In particular, we have asked the two following questions:
Q1) If a diviner correctly predicts the fetal sex 50 out of 100 pregnant women, what do you think
of his/her divining ability? (5-point Likert scale from very low to very high)
20 See Zheng (2003) for a description of the normative pressure on performing xiaobu ritual in rural communities.
Q2) If someone without any divining ability only randomly guess fetal sex, how many out of 100
do you think he’ll guess correctly?
On the surface, the answers to these questions should be very obvious to anyone with basic knowledge
of statistics and probability. However, these are far from trivial questions for Nuosu participants. Firth &
Cole (1975) have long pointed out that individuals in illiterate, traditional societies often have trouble
answering questions that involve hypothetical scenarios. For the above questions, Nuosu participants
often find 2) particularly difficult, partly because this is a very unfamiliar situation.
In total, we collected 159 responses for Q1) and 114 response for Q2), and Figure 7 visualizes
the distribution of individual responses. There are a couple notable patterns. First, the majority of
participants think that a diviner that performs exactly at chance level has some divining ability after all.
While over half of the participants think diviner with 50% success record is merely “mediocre” (note
that even “mediocre” here is a somewhat positive evaluation and can also be translated in English as
“fair”), a substantial amount (over a quarter) of the participants rate the diviner’s ability as either “high”
or “very high”. Correspondingly, few participants (less than 15%) think that a random guesser would
achieve a 50% success rate (which from a statistical perspective is the most likely outcome), and the
majority think that he/she would have a success rate much smaller than 50%.
Figure 7. The distribution of participants’ response to questions on chance and uncertainty of fetal sex prognostication. Red
dashed line represents the mean of the distribution (25.96).
These results may appear striking (in particular nearly 15% of the participants report that random
guessing would achieve 0-5 success out of 100 times), and one may worry that participants in the field
simply lack the numeracy required to understand the questions correctly. While this is certainly a
possibility, there are reasons to think that the above patterns meaningfully represent how individuals
reason and think about these scenarios. First, lack of numeracy alone does not explain the substantial
skew in distribution of people’s estimation of a random guesser’s number of correct guesses, where
individuals systematically report numbers smaller than 50. Second, as mentioned earlier in the paper,
many individuals in this population have a rudimentary understanding of percentages and would
spontaneously re-phrase the questions as “so his success rate is 50%...” and certainly know that a good
diviner should have a high success rate. Additionally, these response patterns are not unique to the
Nuosu; I have collected survey and interview data showing that even college educated individuals
respond to these questions in the same pattern (Hong, unpublished), suggesting a potentially very robust
psychological bias when people think about chance and uncertainty.
During interviews and focus group discussions, participants often express that the 50% feels like
a substantial percentage and that someone who achieves that success rate is, although not “very good”,
certainly possesses some mediocre predictive ability. Moreover, the idea of “randomly guessing” is a
very unfamiliar one, and in the field we often needed to “act out” someone who mindlessly points finger
at imaginary pregnant women with his eyes closed, murmuring “boy, girl, boy, boy, girl…” for the
participants to get a basic understanding of “random guessing”. Indeed, who would do such a thing
except for professional statisticians! For the Nuosu, it is quite sensible that someone tries to perform
fetal sex prognostication, but such prognostication must be based on some technique or knowledge, be it
the belly shape checking, dream interpreting, palm reading, or something else. In reality, because one is
trying to offer accurate predictions, presumably based on all available information, “random guessing”
is something that makes very little sense.
Yet this creates a problem: although individuals can easily tell a good diviner from a bad one
based on their empirical success record, it is rather difficult to realize that a diviner’s fetal sex
prognostication is no better than a coin flip, and as such various types of fetal sex prognostication may
never be definitively rejected. In a different paper, we have analyzed fetal sex prognostication in China
using extensive historical record and show that it very much persisted till the late Qing dynasty (1644-
1912 CE) and to some extent the present day (Hong & Zinin, submitted).
In many evolutionary accounts of magic and divination, the key puzzle is posed as “why would
people perform these objectively ineffective yet often costly rituals?” (Rossano, 2015; Ruffle & Sosis,
2007; Soler, 2012). This puzzle can be rephrased without loss of much information as “why would
people not ‘do nothing’ when normally some ritual is expected (thus avoid the cost)?” Here, the implicit
assumption is that in so far as individuals treat these ritual practices as instruments for achieving specific
ends, they should compare the efficacy of these rituals with chance. I have shown, based on data on fetal
sex prognostication in the field, that individuals may not possess the statistical capability to compute
chance efficacy, and therefore fail to recognize that these prognostication methods do not outperform
chance. From a strict probability perspective, the number of correct fetal sex predictions follows a
binomial distribution with parameter n and p, where n denotes the number of independent “trials” and p
denotes the probability of success for each “trial”. Mathematically, the probability of obtaining k out of
n successes is given by:
The inferential problem, then, is to determine the most likely number of successes (chance) given certain
n and p. The brute-force way to do this would be to compute the probability of occurrence for each
number of success (i.e., from
), compare them, and pick the one with the largest value.
