Why the Ouija Board Seemed to Take on a Personality


Download 93.54 Kb.
Date conversion18.06.2018
Size93.54 Kb.
Why the Ouija Board Seemed to Take on a Personality

- The Effect of Ritual Action on Evaluation of Credibility in Divination1

How can divination be perceived to give credible information about matters not otherwise available to normal human perception? While divination exists in all known cultures in the world nothing much is know about how divinatory information is represented. In this article it is investigated why information acquired through divination comes to be regarded as credible. One thing universally true of divination is that it employs ritual action to produce information. It is argued that in ritual a displacement of intention takes place which produces a deficiency in the intentional structure of the action. A hidden or counter-intuitive agent is inferred in a repair process as the source of the divinatory information. Previous research has shown that counter-intuitive agents are not usually represented as having the same epistemic restrictions as normal humans, which would account for why they could give credible information about matters hidden to normal human perception. An experiment showed that participants rated divinatory information obtained through ritual action as significantly more credible than if it were obtained through normal intention action. While it may be some other character of ritual action than the inference of agency that produces the credibility of the information, it was investigated whether divination was sensitive to differences in prestige in the god associated with the divination technique. The results showed that participants preferred the divination techniques associated with a high prestige god to that of a low prestige god. This indicates that ritual action stimulates inference of a counter-intuitive agent as the source of information, which would account for the

We would sit around at night while the Santa Ana winds howled outside and ask questions to the Ouija board. I found out a lot of information about the past 9361 lives on this planet. My first life was as a racoon “and then you were a cow, and then you were a bird, and then you were a hat”, spelled the Ouija. We said “a hat”? We couldn’t figure it out. Finally, we guessed the feathers from the bird had been made into a hat. “Is this true?”, “Yes”, spelled the Ouija. “Hat counts as half life”, and then “hundreds and hundreds of rabbis”. This is apparently my first life as a woman which should explain quite a few things. Eventually though the Ouijas written words seemed to take on a personality, a kind of a voice2.

Laurie Anderson

A Ouija board is a board on which there are the letters and numbers. It is used with a planchette, akind of pointer. The participants all place their fingers on the planchette and ask a question. Then they collectively move it around the board and it indicates the letters of the message. What Laurie Anderson here describes is a typical divination experience. The consultant asks questions related to her life about things she cannot know, and receives puzzling answers. While the passage is humorous and shows that Laurie Anderson herself does not really “believe” in it, it shows that even when you do not believe in divination it is difficult not to think that you are really receiving messages from someone. So the question is: why does the Ouija board seem to take on a personality when obviously there is none?

Divination is not confined to the performances of Laurie Anderson. Quite the contrary; no known human culture, past or present, are known, who have not used one or more types of divination. It would be easy to just discard this as primitive superstition, but there is no dearth of similar practises in modern “non-primitive” societies: astrology, tarot card reading, palmistry and clairvoyance are well known examples in the modern western world. This would suggest something deep rooted in human cognition. When you look at divination as a way of producing information several questions arise: Why are such weird actions used to produce the information? What is the connection between the actions and the information represented? Why do people seem to believe in that information?

Curiously, this phenomenon remains insufficiently studied3. Previous research has been conducted mainly in anthropology, where some have integrated psychological insights4. But so far, no controlled experimental study has been conducted.

Based on the ethnographic record some relatively typical features of divination stand out. Divination is here understood as the process of achieving credible information about matters not available to normal human perception. This process will always have a client with a question. He consults a diviner who performs a divination technique. This produces a pattern, which is interpreted to give credible information about the matter of the client’s question5. One might expect that questions posed to diviners were about anything, but in fact they are relatively limited. They invariably relate in one way or another to the actual or possible achievement of success and avoidance of misfortune of the client or his immediate family, most often related to a concrete problem, like marriage, disease, travel or other themes related to subsistence (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 261-262; Jackson 1978; eg. Mendonsa 1982: 114). The diviner is in general seen as competent in performing the technique, but usually not himself in possession of the wanted information. The technique implies ritual action6 and produces a pattern, for example of stones on the ground (Jackson 1978), bird’s flight in the air (Linderski 1986), or a spider’s manipulation of cards (Zeitlyn 1990). This pattern is subsequently interpreted.

Previous explanations of the credibility of divination in anthropology have focussed on the characteristics of the diviner (eg.Parkin 1991), the relation between diviner and client (eg. Winkelman & Peek 2004) or a wider social network and its relation to the diviner (Park 1963). According to either of these views the ritual character of divination is accidental, and has no consequence for the credibility of the information produced7. In contrast to this, I hypothesize that the ritual character of the action is exactly what explains the ability of divination to produce information not available to normal human perception. While the data remain inconclusive, the initial data suggests that the hypothesis is worth further examination.

