Culture a predictor for magical beliefs


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New research reveals culture plays a major part in whether people believe in luck and precognition around the world, more so than age, gender and education combined.

Led by University of Melbourne researcher Dr Emily Harris, the study, published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, assessed the effect of culture on luck and precognition beliefs in two large-scale multinational studies sampling more than 20,000 people from 35 countries.

Belief in luck – the idea that fortunes can be shaped by certain objects, thoughts, and behaviours, and belief in precognition – the idea that people or powers can predict the future, was common around the world. However, these beliefs were more common in some cultural regions than others.

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Magical beliefs were less common in some cultural groups, such as Western European and other English-speaking countries including Denmark, Germany and Norway, compared to other cultural groups, such as countries in South Asia, or Eastern Europe including Latvia and Russia.

“This tells us that where we live can meaningfully shape our beliefs in magic,” Dr Harris said. “Some cultural contexts are more open to magical beliefs than others.”

Previous research suggested that magic might be as popular as it is because it fulfills a need for certainty, predictability, and order.

However, researchers found that cultural dimensions of ‘need for certainty’ could not explain cultural differences in magical beliefs. Across both studies, a country’s score on a ‘need for certainty’ index was not associated with magical beliefs.

Researchers did find that a country’s score on the Human Development Index – essentially how wealthy a country is – was associated with magical beliefs. People in less wealthy countries were more likely to believe in magic.

“When there’s socio-economic uncertainty, people may feel like they have less control over their life outcomes, such as their income and working conditions. People may look to magical beliefs to create a sense of order and stability,” Dr Harris said.

“Modernisation may also play a part – people in countries that are higher in socioeconomic development might be more likely to emphasise technology and science, and distance themselves from magical thinking.”

Researchers suggest it is also possible that countries have histories of stigmatising magical beliefs, both at a system level and interpersonal level, that may discourage or encourage magical belief systems.

IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

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