Needless to say, this is a very computationally intensive process. The smart way would be to realize that
the shape of the distribution is unimodal and to obtain the most likely number of success one can simply
compute the mean or mode of this distribution21, which is np. It is unlikely that the Nuosu people in the
field know either mathematical fact. In fact, many of the participants who answered correctly (a random
guesser would guess 50/100 correct) did so probably due to the well-known “equiprobability bias”, a
tendency to believe that any process that involve some randomness would result in a fair distribution
where all possible outcomes have equal probability (Gauvrit & Morsanyi, 2014; Morsanyi et al., 2009).
Like under-reporting of negative evidence, the biases in thinking about chance and uncertainty
may contribute to the recurrence and persistence of ineffective technologies quite generally. As long as
the promised result can appear by chance, people may fail to recognize that technologies do not perform
any better than “doing nothing”. The key here is that people are not consciously comparing the efficacy
of some technology with the natural frequency of positive outcomes, which, when sufficiently large,
may create the illusion that technologies aiming at producing these outcomes have a fairly high success
rate and are thus worth using. Note that this phenomenon occurs even when individuals have full access
to the empirical data needed for such comparison such as fetal sex prognostication. In everyday life,
such information is often not readily available in most other domains, creating an additional layer of
difficulty for definitively rejecting certain technologies as ineffective.
5. Discussion
In this paper, I have presented detailed ethnographic descriptions of Nuosu divination and magic and
provided cognitive and cultural evolutionary explanations for the persistence of these cultural practices.
For a cultural category as rich and complex as divination/magic, a full understanding of it necessarily
requires multifaceted explanations. I agree with cognitive and psychological researchers that people’s
intuitive theories about the world plays a large role in maintaining various kinds of supernatural beliefs,
but would like to emphasize the synergistic interaction between intuition and the unique information
transmission dynamics in human societies. From a developmental perspective, although children may be
said to be “predisposed” to believe in ghosts and spirits as a result of dualism and agency detection
(Bloom, 2007), cultural inputs are nonetheless indispensable for the eventual formation of theistic
beliefs (Harris, 2012). In fact, I argue that in times of significant social change vis-à-vis people’s
supernatural beliefs (e.g., the booming research on religious beliefs as a natural, cognitive phenomenon
(J. L. Barrett, 2007) and the prominent rise of New Atheism (Schröder, 2017; Schulzke, 2013)) in the
West, it is more pressing than ever to understand the sociological and cultural dynamics for belief
formation, both on the existence of spiritual entities and the effectiveness of cultural practices (e.g.
magic and divination rituals) that aim to achieve specific ends via interaction with these spiritual
The Nuosu in southwest China thus provides an ideal opportunity for a detailed case study.
Arguably one the most superstitious ethnic groups in contemporary China, the Nuosu have ample access
to mainstream cultural information and technology, yet they have managed to maintain much of their
21 When np is an integer, the mean median and mode are the same and equal np.
traditional belief in ghosts, magic, and divination. In this paper, building on existing research in
cognitive science and cultural evolution, I have provided empirical evidence for the psychological biases
that powerfully reinforce the existing beliefs in ghosts/spirits and the efficacy of technologies based on
such beliefs. Below, I offer some additional comments on these biases in the Nuosu context, as well as
the possibility of having a general, unified theory of divination and magic.
5.1. On ghost beliefs and abductive reasoning
I am not the first to point out the relationship between abductive reasoning and supernatural beliefs
(Boyer, 1994; Coltheart et al., 2010), I have, however, broadened the ways in which abductive reasoning
contribute to these beliefs and emphasized its importance in the process of cultural transmission.