Let us consider the differences between normal intentional action and ritual action. Normal intentional action is usually considered guided by beliefs and desires (Dennett 2001: 412; Malle & Knobe 1997). By accomplishing a goal you believe that this will fulfil your desire. Let's say you see Peter eating an apple. It is readily inferable that his goal is to eat, because he is hungry (desire), and that he thinks that eating the apple will relieve the hunger (belief).

Ritual action differs in that the immediate goal cannot be referred to the beliefs and desires of the agent. If you as a catholic cross yourself, there is no obvious goal (you are not trying to swat flies or scare away bats), if you baptise a child, there isn't either any immediate goal (you are not trying to wash the child, indeed it will probably be sparkling clean already) 8.

What happens in ritualized action, has been described as a displacement of intention (Humphrey & Laidlaw 1994; Richert 2006) or a "goal-demotion" (Boyer & Lienard 2006) (this does not mean that ritual action is not thought to be able to accomplish goals, quite the contrary as, we shall see shortly). This is a special mode of action which could be described as counter-intuitive9: It is composed mostly of intuitive elements, but involves a breach, in that the action does not accomplish the purported or any other reasonable goal.

The theory proposed here is that the deficiency in the intentional structure brought about by the displacement of intention in the action produces a search10 for either another goal, as in magical rituals (the future coming of rain, or the attraction of a beautiful woman), or another hidden agent (such as God giving salvation through priest in baptism, or souls of dead people moving the pointer at the Ouija board). The reason for this is that the human cognitive system will try to build the best representation of the action at hand and since it initially seems intentional11, a representation built on beliefs and desires will be built. This involves an agent, an action and a goal. In divination the action and the goal are fixed from the outset so only the agent can be substituted.

This hidden agent will inevitably be what has been referred to as a “counter-intuitive agent” in that it is not visible (Boyer & Ramble 2001)12. Such counter-intuitive agents have been found often to be attributed peculiar epistemic abilities, such as not being able to be deceived  (Bering & Johnson 2005), having full access to strategically relevant information (that is information regarding social interactions) (Barrett 2001; Boyer 2001; Boyer 2000) or in general not having the same restricted access to reality as humans, that is, an absence of false-beliefs (Barrett et al 2001; Knight et al 2004).

So, there is reason to assume that ritual action, because of its peculiar qualities, is more likely to activate the assumption of a hidden counter-intuitive agent in the action description than normal intentional action. There is also reason to assume that such a counter-intuitive agent is inferred to have non-standard cognitive abilities, such as unlimited access to reality in particular to information on social interactions and causes of misfortune.

As we noted above; in divination we will always have a client who has a question. He consults a diviner who performs a divination technique. This produces a pattern, which is interpreted to give credible information about the object of the client’s question.

To restate then: the function of the ritual divination technique is to provide a displacement of the intention of the diviner, in order to introduce a replacement with the intention of a hidden agent. This agent is not represented as having any restriction in its access to reality thus making it possible to produce “information about matters not available to normal human perception”. The physical expression of this is the pattern.

From this conceptualisation of divination it can be seen that the credibility of the information entailed by the divinatory pattern is a function of how far it is the counter intuitive agent (who has unlimited access to reality, and therefore also to information hidden to normal human perception) or the intuitive agent, the diviner (who since he is human has a limited access to reality), who is represented to be responsible for the pattern. Thus low credibility would indicate the diviner, and high credibility would indicate that it was the counter-intuitive agent who was responsible for the pattern. If the theory proposed is correct we can predict that ritual action will produce higher credibility and intentional action lower credibility of the information produced.

To test this hypothesis three fictive stories were designed, in which there was a main character (client) who had an urgent problem that he could not find the solution to by normal means. He visited a diviner, who performed an action by a special technique resulting in a divinatory pattern. This was subsequently interpreted by the diviner as giving the necessary information to solve the problem. At the end of each story were given different endings in which only the type of action used to produce the pattern differed. After this participants were asked to asses the credibility of the information. The ritual actions were characterised by not being in the control of the diviner (eg. throwing pebbles to the floor to produce a pattern) and the intentional ones were characterised by being in the control of the diviner (putting the pebbles on the floor one by one to produce a pattern). The dependent measure was the likelihood that the main character acted on the information. Since all actions were potentially very costly (danger of death or economic ruin), it was reasoned that participants would rate it as more likely the person would act the more credible the information. After all, people are usually less prone to spending their life’s savings, when they don't believe it will help them.

The previous assumption of anthropology, which explained the credibility of divination as a function of the diviner or his interaction with the client did not attach any significance to quality of the action. So this hypothesis would predict that there was no difference in ratings of credibility between the intentional and the ritual.

Experiment 1


23 males and 27 females, aged 16 to 21 (M = 18,18, SD 1,4); 75% from North-Western Copenhagen, Denmark (Ballerup gymnasium og kostskole) and 25% from Esbjerg (Esbjerg Statsskole) in Western Denmark; 60 % Christian Protestant, 30% Non-believers and Others were 10 %.

