Thursday, August 30, 2012

Complex Rituals and the Just-World Hypothesis

What psychologists refer to as the just-world hypothesis is the cognitive bias that the world is in some fundamental way fair or just. Good actions are eventually rewarded, bad actions are eventually punished, and the results of any practice or action are directly propotional to the effort and/or suffering associated with them. While for us as magicians this sort of bias is something to be transcended rather than embraced, the idea has nonetheless managed to work its way into many systems of spiritual thought. There's the Christian concept of Heaven and Hell, which is one of the most glaring examples, but also the Theosophical/New Age interpretation of the concept of Karma, in which good actions magically produce otherwise unrelated good consequences and bad actions magically produce otherwise unrelated bad consequences. Furthermore, in some strands of Christianity you have a sort of synthesis of these two ideas into the so-called "Green Gospel," according to which God rewards your good actions with wealth and prosperity in the here and now. Churches of this sort tend to ignore troubling facts such as Jesus' concern for the poor and his statements regarding how difficult it was for rich men to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, choosing instead to focus on this flawed aspect of human cognition for moral guidance.

Magick is unfortunately no different. The idea that the world is somehow fundamentally just leads to all sorts of incorrect assumptions. While you need to adopt an actual spiritual practice to get anything resembling decent magical results, just-world would tell you that the harder you work and the more you suffer the further you will go. Many of the flagellates of Medieval Europe probably succeeded in altering their states of consciousness, but generally speaking beating yourself into submission is extreme and unnecessary. Far more mystics have managed to do the same without pain or violence. While that's an extreme example, it highlights a basic truth - some forms of practice are much more efficient and thus a lot less work than others. Magick works like most technologies, in that if you're smart about how you approach your practice you get where you want to go with a lot less effort. Furthermore, the whole idea of magick strikes me as counter to the implications of just-world, unless you happen to believe that people with high magical aptitude are more "deserving" than others in some objective sense. Instead of going about our lives following the generally agreed-upon rules of how mundane reality works, we spend our time devising ways to hack the system and turn it to our benefit.

According to this article from io9, psychologists have now identified just how far the just-world hypothesis permeates the manner in which most people understand rituals. According to the article, people perceive rituals which are more complex or time-consuming as much more effective.

Cristine Legare, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, is interested in studying the way that the human brain uses the supernatural to understand the world. To that end, Legare and graduate student André Souza conducted a study of 162 in Brazil. Taking cues from Brazilian simpatias rituals, formulaic rituals that are used to solve various problems from quitting smoking to warding off bad luck, Legare and Souza invented a number of magical rituals, varying aspects like the number of steps, number of repetitions, number of items used, and presence of religious icons in the ritual. Much like this ritual to cure sadness:

"In a metal container, put the leaves of a white rose. After that, set fire to the leaves. Get the remaining ash from the leaves and put it in a small plastic bag. Take the small plastic bag and leave it at a crossroad. Repeat the procedure for seven days in a row."

They then asked the respondents to rate the effectiveness of each ritual. The rituals with the more highly rated effectiveness were those that included the most steps, included the most repetitions, and had a specified time length for the ritual. To see if they got the same results in a culture that doesn't as strongly emphasize this type of ritual, Legare and Souza also surveyed 68 US respondents from different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds and found the same thing.

Obviously the piece that's missing from this study is a probability-test breakdown of the actual results of each ritual, to control for the possibility that more complex rituals really are more effective, but if we assume that the distribution of magical aptitude across this sample set is the same as in the general population such effects would probably only be observed in a handful of individuals. Furthermore, something as vague as the example of a ritual for "curing sadness" is difficult to evaluate along probability lines, since it's so subjective. I got into a discussion awhile back about some of the testing that I did at one point using Israel Regardie's Opening by Watchtower ritual, in which I determined that even though the Watchtower ritual felt like it was much more powerful and had a lot more going on, as far as I could tell it appeared to add nothing to my less complex LBRP/LIRH combination in terms of shifting measurable probabilities. Maybe I just don't resonante with that particular ritual or something, but it may also be that because it is a more complex rite it is simply perceived as more powerful.

As magicians we seek to improve ourselves, and just-world is a bias that that we should seek to counter at every turn. Green Gospel Christianity feeds the belief that the poor are undeserving of success. The Theosophical interpretation of Karma implies that if you see someone performing a wrong or unfair action you don't have to do anything about it, since Karma will naturally take care of whatever the problem happens to be. The idea that you deserve everything that happens to you feeds the dark side of the Law of Attraction, in which "bad thoughts" are the root of all victimization. Any rational, objective analysis of the world shows that it doesn't work that way. Most people who are poor were just unlucky enough to be born into impoverished families. Many materially successful people made it to where they are through manipulation and exploitation. And generally speaking, when bad things happen to us it's just because we happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This last one may be less true for magicians, who work at taking control of the forces that produce luck and positive outcomes, but at the same time not even the best spiritual practice can insulate you from all hardship.
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Hypnovatos said...

In regards to your test of the two rituals, did you consider the connection you already had with the energies involved. Like a child filling a glass from a pitcher for the first time, it takes her a long time. As an adult, it takes her no time to fill up the same glass. The real test on which pitcher fills the glass faster would be to enlarge the glass so that she is no longer accustomed to the glass and working with te same perameters.

Spiritually, this would be like finding a way to enlarge your vessel without the use of te energies in the LBRP and Watchtower, and in fact suspending use of them till you felt an expanded vessel. Then, perform them both a week I so apart to see which infused your vessel better.

Likely talkin nonsense. Should try to think afte a large meal :p

Scott Stenwick said...

The thing is, the testing that I did was after I'd been using it for a couple of years. It's not that I was familiar with one and unfamiliar with the other. But that is a good point - you usually don't get amazing results right away when you're just learning a new ritual form.

Also, keep in mind this is probability testing I'm talking about with practical operations. Mystical results are a lot more difficult to evaluate objectively. The degree to which mystical results correlate with probability shifts is by no means a closed question.

Rachel Parker said...

In my limited experience, some extra length to good magical verbiage alters my state of consciousness in the right direction, whereas a very short ritual does not. Opening by Watchtower, however, seems like too darned much, so I've never given it a try.

Some extra length may be only useful prior to, e.g., an evocation. I think the hypnotic effect of words enhances astral sight. --As a counter-example, I can think of the Olympic Spirits, to contact whom (or the daimon they send) the extremely concise summoning suffices perfectly.

In simpler magicks for immediate results, the very simple magic in The Long Lost Friend and Secrets of the Psalms works great.

Your mileage will vary.

Scott Stenwick said...

I personally find that magical effectiveness is very much a balance between complexity and brevity. You want a ritual to be complex enough to affect your consciousness in an appropriate manner, but not so long and involved that your attention starts to wander during the rite. For me, at least, this means that there's an optimal length to shoot for when designing any ritual procedure, and the closer I get to it the better the rite will work.