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Superstition and Development

By Peter T. Leeson, BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University.

Gypsies believe that the lower half of the human body is invisibly polluted, that supernatural defilement is supernaturally contagious, and that non-Gypsies are spiritually toxic.

Far from irrational, these superstitions are central to Gypsies’ system of social order. Gypsies can’t rely on government-created legal institutions to support cooperation between them. Many of their economic and social relationships are unrecognized or illegal according to state law. Yet Gypsies’ need for law and order is as strong as anyone else’s.

To provide such order, Gypsies leverage superstition.[1] Consider Gypsies’ belief that non-Gypsies are spiritually toxic and that supernatural toxicity is contagious. Unable to use government to prevent cheating, Gypsies must use the threat of ostracism to prevent socially destructive behavior.

The problem is that Gypsy societies are tiny islands in a sea of non-Gypsies. Ostracism isn’t much of a punishment if ostracized Gypsy cheaters can integrate and interact with the larger outside society. To give the threat of ostracism “teeth,” Gypsies cultivated a strong belief that outsiders are supernaturally polluting, that their pollution is contagious, and thus that interacting with outsiders would supernaturally contaminate them too.

Under this belief, the threat of ostracism is serious indeed: cheating cuts one off from all social contacts. This deters Gypsies from socially destructive behavior. Perhaps unexpectedly, Gypsies’ superstition promotes law and order.

We often look down on the superstition of “others,” such as Gypsies. But Europeans also have a rich history of superstitions, some of which may also have been socially productive. When medieval judges were unsure about a criminal defendant’s guilt or innocence, they ordered him to undergo an ordeal.[2] In the hot water ordeal, for instance, the defendant was asked to plunge his hand into a cauldron of boiling water. If the defendant’s arm showed signs of severe burning or infection three days later, the court convicted him. If his arm showed no such signs, the court exonerated him. These ordeals were based on a superstition according to which God performed a miracle for innocents, permitting them to escape trial by fire unscathed.

As in Gypsies’ case, what appears to be an irrational belief on the surface, on closer inspection, is socially productive. Confronted with the specter of boiling their arms at ordeals, guilty defendants would always decline them. They believed in the superstition according to which God exonerated the innocent and convicted the guilty through ordeals. So they expected to be burned and then convicted if they went through with them. Better to fess up or to settle with their accusers instead.

In contrast, innocent defendants would always want to undergo the ordeal. They also believed in the superstition that underlaid ordeals. So they expected God to prevent their arms from boiling, and thus to exonerate them, if they went through with them. Innocent defendants had nothing to fear from undergoing the ordeal. So they were willing to undergo them.

Since only guilty defendants would decline an ordeal and only innocent ones would undergo one, judges learned whether defendants were guilty or innocent by observing how they reacted to the specter of the ordeal. Medieval citizens’ superstitious belief facilitated criminal justice and, with it, law and order.

This isn’t to say that all superstitions promote law and order. They don’t. But we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that some bizarre, scientifically unfounded beliefs may actually improve social cooperation by substituting for institutions of government where those institutions don’t exist or work well. Which superstitions in developing countries are in this category?

[1] For a comprehensive economic analysis of Gypsy superstition see, Leeson, Peter T. 2010. “Gypsies.” Mimeo.

[2] For a comprehensive economic analysis of medieval judicial ordeals see, Leeson, Peter T. 2010. “Ordeals.” Mimeo.

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  1. Becky wrote:

    Interesting post, but from what I understand, “gypsy” can be used to refer to a variety of different nomadic people, though most commonly the Romani, and many consider it a pejorative.

    Which culture is this post referring to, and why did you choose to use the term “gypsy”?

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:36 am | Permalink
  2. Pietro wrote:

    Could this explain ‘Creationism’? Somehow?

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  3. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Interesting post. While I don’t disagree with the statement that some superstitions can be socially useful, I think the example is odd. What about the innocent person who doesn’t believe in the superstition or the innocent person who burns his arm because, well, the superstition is wrong?

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  4. Jason Kerwin wrote:

    The ordeal example is interesting because the separating strategy is not a Bayes Nash Equilibrium – knowing how the game will play out, the guilty would want to lie. It’s true that people often don’t play the strategies we expect of them but it’s still hard to see how this would withstand the test of time; typically people learn and converge toward Nash equilibria over time as they observe the game being played.

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  5. kirillov wrote:

    By “gypsies”, do you mean Roma? And by Europeans, who do you mean? Would the members of the Roma community who have lived in Europe for dozens of generations not be considered Europeans?

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  6. Chops wrote:

    Jeff & Jason –
    Your questions answer each other. As you saw, the simplistic example given in the post is obviously not in equilibrium for people with even a little bit of knowledge. But as long as defendants don’t have enough knowledge to reject the superstition, the “mixed outcome” of burning will let some percentage of those who survive go free. If some of the guilty choose to settle before the ordeal, then the errors (both Type 1 and 2) will be somewhat lower than if the magistrate simply forced everyone to undergo the ordeal. More to the point, if a superstition makes people believe that an actually random justice system in fact punishes the guilty, that will promote law and order.

    Of course, this “justice” system lacks some nice features like the presumption of innocence or the use of evidence. And compared to a policy of simply punishing no-one, it may or may not incentivize more crime.

    Mr Leeson’s efforts in defense of superstition would probably be better spent proving superstitions wrong, or at least in finding better anecdotes than these two.

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  7. tt wrote:

    Jason –
    The Nash equilibrium concept is applicable to incomplete information games like this one. The separating equilibrium is in fact an equilibrium of with the specified beliefs. There is nothing implausible about having incorrect beliefs, and the beliefs assumed make sense given the historical circumstances.

    Regarding your point about learning: An interesting aspect of the model is its self-confirming nature. The guilty will refuse to undertake the ordeal and they will be punished, while the innocent will agree to the ordeal and will come out unscathed most of the time due to the intervention of the clergy. Thus, the events observed will not contradict the established beliefs.

    Posted August 23, 2010 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

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