Previous research on efficacy of ritual actions have used fictive stories and subsequent ratings of the efficacy of that action  (Barrett 2002). A similar paradigm was used in this study. A questionnaire was constructed with 3 fictive stories about a person's consultation of a diviner in a foreign culture: the kurabi among the Mwambesi of Africa, the dendrologist among the Canadians in Toronto, and the banban among the Katchikvi in Vietnam13. The three different contexts were chosen to eliminate a bias towards primitivism. It would thus show in the results if the results were attributable to participants thinking that primitive people, like the hypothetical Mwambesi, thought differently than modern people like the Canadians.

In these stories the main character was faced with a problem. These problems were designed to match typical reasons for consultation, which can be found in the ethnographic literature (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 261-262; Jackson 1978; eg. Mendonsa 1982: 114). The problems chosen were danger in relation to a journey, serious disease and choice of future education. These problems necessitated information not available to normal human perception. The main character then consulted a diviner described as a specialist among the particular people. He was described as able to tell the future by the help of some pattern, e.g. a pattern of stones on the ground. For each story four different versions of the diviner's actions to obtain the pattern were given. The information achieved was the same. There were four conditions for types of actions: Intentional (INT), Ritual (RIT), Coincident (COI), and Accidental (ACC). Only INT and RIT were to be selected for statistical analysis. The coincidental and accidental were introduced to minimize the risk of subjects guessing the hypothesis. The categorization of the types of action were matched with an independent rater unfamiliar with the hypothesis, but given an explanation of the difference between the different types of action. To test for inter-rater reliability Cohen's Kappa was calculated yielding 0,75. The sequence of the four different conditions was randomized for each of the three stories into four different sets.

As a dependent variable two measures were made. The first was a question of how likely the participant thought it to be that the main character undertook action on the basis of the information acquired (Action). The action was quite important and potentially costly (travelling through a dangerous area, choosing a future career, and buying costly medicine). This was done under the assumption that the more costly the action the more certain people would want to be. So the likelihood that the participant thought the main character would act on the information is taken to be a measure of the credibility of the action. In order to safeguard, one further measure was introduced. This was a question of how likely the participant found it that the main character felt he or she had received good advice (Advice). This was under the assumption that good advice would correlate with the credibility of the information given.

The questionnaire was followed by a section of questions aimed to asses how credible the participants themselves found different persons from their own culture (ranging from a 6th grader over an astrologist to an engineer).


This is a 2(Action type) x 2(Credibility) x 4 (Sets) mixed design. Both Action type (Intentional vs. Ritual) and Credibility (Action vs. Advice) were within subject variables, while the different Sets were between subjects variables.


The participants were given this questionnaire as part of their class. The sets were randomly assigned and a written introduction was read by a research assistant, explaining that this questionnaire was part of a study whose purpose it was to investigate intercultural understanding. The participants were asked to put themselves in the situation of the main character and answer the following questions.


To test for the effect of Set on the responses a one way ANOVA was conducted, giving a significant difference for the Kurabi story INT/ACC condition, F(3,43) = 6,839, P<0.001, but not on any of the other conditions in any of the other stories. This effect can be attributed to one of the sets having this condition as the first of the alternatives. In this set the rating was higher than in the others. Since the overall results of this story do not significantly differ from the others in any other ways and since the same effect was not present in the safeguard condition INT/AD, the sets were collapsed into one for the remaining analysis. We found no other effects on Action type.

The average rating of the likelihood that the main character would act (Action) and the average rating of the advice (Advice) he received in the Intentional and the Ritual conditions are given for each story in figures 1a-c.

Figure 1a Averages for the Kurabi story Figure 1b Averages for the Dendrologist story

Figure 1c Averages for the Banban story
In order to investigate whether the averages were significantly different, a paired t-test was conducted. The differences turned out to be significant in all cases, as can be seen from table 1.





Kurabi/INT/AC - Kurabi/RIT/AC



< 0.001

Kurabi/INT/AD - Kurabi/RIT/AD



< 0.001

Dendrologist/INT/AC - Dendrologist/RIT/AC



< 0.001

Dendrologist/INT/AD - Dendrologist/RIT/AD



< 0.001

Banban/INT/AC - Banban/RIT/AC



< 0.001

Banban/INT/AD - Banban/RIT/AD



< 0.001

Table 1 Paired t-test for Intentional vs Ritual conditions
Table 1 gives clear evidence that there is a significant difference in the participants rating of the credibility of the information produced by the diviner in the Intentional and in the Ritual condition. In order to asses the effect size Cohen's d was calculated. The results are shown on table 2.


Cohen's d

Kurabi/INT/AC - Kurabi/RIT/AC


Kurabi/INT/AD - Kurabi/RIT/AD


Dendrologist/INT/AC - Dendrologist/RIT/AC


Dendrologist/INT/AD - Dendrologist/RIT/AD


Banban/INT/AC - Banban/RIT/AC


Banban/INT/AD - Banban/RIT/AD


Table 2 Effect size of difference between intentional and ritual conditions
These are quite sizeable effects, since Cohen's rule of thumb is that effects around .80 are large effects.

