Belief in witchcraft linked to weak institutions and conformist cultures, new global dataset – ScienceDaily

A newly compiled dataset quantitatively captures beliefs in witchcraft in countries around the world and allows for the study of key factors associated with such beliefs. Boris Gershman from the American University in Washington, DC, presents these results in the open access journal PLUS ONE on November 23, 2022.

Numerous previous studies conducted around the world have documented people’s belief in witchcraft – the idea that certain individuals have supernatural abilities to cause harm. Understanding people’s beliefs about witchcraft can be important in policy making and other community engagement efforts. However, due to a lack of data, there was a lack of worldwide statistical analyzes of witchcraft beliefs.

To deepen our understanding of belief in witchcraft, Gershman has compiled a new dataset that captures this belief from more than 140,000 people from 95 countries and territories. The data comes from face-to-face and telephone surveys conducted between 2008 and 2017 by the Pew Research Center and professional survey organizations that included questions about religious beliefs and belief in witchcraft.

According to the dataset, over 40 percent of survey participants said they believe “certain people can cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone.” Beliefs in witchcraft appear to exist around the world, but vary significantly between countries and regions of the world. For example, 9 percent of participants in Sweden said they believed in witchcraft, compared to 90 percent in Tunisia.

Using this dataset, Gershman then conducted an individual-level examination of various factors associated with belief in witchcraft. This analysis suggests that people with higher levels of education and economic security are less likely to believe in witchcraft, although beliefs cross across socio-demographic groups.

Gershman also combined this dataset with other country-level data and found that belief in witchcraft differs across countries due to various cultural, institutional, psychological, and socioeconomic factors. For example, witchcraft beliefs are associated with weak institutions, low social trust, and innovation, as well as with a conformist culture and higher levels of ingroup bias—the tendency of people to favor others who are similar to them.

These results, as well as future research using the new dataset, could be applied to help optimize policies and development projects by accounting for local witchcraft beliefs.

The author adds: “The study documents that belief in witchcraft is still widespread around the world. Furthermore, their distribution is systematically related to a range of cultural, institutional, psychological and socio-economic characteristics.”

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