Psychological theories of magic

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Psychological theories of magic treat magic as a personal phenomenon intended to meet individual needs, as opposed to a social phenomenon serving a collective purpose.



Among the earliest psychological theories is the psychosis theory, advanced by Sigmund Freud.[1] According to this theory, “primitive man” is not a rational being, and in fact magical thinking bears a strong resemblance to neuroses. However, this conclusion has come into question, as more recent psychological theory acknowledges that psychological testing does not cross cultures with complete accuracy.[2]

Bad science[edit]

In contrast, the “bad science” model claims that primitive man is rational, and magical beliefs come into existence as he tries to explain puzzling phenomena without enough information. According to this theory, the magician is an early form of scientist who merely lacks adequate data. In Edward Burnett Tylor’s version of this theory, the magician’s folly is in mistaking an ideal connection for a real one; the magician believes that thematically-linked items can influence one another by virtue of their similarity.[3] For example, the Azande rub crocodile teeth on banana plants to make them fruitful (because crocodile teeth grow continuously). The property of fertility can spread from a symbol of fertility (the crocodile tooth) to the intended target (the banana tree). Michael F. Brown observes that many Aguaruna taboos can be understood as preventing undesired connections.

Symbolic action[edit]

The symbolic action theory understands magic as a course of action taken when there exists an emotional (psychological) need for action, but no practical option exists. In R.R. Marett’s example, it is a magical action when a man, betrayed by his mistress, gathers photographs of her and burns them.[4] This interpretation presents a modern analog of the voodoo doll. As Marett describes, if the emotional situation proves common enough, the response becomes a socially-codified norm which outsiders understand as magic and which Marett labels “developed magic”. Claude Lévi-Strauss[5] and Ariel Glucklich[6] expand upon symbolic theory, positing that magic can serve as a form of psychotherapy or New Age science, accomplishing real results by what amounts to the placebo effect. The effects of such magic would be made real through its effect on the individual person as demonstrated in their life and actions.

Anxiety relief[edit]

According to theories of anxiety relief and control, people turn to magical beliefs when there exists a sense of uncertainty and potential danger and little to do about it. Magic is used to restore a sense of control. In support of this theory, research indicates that superstitious behavior is invoked more often in high stress situations, especially by people with a greater desire for control.[7] It is proposed that one reason (but not necessarily the only reason) for the persistence of magic rituals is that the ritual activates vigilance-precaution systems – that is to say, that the rituals prompt their own use by creating a feeling of insecurity and then proposing themselves as precautions.[8] Pascal Boyer and Pierre Liénard propose that the shape rituals take results from goal demotion and attentional focus on lower level representation.[9] Levels of representation were previously described by J.M. Zacks and Barbara Tversky.[10] At the lowest level are simple gestures (such as putting the left foot in a shoe). At the mid-level are behavioral episodes (such as putting one’s shoes on). At the highest level are scripts (such as getting dressed to go out). Ordinarily, people describe and recall behavior in terms of the middle level of behavioral episodes[citation needed]. In studies of obsessive-compulsive rituals, focus shifts to the lower level of gestures, resulting in goal demotion. For example, an obsessive-compulsive cleaning ritual may overemphasize the order, direction, and number of wipes used to clean the surface. The goal becomes less important than the actions used to achieve the goal, with the implication that magic rituals can persist without efficacy because the intent is lost within the act. Debate remains as to whether studies of obsessive-compulsive rituals can be extended to describe other kinds of rituals.


  1. ^ Freud, S. Totem and taboo: Resemblances between the psychic lives of savages and neurotics. London: Routledge Kegan Paul (1960). (Original work published 1913).
  2. ^ Gleitman, H., Reisberg, D., & Gross, J. Psychology, 7th edition. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co (2007).
  3. ^ Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Theories of Primitive Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1977), p.p. 26-27.
  4. ^ R.R. Marett. The Threshold of Religion, 2nd edition. (1914). Summary courtesy of Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion, p.p. 33-34.
  5. ^ Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Effectiveness of Symbols.
  6. ^ Glucklich, Ariel. The End of Magic. New York: Oxford University Press (1997).
  7. ^ Keinan, Giora. The effects of stress and desire for control on superstitious behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin Vol. 28, No. 1. Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc. (2002).
  8. ^ Boyer, Pascal and Pierre Liénard. Ritual behavior in obsessive and normal individuals. Association for Psychological Science (2008).
  9. ^ Boyer, Pascal and Pierre Liénard. Ritual behavior in obsessive and normal individuals. Association for Psychological Science (2008).
  10. ^ Zacks, J.M. and B. Tversky. Event structure in perception and conception. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 3-21. (2001).