It is worthwhile to notice that there are no differences in responses between the stories, which indicates that effects are not attributable to a primitivist stereotype. If such was the case it would be expected that the dendrologist story which takes place in Canada, a culture very similar to Danish culture, would show a different response pattern than the kurabi or banban story.

The difference in rating could possibly be attributed to participants who already believed in divination and therefore already had experience of divination ritual. To test for this the second part of the questionnaire was used. It contained a series of questions about how likely different persons in the participants’ own culture were to predict the future. The list included normal persons such as doctors, engineers and 6th graders, as well as diviners. Believers in divination were taken to be people who rated the ability to predict the future high for the following persons: Shaman, Numerologist, Tarot card reader, Cheiromantic, Clairvoyant, and Astrologist. There was no significant correlation between scores on these items and ratings of the Ritual condition. There was not either any effect of religious affiliation on the ratings of credibility of the ritual condition in the stories given. So the difference between intentional and ritual conditions cannot be attributed to belief in divination.

It could also be that participants were able to spot the difference and detect the ritual conditions. That would assume a familiarity with ritual action. This cannot be rejected, but the participants' experience of rituals in general and divination in particular must be assumed to be very poor, since diviners are not common in their culture. The older participants of the group could have been exposed to rituals in teaching since religious studies is on the curriculum for the last year of high-school, but in that case we would expect to see differences in rating depending on age, which was not the case.

Since the most obvious confounds can be ruled out it is possible to attribute the effect to universal cognitive processes that are not culturally variable. The results are consistent with the hypothesis proposed: ritual production of the pattern resulted in higher ratings of the credibility of the information than did intentional. This is contrary to what has been the general assumption in anthropology.

It could be argued against this that the results only allows us to conclude something about how people think divination clients think about divination. It remains a possibility that divination clients actually think differently about divination. This would entail separate cognitive mechanisms for cognising others’ actions from those used in cognising own actions. There is a large body of literature, however that supports the opposite conclusion; that the same cognitive and neural resources are used to cognise own and others actions  (Barsalou 1999; Blakemore & Decety 2001; Gallese 2001; Gallese & Goldman 1998; Jeannerod 1999). Only further research can however settle the question.

Experiment 2

Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer has worked with similar ideas about the effect of ritual action on representations of credibility of divination (Boyer 1994; Boyer 1990). According to him ritual produces a situation in which the situation is thought to be directly producing the response (pattern): ”(..) the divinatory technique is a technique which allows situations to speak for themselves, as it were” (Boyer 1990: 73). This accounts for the truth in the information produced. The results of experiment 1 are consistent with this interpretation, since Boyer operates with a similar qualitative difference between ritual and normal intentional action.

The following experiment is designed to ascertain whether ritual action in divination really stimulates the representation of a counter-intuitive agent or whether the increased credibility is a function of the ritual character in itself, as Boyer would have it14.

It is well documented that the prestige or authority of the author of a piece of information has an effect on the credibility of this information  (Aronson et al 1963; Henrich & Gil-White 2001; McGinnies & Ward 1974; Rhine & Kaplan 1972; Ryckman et al 1972). If a counter-intuitive agent is represented as producing the information in divination, this agent should also be sensitive to this prestige effect: if the associated hidden agent is of high prestige it should be rated as more credible to low prestige. In contrast, Boyer’s claim would predict that no such effect should take place, since cognitively ritual merely serves to make the situation speak for itself. Representations of gods, spirits or ancestors are secondary reflections (Boyer 1990; Boyer 1994).



40 participants, 17 male 23 female aged 16-20 ( M=18,33, SD=1,3), 77,5 % from the western Copenhagen Region and 22,5% from Esbjerg at the west coast of Denmark. They were primarily Christian protestant (49%) and Non-believers (44%). Other religious affiliations were 7%.

Prestige can usually be empirically assessed through a number of different measures  (Henrich & Gil-White 2001). A good predictor of prestige is the amount of freely conferred gifts flowing towards a person (Henrich & Gil-White 2001: 187-189). Since there is evidence that gods are conceptualised in most aspects along the lines of normal human beings (Barrett 1998; Barrett & Keil 1996; Bering 2002; Bering & Johnson 2005), they should also be sensitive to this prestige-bias.

So the amount of sacrifices offered to the god, associated with the divination technique, was used as measure of prestige of the god: Low prestige = sporadic offerings of dry bread, Medium prestige = daily offerings of a meal, and High prestige = sometimes elaborate festive banquettes of the finest food. As in experiment 1, a fictive story was composed. This story was situated among the fictive tribe Kalungi in West Africa. The main character had to find out the reason for his wife’s barrenness15. A prescript read: “The Kalungi in West Africa have different specialists, whom they often employ to reveal hidden causes of peoples’ misfortune. They are all considered reliable and have a good reputation.” The specialists were described as communicating with a god. The technique was not further specified. The only thing that differed between the different specialists was the amount of sacrifice offered to the god with whom they communicated. The sequence in which the different diviners were presented was randomized into three different sets. Then participants were asked to circle the diviner they thought it most likely the main character would consult. The dependent measure was thus the diviner chosen. It is assumed that the most credible diviner is the one selected.