Specifically, abductive reasoning not only plays a role in situations where individuals misinterpret
sensory data but also in situations where one attempts to make sense of other people’s behavior. For
example, during the spectacular exorcist rituals, it is quite natural for observers to arrive at the
conclusion that ghosts indeed exist (the “best” explanation given people’s background beliefs) via
abduction. Regarding cultural transmission, as long as the uncertainty involved in abductive reasoning
gets somewhat lost via transmission channels such as testimony (e.g., inferred ghost stories presented as
facts), the naïve listener may mis-process the data and end up over-estimating the probability that ghosts
exist or the efficacy of some technology, and these ghost beliefs in turn serve as the theoretical basis for
divination and magic practices.
5.2. The cultural consequences of under-reporting of negative evidence
As mentioned, under-reporting of negative evidence is likely to be a very common bias in human
societies when people evaluate the efficacy and report success/failures of some technology. Note that in
addition to the obvious effect of up-biasing people’s estimate of technological efficacy, under-reporting
of failures can have some interesting, indirect consequences. The vast majority of my participants, for
example, believe that bimo/suni in the past were more powerful than those now, and some even go as
extreme as “all practicing bimo and suni today are charlatans.” This may be a natural consequence of
under-reporting of failures: because although failures are generally under-reported, most individuals can
still personally experience failures to some extent which will no doubt affect their evaluations of the
specific mixin practitioners and perhaps the efficacy of mixin in general. However, people cannot
directly experience the mixin rituals of past bimo/suni and thus all their information regarding these past
bimo/suni is obtained through testimony which is subject to biased reporting. Note that this does not
mean that people think bimo/suni of their time are worthless; it’s simply that they are relatively less
powerful compared to their ancient counterparts. Additionally, the fundamental validity of traditional
magic and divination practices is rarely challenged. In fact, the belief that contemporary shamans are
less powerful may serve as an easy excuse that explains away their failures.
It is possible that the psychological tendency to under-report failures also contributes to the
common cultural myth that technologies (e.g., magic and divination) and practitioners of these
technologies were very powerful in ancient times, and gradually became worse and worse over time
(which stands in sharp contrast to modern science which is getting increasingly powerful) (Eliade, 1963;
Malinowski, 1926/2014). In fact, some of my informants would explicitly mention this and provide
reasons for such presumed power/ability decline, such as cumulative ability deterioration (a student
cannot be as good as his master, and his student is even worse) and recent human interference with the
environment that disrupted the man-nature relationship (e.g., use of explosives to build roads and
railways in the mountain). Of course, these are likely post-hoc rationalizations to justify the impression
that bimo/suni today were less powerful than those in the past.
5.3. On the persistence of magic and divination: general cognitive and social factors
Although the present paper primarily used the Nuosu as an example to illustrate how individuals may
misperceived the efficacy of magic/divination and chance, such psychological and social factors may be
quite general in sustaining ghost beliefs and ineffective technologies in traditional human societies. This
is because the psychological biases do not depend on the specificities of the society’s belief systems, and
the de-centralized information transmission dynamics is largely similar in small scale, traditional
societies. In fact, even in contemporary, modern societies reporting bias has been shown to inflate
people’s assessment of efficacy of medical products (de Barra, 2017; de Barra et al., 2014). In traditional
societies where there is no epistemic authority to regulate the production of knowledge, individuals’
beliefs are subject to many kinds of biases and inferential mistakes (Hong & Henrich, 2021).
The fact that many problems frequently solve themselves and many technologies achieve their
desired ends probabilistically means that we often need to decide whether some technology performs
better than chance, and the difficulty in computing “chance efficacy” may thus present a large barrier for
the rejection of some technology in societies where statistical knowledge is lacking, especially when it is
the only method for dealing with some practical problem. Significance-testing, randomized controlled
trials and other advanced statistical methods for determining whether something is due to chance is a
very recent cultural achievement in human history, and there are good reasons to suspect that before the
advent of these tools identifying technologies as having no better than chance performance was
genuinely hard.
It is my hope that this work could inspire more efforts to explore general cognitive and social
factors that affect our understanding of technologies which we rely upon on a daily basis. Although a
complete theory of magic may not be possible (Hong, 2022b), our understanding of technological
practices, ineffective and effective, past and present, could still be greatly enhanced by focusing on both
individual psychology and the social contexts in which they are embedded.
Conflict of interest
I thank Dr. Joseph Henrich for his continued support for this project, Mona Xue for carefully
proofreading and commenting on an earlier draft of the manuscript, and all my Nuosu informants and
participants for making this research possible.
This research is funded by the John Templeton Foundation and the Issachar Fund.
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