Indonesia | Economics

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

On the economics of superstition

As part of my economic history class, I was required to do readings (with no symbols and very little graphs). Here is an interesting one, by Vernon Smith, Nobel Laureate in economics. He was talking about the economic principles in the emergence of humankind, and he has the following to say about superstition:
Another example of the hidden economic function of culture is the magical practice of the Naskapi Indians of Labrador, who, when the caribou were scarce and the tribe hungry, resorted to scapulimacy, a divination in which the shoulder blade bone of a caribou was heated by fire until it cracked. As cracks appeared they were interpreted by a diviner in terms of the local geography as caribou trails, one of which the hunter should follow if he was to be successful. All this is commonly interpreted as showing the capacity of Naskapi for belief in magic. But is scapulimacy functional? One function is to sharpen the hunter's concentration, and to impress upon all the need for great dedication. But another effect was to cause the hunter to choose a random route, steering him away from previously successful hunting routes, and preventing the caribou from being sensitized to regularities in hunter behavior. This is precisely the normative argument for using mixed strategies in certain games of conflict. What the Naskapi in effect seem to have discovered was that reading shoulder blades had survival value.

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  • This is fascinating. Can you tell me what publication this was sourced from?
    I'm not sure that the Naskapi would call it "magic". They have a mono-theistic religion, and believed that God showed them the places to go to hunt for food, often in the form of dreams. The Naskapi would pray before going to sleep for signs from God to direct them. I would assume the same was for this practice.

    Another interesting point is that when the Naskapi were formally contact by Europeans, and were shown birds-eye-view maps, they understood them immediately and were able to add on to gaps in the maps.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/06/2008 09:47:00 am  

  • Benjamin:
    Nice insight. Thanks.

    The source (which you can click on the main entry above) is from Economic Inquiry 30(1). You might need some academic subscription to access, but drop me an e-mail and I can send you the article.

    By Blogger Arya Gaduh, at 10/06/2008 10:34:00 am  

  • Gladly! It's

    I grew up with the Naskapi tribe, so it's a topic that interests me greatly.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/06/2008 11:18:00 am  

  • not sure if the paper considered this: superstitions can endure, up to a point, without any real functional benefit at all. take rain dance for example. the culprits here are cognitive biases: confirmation bias and the likes.

    By Anonymous tirta, at 10/12/2008 03:14:00 pm  

  • Tirta:
    Not really. Its focus is on the economic history of civilization. This discussion of "superstition" is just a paragraph in it.

    By Blogger Arya Gaduh, at 10/13/2008 12:07:00 pm  

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