Design and Procedure

3(Set) x 1(Prestige) with prestige as an inter-subject variable and set as a between subject variable. The procedure was the same as in experiment 1, and the same instructions were given. The different sets were randomly assigned to the participants.


There were no overall effects of Set on Prestige, so the different sets were collapsed into one for further statistical analysis. If ascription of divine agency is secondary to divination techniques as Boyer thinks, we would expect no difference in preference of diviner. If on the other hand, the representation of a counter-intuitive agent is the central to divination we should expect the prestige-bias to create a preference for the diviners communicating with gods of high prestige. The distribution of responses can be seen on figure 2

Figure 2 Choice of diviner based on the prestige of the god involved.

The overall distribution is significant(X2(1)=11.105, p<.05). There is a significant difference between the Low and the Medium condition (X2(1)=9.8, p<.01), but not between the Medium and the High conditions. This could be attributed to a confusing measure. It is difficult to assess whether elaborate banquettes or daily offerings constitute the greatest amount of resources.

The preference could be attributed to people in general believe in high gods, and would have a preference for that. In that case we would expect non-believers to show an equal preference for the different kinds and Christians to show a preference for the high god category. But there were no significant differences in choices based on religious affiliation of the participants.

It can be seen that there is a significant difference in the preference of the diviner based on the prestige of the associated counter-intuitive agent. This preference is taken to reflect a difference in the credibility of the diviners. Thus, prestige of the associated counter-intuitive agent has an effect on the credibility of the diviner. Low prestige gives lower credibility than high prestige. This is consistent with the hypothesis that divination produces the representation of a hidden agent, but not consistent with the hypothesis that divination produces a direct relation to the matter on hand.


The hypothesis of this paper was that in divination ritual action serves to produce a displacement of intention, this leads to a deficiency in the representation of the intentional structure of the action. By a process of repair a secondary hidden or counter-intuitive agent is introduced to make sense of the action. This counter-intuitive agent is not represented with the same epistemic limitations as normal human agents. This makes it possible to represent the counter-intuitive agent as having the hidden knowledge sought after. This is consistent with the finding that knowledge achieved by a diviner through normal intentional action was represented as significantly less credible than when the same knowledge was achieved by the diviner through ritual action.

Further evidence supporting that in divination a counter-intuitive agent is introduced cognitively as the author of the information was found. High prestige counter-intuitive agents were considered more credible than low prestige ones.

These findings could explain why often in cases where diviners are accused of cheating or manipulating the accusation explicitly goes to show that the diviner was in control of the outcome – this amounts to a lack of displacement of intentionality. Obviously when there has been no displacement of intentionality, there is no deficiency in the intentional structure and there is nothing to repair. Thus it is harder in this case to infer a counter-intuitive agent with unlimited epistemic access.

They could also suggest why divination has returned in our modern rational world. The structure of the action appeals to basic cognitive mechanisms, which are difficult to “turn off”. So, just like it is difficult not to perceive the sun as moving around the earth, it is difficult not to perceive “someone” to be producing the information. This, I believe, is why the Ouija board seemed to take on a personality.

Appendix 1: Stories used in experiment 1

The Kurabi among the Mwambesi in Africa

Among the Mwambesi in Africa they have a kurabi who, they say, can predict the future by throwing pebbles to the floor. From the configuration of pebbles he throws to the floor he can tell what will happen in the future. Kalanga, a Mwambesi, had planned to go to a nearby city tomorrow. The road to the city is sometimes hit by raiders, and some have even been killed. Kalanga doesn’t know when they will be there, and he has to go to the city to sell his produce soon. He has heard that the kurabi can foretell the future, so he has come to find out when he should go to the city. Kalanga pays the diviner a sizeable amount of money. The kurabi, who has no knowledge of the whereabouts of the raiders,

  1. takes the pebbles in his right hand, puts them in a pattern on the floor…[intentional]

  2. takes the pebbles in his right hand, beats his hands against each other 5 times, throws them to the floor…[ritual]

  3. The kurabi had just finished putting the stones into a pattern when he came…[coincidental]

  4. The kurabis hand bumps into a chair and he drops the pebbles to the floor…[accidental]

The kurabi looks at the pebbles and says that it is safe to travel today.

How likely do you find it that Kalanga will embark on this trip today?

1(very unlikely) - 5(very likely)

How likely do you find it that Kalanga feels he got good advice?

1(very unlikely) - 5(very likely)

The dendrologer in Toronto

In Toronto they have a dendrologer who can determine whether a choice is good or bad by the use of two sticks. Eva, who has just finished high school, doesn’t know whether to study chemistry or medicine. He has to decide today, and he knows that the choice will influence the rest of his life. He likes both, but each in a different way. A close friend of his, told him that the dendrologer could help him make his choice. So Eva goes to the dendrologer, who has never seen Eva before, and pays a significant amount of money to tell him whether he should study chemistry.

