Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Who Do That Voodoo at Harvard?

by Richard Morin

Doing Voodoo at Harvard

In the caldron boil and bake;/ Eye of newt, and toe of frog,/ Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,/ Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,/ Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing/ For a charm of powerful trouble…

– Second Witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1

Forget eye of newt, the caldron and, for that matter, the witches. A team of psychologists has a new recipe for conjuring up a curse: Take several dozen college-aged men and women, a fake Voodoo doll and an obnoxious man wearing a “Stupid people shouldn’t breed” t-shirt. Mix them together in a Harvard University laboratory, and suddenly these young people believe they might have cast a Voodoo hex and given a headache to the disagreeable man.

Psychologist Emily Pronin of Princeton University and her colleagues were testing so-called “magical thinking” — the belief that we can influence events if we think hard about them beforehand. Pronin recruited 36 students attending summer school at Harvard along with other young people from the Cambridge area. Participants came individually to the lab and were told to wait. Also in the waiting area was a 22-year-old man who was secretly working with the researchers.

Each test subject and the confederate were ushered into the lab and seated at a table in front of a handmade twig-and-cloth Voodoo doll. (In fact, dolls are not used in Haitian Voodoo but “they were used here to conform to participants’ expectations about Voodoo practice.”) For background, the experimenter told the pair they would be partners in a study of “physical health symptoms that result from psychological factors…in the context of Haitian Voodoo.’” Both partners were given a scholarly article on Voodoo deaths to read.

There was another twist. The confederate dressed and behaved normally with half of the participants — and very badly with the other half. He arrived late wearing the obnoxious T-shirt, and muttered, “What’s the big deal?” when the experimenter said she was beginning to get worried. He tossed an extra copy of a consent form toward the trash can, but missed and left it on the floor. And while they read the voodoo death article, “he slowly rotated his pen on the tabletop, making a noise just noticeable enough to be grating,” Pronin and her colleagues wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The test participant was then assigned to play the “witch doctor.” The confederate was the “victim” and wrote his name on a slip of paper, which was attached to the voodoo doll. The newly-minted witch doctor and victim were then asked if they had any of 26 physical symptoms, including runny nose, sore muscles, and headache. With the witch doctor listening, the victim orally confirmed that he had no symptoms.

The witch doctor was then left alone and instructed to think “concrete thoughts” about the victim. The researchers assumed that those participants exposed to the confederate in his offensive guise were more likely to harbor “evil thoughts” about their victim—an assumption that was later borne out when they asked them if they had thought badly about their ill-mannered partner. When the victim was brought back into the room, the witch doctor, again acting on instructions, stuck five pins into the Voodoo doll. The victim was again once again asked if he had any ailments. This time, he complained that he had a headache.

The witch doctor-participants were escorted from the room and completed a questionnaire asking whether they felt responsible for the victim’s headache, whether they believed they had actually caused them harm and whether they actually had caused the headache. “The participants led to generate evil thoughts about their victim were more likely than the neutral-thinking participants to believe that they caused his headache” the researchers reported.

In fact, test subjects who had thought bad things about the creepy victim were, on average, twice as likely to feel they were at least partially responsible for causing the headache than those who had neutral thoughts, they found. “These feelings of responsibility were apparent on each of the individual items in the composite,” they reported, indicating that evil-thinking participants were more likely to feel that they had caused the symptoms, that their practice of Voodoo caused the headache, and that they had tried to harm the victim.

What’s more, these faux witch doctors felt no guilt about what they thought they had done. “Perhaps participants saw the victim’s headache as a just reward for his unpleasant behavior,” they wrote.

Social Insecurity

Declining marriage rates mean that millions of women — particularly African American women — likely will face financial hard times in old age because they fail to qualify for Social Security spouse and widow benefits.

“Starting in 2022, when women who were born in the 1960s begin to reach age 62, we predict that 82 percent of white women, 85 percent of Hispanic women, and just 50 percent of black women will be eligible for spouse and widow benefits” when they reach retirement age, wrote sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer of Syracuse University and her colleagues in a new working paper published by the Syracuse Center for Policy Research.

Many of these women will be eligible for retired worker benefits under Social Security, but those benefits may not be as large as the benefits they would have received as spouses and widows, had they been eligible.

Who Would Have Thought?

Church organists, First-borns and Seasonal Grades

“Church organists: Analyzing their willingness to play” by Don J. Webber and Martin Freke. The Journal of Socio-Economics Vol. 35. British economists interview church organists and find that their willingness to play has more to do with the size of the church choir and the quality of the instrument than how much they were paid.

“Quality Time: The Effect of Birth Order” by Joseph Price. Paper presented at the 2006 annual meeting of the Society of Labor Economists. A Cornell University researcher finds that parents spend more than 20 minutes longer a day reading or playing with first-born children than with a second-born child at a similar age.

“My baby doesn’t smell as bad as yours: The plasticity of disgust” by Trevor I. Case et al. Evolution and Human Behavior Vol. 27. Psychologists from Australia and the United States find that mothers of infants believe their own baby’s soiled diapers smell better than those from someone else’s baby.

“Season of birth contributes to variation in university examination outcomes” by Martin Fieder et al. American Journal of Human Biology, Vol. 18 No. 5. University of Vienna research team discovers that female university students born in spring and summer earn better marks than those born in autumn and winter, while male students born in the spring receive worse marks than those born in other seasons of the year.

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