Did They Do Voodoo? They Think So.

By Richard Morin
Friday, September 22, 2006

In the cauldron 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"

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-age 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 seriously believe they might have cast a hex and given a headache to the disagreeable man.

It's either groundbreaking social science or the best practical joke ever.

Psychologist Emily Pronin of Princeton University and her colleagues were testing "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 as well as other young people around Cambridge, Mass. 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.

A 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. The researcher 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 10 minutes late wearing the obnoxious T-shirt and muttered "What's the big deal?" when the experimenter welcomed him and 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 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 other participant was then assigned to play the "witch doctor." The man who was in cahoots played the victim and wrote his name on a slip of paper that was attached to the voodoo doll. The witch doctor and victim were then asked whether they had any of 26 physical symptoms, including runny nose, sore muscles and headache. With the witch doctor listening, the victim said he had no symptoms.

The person playing the witch doctor was then left alone, in some cases instructed to think negative thoughts about the victim. The victim was brought back into the room and watched as the witch doctor, again acting on instructions, stuck five pins into the voodoo doll. The victim was again asked whether he had any ailments. This time, he complained that he had a headache.

The participant playing the witch doctor left the room and completed a questionnaire asking whether he or she felt responsible for the victim's 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.

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 black women -- are likely to face hard times in old age because they will not 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 Hispanics, and just 50 percent of blacks will be eligible for spouse and widow benefits," wrote sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer of Syracuse University and her colleagues in a new working paper published by the Syracuse University Center for Policy Research.

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

Who Would Have Thought?Church Organists, Firstborns and Dirty Diapers

· "Church Organists: Analyzing Their Willingness to Play," by Don J. Webber and Martin Freke, Journal of Socio-Economics, Vol. 35, No. 5. 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 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 firstborn children than with their second-born children 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, No. 5. Psychologists from Australia and the United States find that mothers of infants believe their own baby's soiled diapers smell less bad than those from someone else's baby.

Richard Morin is a senior editor at the Pew Research Center. Versions of this column appear at washingtonpost.com and www.pewresearch.org.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company