  1. The dendrologer puts the two sticks into a V shape…[intentional]

  2. The dendrologer places the sticks beside of each other in an upright position and lets them fall. They end up in a V shape…[ritual]

  3. The dendrologer looks at the sticks lying at the table in a V shape…[coincidental]

  4. The dendrologer steps on the sticks lying on the floor on the way to his desk to get a pen. They fall into a V shape…[accidental]

The dendrologer looks at the sticks and says Eva should study chemistry.

How likely do you find it that Eva will decide to study chemistry?

1(very unlikely) -5(very likely)

How likely do you find it that Eva feels she got good advice?

1(very unlikely) -5(very likely)

The banban among the Katchikvi in Vietnam
Among the Katchikvi on the Vietnamese highland they have a banban, who can tell you the solution to your problem by looking at the footsteps of the mountain rabbit. Okchiva, who is a native Katchik, has a mother who has been very ill for along time and it gets worse every day. Okchiva has heard of the banban and goes there although it is far up in the hills. Okchiva pays a significant amount to the banban in order to know what to do.

  1. The banban goes to a clearing in the forest draws a square, and takes a stuffed paw of a mountain rabbit and makes some footsteps in the square…[intentional]

  2. The banban goes to a clearing in the forest draws a square, waits until the next day and goes to the square where the mountain rabbit has made footprints…[ritual]

  3. The banban goes to a clearing in the forest and discovers a previously draw square in which there already are footprints from the mountain rabbit…[coincidental]
  4. The banban goes to a clearing in the forest draws a square, when the banban is done and gets a better look at the square it can be seen that there already were footprints from the mountain rabbit there… [accidental]

The banban looks at the tracks and says that Okchiva should get some kalikatvi. This is a kind of medicine, which is very expensive. The medicine has been known to cure people in some cases, but not in others. The price of the kalikatvi would mean that Okchiva’s entire family would have to starve for months.

How likely do you find it that Okchiva buys the kalikatvi to his mother?

1(very unlikely) -5(very likely)

How likely do you find it that Okchiva feels she got good advice?

1(very unlikely) -5(very likely)

Appendix 2 story used for experiment 2

The Kalungi
The Kalungi in West Africa have different specialists, whom they often employ to reveal hidden causes of peoples misfortune. They are all considered reliable and have a good reputation.

  1. A parawa specialist communicates with Para, a god whom is sometimes given small offerings of dried bread [small]

  2. An olowo specialist communicates with Olo, a god whom is offered a meal daily [medium]

  3. An umbuwu specialist communicates with Umbo, a god whom is sometimes given elaborate feasts of the finest food [high]

A Kalungi man is trying to find out why his wife is barren, and what he has to do to get a child. Among the Kalungi children are very important, and barrenness is considered a great misfortune. Which of the specialists is it most probable he will consult?


Adler, Alfred and Zempléni, Andres 1972: Le bâton de l'aveugle, Hermann, Paris,

Aronson, E., Turner, J. A., and Carlsmith, J. M. 1963: "Communicator Credibility and Communication Discrepancy As Determinants of Opinion Change", Journal of Abnormal Psychology, nr. 67: 31-&

Barrett, J. L. 2002: "Smart Gods, Dumb Gods and the Role of Social Cognition in Structuring Ritual Intuitions", Journal of Cognition and Culture, nr. 2: 183-193

Barrett, J. L. 1998: "Cognitive constraints on Hindu concepts of the divine", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, nr. 37: 608-619

Barrett, J. L. 2001: "How ordinary Cognition Informs Petitionary Prayer", Journal of Cognition and Culture, nr. 1: 259-269

Barrett, J. L. and Keil, F. C. 1996: "Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts", Cognitive Psychology, nr. 31: 219-247

Barrett, J. L. and Nyhof, M. A. 2001: "Spreading Non-natural Concepts: The role of

intuitive conceptual structures in memory and transmission of cultural materials", The Journal of Cognition and Culture, nr. 1: 69-100

Barrett, J. L., Richert, R. A., and Driesenga, A. 2001: "God's beliefs versus mother's: The development of nonhuman agent concepts", Child Development, nr. 72: 50-65

Barsalou, L. W. 1999: "Perceptual symbol systems", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, nr. 22: 577-+

Barton, Tamsyn 1994: Power and knowledge

astrology, physiognomics, and medicine under the Roman Empire
, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor,

Bering, J. M. 2002: "The existential theory of mind", Review of General Psychology, nr. 6: 3-24

Bering, J. M. and Johnson, D. P. 2005: ""O Lord… You Perceive my Thoughts from Afar": Recursiveness and the Evolution of Supernatural Agency", Journal of Cognition and Culture, nr. 5: 118-142

