Does Magic Have Power if Someone Doesn’t Believe?

Woman Putting Needles in Voodoo Doll
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Every once in a while, you're going to encounter someone who will tell you flat out that magic doesn't work on them. Why? Because they just don't believe in it, and therefore, magic is ineffective on them. But is that really true?

Just like so many other things discussed in the Pagan community, the answer is “it depends.” And what it depends on is who you ask. Obviously, there’s no scientific evidence for either side of the argument, so it’s strictly a matter of opinion.

The Power of the Positive

Positive thinking
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Some traditions will tell you unequivocally that if an individual doesn’t believe in a concept or idea, it has no power over them. It’s why, for instance, many people claim that they’re not worried about being cursed or hexed—because they don’t believe in the power of negative magic (although one could argue that if you believe in the power of positive magic, you have to accept the existence of its opposite), therefore it can have no bearing on them.

There are other traditions that hold to the idea that magic is magic, and its efficacy has nothing to do at all with whether people believe in it or not. For example, if you create a poppet for protection of your non-magical, non-believing friend, and they indeed stay safe from harm despite their non-belief in the poppet’s power, then has the poppet worked? Or could they argue that they stayed safe because they didn’t jaywalk, wore their seatbelt, and stopped running with scissors?

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, there are people who believe in one type of magic but not others. We all have that Christian friend or family member who offers to pray for us when we’re ill or feeling down, and they are convinced that their prayers are helpful to us, even though we’re not Christians. However, if we offer to pray to our own gods for healing for them, they’ll often dismiss it with, “Well, I don’t believe in that god or goddess, so it’s not going to help.”

Think about the placebo effect in medicine. Dozens of studies have been done in which one group of participants is given a real pill, and the other is given a placebo, or sugar pill. This is done because taking any medication can affect the way you feel about your health. Repeatedly, researchers have found that under the right circumstances, a placebo can make people feel just as good as the real medication. Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, whose research focuses on the placebo effect, says that this is about more than just positive thinking. It's about creating a holistic connection between the mind and body.

So, why can't magic work under similar principles?

The Science Behind Superstition

Fingers Crossed
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That said, it’s actually been scientifically proven that people who believe in luck tend to have better fortune than those who do not. In 2010 a professor at the University of Cologne that indicated that those who accepted the idea of good luck actually performed better in a test setting. Psychologist Lynn Damisch gave test subjects a golf ball, and told half of them it was a “lucky golf ball.” The other half of the participants were not told the ball was lucky, just that it was the same ball everyone else had been using.

The group which had been given a “lucky golf ball” actually scored far higher on their putts than the group that had just a plain old golf ball. The groundbreaking study, which included several other similar experiments, concluded that “Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

Natalie Wolchover at LiveScience says, "In a recent experiment, psychologists monitored people's perspiration levels as they cut up a photograph of a cherished childhood possession. Unsurprisingly, destroying a representation of their childhood made the participants sweat." Why the clammy palms? Well, it could be because our brains can't always separate what we know to be true from what we're actually seeing—that's why sympathetic magic can be so effective. Wolchover went on to say that an object like a voodoo doll creates the thought of the actual person or object it represents. That thought—of the person being harmed or healed—makes you feel like it's really happening.

So as far as “does magic impact those who don’t believe in it or not”—it’s hard to tell which is the correct answer. Your best bet is to go with whatever seems the most sensible approach to you personally—and it’s perfectly okay if others disagree.