17 February 2023

Witchcraft Beliefs and Correlates

Welcome back…well, I hope you’re back. I thought I’d kick off the blog’s return with a very different blog topic--witchcraft. If that has you recalling the TV show or movie Bewitched, don’t. The belief in witchcraft--the ability of certain people to cause harm via supernatural means--is widespread throughout the world.

I’ll focus on a single study published by a researcher with American University. Judging from his list of references, there’s much more to dig through if you’re interested.

Two-Part Study
Dataset Development: The researcher initially assembled a dataset of witchcraft beliefs. The data came from six survey waves conducted by the Pew Research Center in cooperation with professional survey organizations covering 95 countries and territories between 2008 and 2017. The surveys represent at least 95% of the adult population in 84 of those countries and from 70% to 94% in the other 11. Altogether, the dataset covers more than 140,000 individuals on 5 continents.

Country-level prevalence of worldwide witchcraft beliefs (Fig. 1 from journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0276872).
All interviews were face-to-face except in Western Europe and the U.S. where surveys were via telephone. While survey respondents were asked in different ways about magic, sorcery and witchcraft, only one relevant question was included in every survey: “Do you believe in the evil eye, or that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone?” Over 40% of respondents claimed belief in witchcraft.

Data Analysis: The researcher then used the dataset together with country-level data from Worldwide Governance Indicators, Institutional Profiles databases, the Gallup World Poll, World Happiness Report, European Value Study and the World Value Survey to assess four key themes associated with witchcraft beliefs: (1) the role of witchcraft beliefs in maintaining conformity and self-governance, (2) their relationship to social capital, psychological well-being and world outlook, (3) the link between witchcraft beliefs, innovation and economic development and (4) exposure to misfortunes as a factor in sustaining witchcraft beliefs.

Sample Findings
Sociodemographics: Witchcraft beliefs are slightly more prevalent among younger people, women and urban residents. More educated and economically secure individuals are less likely to believe in witchcraft, while those who believe in God and consider religion to be an important part of their lives are more likely to be witchcraft believers.

Sociodemographic correlates of witchcraft beliefs (modified Fig. 2 from journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0276872).

Institutions: Witchcraft beliefs are more prevalent in countries with weak formal institutions, low quality of governance, and lower confidence in police, judicial system and national government.

Conformity and in-group bias: Enforcing conformity with expected punishment by witchcraft attack or accusation, countries with widespread witchcraft beliefs score higher on the “uncertainty avoidance” scale and lower on the “indulgence vs. restraint” scale. They reflect reliance on rigid social norms, conservative values and suppression of the drive to enjoy life.

Social relations: Countries with widespread witchcraft beliefs are characterized by lower levels of generalized trust, trust in neighbors, out-group trust and fewer people believing they can trust a business partner outside their own family.

Anxiety and worldview: Residents of countries with widespread witchcraft beliefs have lower life satisfaction, are more likely to assess their health as poor, and report fewer experiences of happiness and more experiences of worry, sadness and anger. There is a strong relationship between witchcraft beliefs and perceived lack of control over life, inability to make life choices freely and fatalism.

Innovation: The conformity and resistance to change promoted by witchcraft beliefs poses a threat to innovative culture and process. Beyond attitudes, negative correlations hold for innovative activity such as patent applications, scientific publications and expenditures on research and development.

Misfortunes: Witchcraft beliefs help with coping by providing an ultimate explanation for unfortunate events in people’s lives. Nevertheless, only two misfortunes show a robust positive correlation with witchcraft beliefs: agricultural drought and unemployment.

Wrap Up
The study found that witchcraft beliefs are widespread around the world. Their prevalence is systematically related to a number of cultural, institutional, psychological and socioeconomic characteristics.

The researcher concludes that the findings, as well as future research with the new dataset, could help optimize policies and development projects by accounting for local witchcraft beliefs.

Thanks for stopping by.

Study of witchcraft beliefs in PLOS ONE journal: journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0276872
Article on study on EurekAlert website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/971587

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