Blakemore, S. J. and Decety, J. 2001: "From the perception of action to the understanding of intention", Nature Reviews Neuroscience, nr. 2: 561-567

Boyer 1994: The ¤naturalness of religious ideas, University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif,

Boyer 1990: Tradition as truth and communication, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,

Boyer 2001: Religion explained, Heinemann, London,

Boyer, P. 1996: "What makes anthropomorphism natural: Intuitive ontology and cultural representations", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, nr. 2: 83-97

Boyer, P. 2000: "Functional origins of religious concepts: Ontological and strategic selection in evolved minds", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, nr. 6: 195-214

Boyer, P. 2003: "Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function", Trends in Cognitive Sciences, nr. 7: 119-124

Boyer, P. and Lienard, P 2006: "Why Ritualized Behavior? Precaution Systems and Action Parsing in Developmental, Pathological and Cultural Rituals", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, nr. Forthcoming

Boyer, P. and Ramble, C. 2001: "Cognitive templates for religious concepts: cross-cultural evidence for recall of counter-intuitive representations", Cognitive Science, nr. 25: 535-564

Brown, G. 2003: "Theorizing Ritual as Performance: Explorations of Ritual Indeterminacy", Journal of Ritual Studies, nr. 17: 3-17

Cohen, E. 2007: "Channellers, Cowries and Conversations with the Gods: explaining multiple divination methods in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition.", i Lisdorf, A. and Munk, K., Unveiling the Hidden, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin: Forthcoming

Dennett, D. C. 2001: "Intentional Stance", i Wilson, R. A. and Keil, F. C., MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, Cambridge MA: 412-413

Devisch, R. and De Boeck, F. 1994: "Ndembu, Luunda and Yaka Divination compared: From Representation and Social Engineering to Embodiment and Worldmaking"", Journal of Religion in Africa, nr. 24: 98-133

Evans-Pritchard 1937: Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande, Oxford,

Gallese, V. 2001: "The 'shared manifold' hypothesis - From mirror neurons to empathy", Journal of Consciousness Studies, nr. 8: 33-50

Gallese, V. and Goldman, A. 1998: "Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading", Trends in Cognitive Sciences, nr. 2: 493-501

Giesler, P. V. 1985: "Parapsychological Anthropology .2. A Multi-Method Study of Psi and Psi-Related Processes in the Umbanda Ritual Trance Consultation", Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, nr. 79: 113-166

Henrich, J. and Gil-White, F. J. 2001: "The evolution of prestige - Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission", Evolution and Human Behavior, nr. 22: 165-196

Humphrey, Caroline and Laidlaw, James 1994: The archetypal actions of ritual

a theory of ritual illustrated by the Jain rite of worship, Clarendon Press, Oxford,

Jackson, M. 1978: "Approach to Kuranko Divination", Human Relations, nr. 31: 117-138

Jeannerod, M. 1999: "To act or not to act: Perspectives on the representation of actions", Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A-Human Experimental Psychology, nr. 52: 1-29

Knight, N., Sousa, P., Barrett, J. L., and Atran, S. 2004: "Children's attributions of beliefs to humans and God: cross-cultural evidence", Cognitive Science, nr. 28: 117-126

Linderski, J. 1986: "Augural Law", i Hasse, W., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Principat 16:3, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin & New York: 2146-2312

Loewe, Michael 1994: Divination, mythology and monarchy in Han China, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,

Malle, B. F. and Knobe, J. 1997: "The folk concept of intentionality", Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, nr. 33: 101-121

McGinnies, E. and Ward, C. D. 1974: "Persuasibility As A Function of Source Credibility and Locus of Control - 5 Cross-Cultural Experiments", Journal of Personality, nr. 42: 360-371

Mendonsa, E. L. 1982: The politics of divination

a processual view of reactions to illness and deviance among the Sisala of northern Ghana, University of California Press, Berkeley,

Park, G. K. 1963: "Divination and its Social Contexts", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, nr. 93: 195-209

Parkin, D. 1991: "Simultaneity and Sequencing in the Oracular Speech if Kenyan Diviners", i Peek, P. M., African Divination Systems - Ways of Knowing, Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 173-189

Peek, P. M. 1991: "African Divination Systems: Non-Normal Modes of Cognition", i Peek, P. M., African Divination Systems - Ways of Knowing, Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 193-212

Peel, J. D. Y. 1990: "The Pastor and the Babalawo - the Interaction of Religions in 19Th-Century Yorubaland", Africa, nr. 60: 338-369

Rasmussen, Susanne William 2003: Public portents in Republican Rome, L'Erma di Bretschneider, Rome,

Reichbart, R. 1976: "Navajo Hand Trembler - Multiple Roles of Psychic in Traditional Navajo Society", Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, nr. 70: 381-396

Rhine, R. J. and Kaplan, R. M. 1972: "Effect of Incredulity Upon Evaluation of Source of A Communication", Journal of Social Psychology, nr. 88: 255-266

Richert, R. A. 2006: "The Ability to Distinguish Ritual Actions in Children", Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, nr. 18: 144-165

Ryckman, R. M., Sherman, M. F., and Rodda, W. C. 1972: "Locus of Control and Expertise Relevance As Determinants of Changes in Opinion About Student Activism", Journal of Social Psychology, nr. 88: 107-&

Schegloff, E. A., Jefferson, G., and Sacks, H. 1977: "Preference for Self-Correction in Organization of Repair in Conversation", Language, nr. 53: 361-382

Shaw, R. 1985: "Gender and the Structuring of Reality in Temne Divination - An Interactive Study", Africa, nr. 55: 286-303

Sørensen, J. 2007: "Cognitive underpinnings of divinatory practices", i Lisdorf, A. and Munk, K., Unveiling the Hidden, Walter De Gruyter, Berlin: Forthcoming

Storm, L. and Thalbourne, M. A. 2001: "Studies of the I Ching: I. A replication", Journal of Parapsychology, nr. 65: 105-123

Tedlock, B. 2001: "Divination as a Way of Knowing : Embodiment, Visualisation, Narrative, and Interpretation", Folklore, nr. 112: 189-197

Turner, Victor Witter 1961: Ndembu divination

its symbolism & techniques, Published on behalf of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute by the Manchester University Press, Manchester,

Verene, D. P. 2002: "Coincidence, historical repetition, and self-knowledge: Jung, Vico, and Joyce", Journal of Analytical Psychology, nr. 47

Vernant, Jean Pierre 1974: Divination et rationalité, âEditions du Seuil, Paris,

Whyte, S. R. 1991: "Knowledge and Power in Nyole Divinatino", i Peek, P. M., African Divination Systems - Ways of Knowing, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indiana: 153-172

Winkelman and Peek 2004: "Divination and healing"

Zeitlyn, D. 1990: "Professor Garfinkel Visits the Soothsayers - Ethnomethodology and Mambila Divination", Man, nr. 25: 654-666

1 I would like to thank Jesse Bering for useful advice concerning the experimental design of the experiments in this paper, and Jesper Sørensen and Joseph Bulbulia for valuable comments on earlier drafts.

2 From the track “The Ouija Board”, from the CD “The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories”

3 With the exception of research on a para-psychological (Giesler 1985; Reichbart 1976; Storm & Thalbourne 2001) or Jungian basis (Verene 2002). These have not been taken into consideration here. There are some social psychological studies, but their focus is not on the divination technique in itself but related factors.

4 Philip Peek makes use of the idea of functional lateralisation in the human brain, but at a quite superficial level (Peek 1991), , Barbara Tedlock uses ideas of embodied cognition, but ends up with an idea which is not empirically testable (Tedlock 2001). More promising is Pascal Boyer who uses some insights from cognitive science, which we will consider below (Boyer 1990). Emma Cohen makes an interesting theory of possession in Afro-Brazilian divination based on insights from cognitive science (Cohen 2007) and Jesper Sørensen provides a possible framework for divination based on insights in cognitive science (Sørensen 2007).

5 These are the minimal components which are present in all divination. There are many other interesting aspects in divination which seem to have diverted attention from these minimal features. Examples are symbolism (Adler & Zempléni 1972; Devisch & De Boeck 1994; Turner 1961; Vernant 1974), social proceses (Mendonsa 1982; Park 1963; Shaw 1985; Whyte 1991), history (Barton 1994; Peel 1990; Rasmussen 2003), mythology (Loewe 1994) etc. While these aspects are worthwhile and interesting they do not help us to understand why divination leads to credible information.

6 The term ritual action is understood in a technical sense which will be specified shortly. Some divination techniques like using the Ouija board or tarot cards may not seem ritual, but are in this technical sense.

7 With the possible exception of performance theories. Here, however, there are no clear criteria by which we can distinguish a performative action from a non-performative action (Brown 2003).

8 Indeed children of 6-7 years clearly distinguish bathing from baptism  (Richert 2006)

9 On the analogy of what is special about religious concepts done by Pascal Boyer and others (Barrett 1998; Barrett & Nyhof 2001; Boyer 1994; Boyer 1996; Boyer 2003; Boyer & Ramble 2001). The first to suggest this classification of ritual as counter intuitive action was to my knowledge Pierre Liénard (personal communication).

10 The process resembles the repair process known from conversation analysis (Schegloff et al 1977), where a missing word will be repaired.

11 Because it is carried out by an agent and because it is done in response to a question.

12 This counter-intuitive agent need not be explicitly represented, but when it is it will usually be a god, spirit or ancestor.

13 Since the research was carried out in Denmark the original material was written in Danish. See appendix 1 for a translation of the stories used.

14 Jesper Sørensen thinks that both explanations are correct but account for different types of divination (Sørensen 2007).

15 This is another typical reason for consultation based on the ethnographic record (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 261-262; Jackson 1978; eg. Mendonsa 1982: 114).


The database is protected by copyright ©hestories.info 2017
send message

    Main page