The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life

prelude to Hoffer; a case study in legibility; foibles of over-economizing; one day my titles will be more than philosophy puns

happy people.PNG

a case study in legibility as prelude to Hoffer


This blog is running the risk of all writing, which is critique but no suggestion. Let me counter that with a practical post: I’m going to teach you how to get shot without dying.

Gri-gri comes in many forms – ointment, powder, necklaces – but all promise immunity to weaponry. It doesn’t work on individuals, of course, although it’s supposed to. Very little can go grain-for-grain with black powder and pyrodex. It does work on communities: it makes them bullet proof.

The economists Nathan Nunn and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra wrote a paper analyzing the social effects of gri-griWhy Being Wrong Can Be Right: Magical Warfare Technologies and the Persistence of False Beliefs (the full paper is up on Professor Sanchez de la Sierra’s site). Here’s the breakdown: Bullet-proofing magic is relatively widespread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The paper focuses on Congo-Kinsasha, specifically South Kivu. Things are not great there: “In July 2007, United Nations human rights expert Yakin Erturk called the situation in South Kivu the worst she has ever seen in four years as the global body’s special investigator for violence against women.” The quote from wikipedia gets way worse, trust me. Most of the villages lack larger forms of protection, as is probably obvious at this point. They also lacked any kind of coordinated resistance, and given the larger fire power, were hopelessly outgunned. That was for some time, and our wiki quote says 2007.

In 2012, the recipe for gri-gri was revealed to an elder in a dream. If you ingest it and follow certain ritual commandments, then bullets cannot harm you. The belief is puzzling, inasmuch as bullets did seem to keep killing people. More puzzling: not only did it survive, it was adopted by many neighboring villages, cities, and regions. “Why?”

The paper argues that gri-gri encourages resistance on a mass scale. Beforehand, given a mix of brave and cowardly, only a small percentage of a village would fight back. If you want to have any hope of surviving, then you need everyone to fight back. Gri-gri lowers the perceived costs of said resistance, i.e. no reason to fear guns when the bullets can’t hurt you. Now everyone fights, hence, gri-gri‘s positive benefits. Moreover: since more people are fighting, each gri-gri participant also raises the marginal utility of the others (it’s better to fight together). And, since there are highly specific requirements for using the powder (if you break a certain moral code it doesn’t work), gri-gri also probably cuts down on non-war related crimes. Take group-level selection: the belief in and use of gri-gri will thus allow any given village to out-compete one without gri-gri. After a time, these will either be replaced by gri-gri adherents (hence spreading it geographically), or they’ll adopt gri-gri themselves (also spreading it).

As far as “sober looks at horrifying situations” go, this is a good one. It’s clever, it’s a decent analysis of why certain beliefs persist despite being false, and I’m glad to know that economics has finally found Nietzsche.

If I have any specific criticisms, it’s that they vastly downplay negative externalities inflicted by the required rituals. They suggest, rather, that these might be positive. To use gri-gri certain commandments must be followed, and one helpful example is “don’t steal from civilians.” So far so good, and that does seem useful, but one that they don’t mention is that another form of bullet-magic requires human sacrifice and cannibalism. This might impact the cost-benefit, but I’m no economist. To be fair, they aren’t looking at Liberia, but they also want to generalize, so.

The rest is good, and I appreciate all attempts to examine “irrational” rituals. But I still think that there’s an easier and more obvious solution than theirs: gri-gri is actually magic.


See like a state for a moment.

In the absence of such a paper, most outside members would classify their beliefs as “irrational” or “stupid”. Hell, I remember people mocking this belief when I was growing up, and there are still somehow-still-considered-liberal-but-look-at-the-exotic-natives Vice documentaries about this. One can well imagine a government program to ban gri-gri, which would misunderstand its value, and therefore expose the villagers to raiding parties with no decent defense mechanism. That’s a bad idea. Try something else.

I’ll presuppose that local powers have all read the paper, recognize the importance of gri-gri, but still want to modernize. Also: human sacrifice. They decide to retain the effects, but remove the “magical” aspect as unnecessary. This presupposition is how a whole lot of people do read Seeing Like a State. You make the previously-strange beliefs legible in state language. In doing so, you assume that you have “understood them” yourself well enough to continue modernizing. The problem with High Modernism, it’s assumed, is that the capital-S State is destroying useful practices, not necessarily that it’s destroying those practices period. Retain the utility and you might as well get rid of the superstitious beliefs.

As it goes, I happen to agree with this. Interestingly, that makes me argue against every single human being who wants to do so right now. We aren’t seeing the utility, and we don’t understand the practice.

We want gri-gri, but we don’t want gri-gri. What we really want is “communal defense and associated positive externalities” minus witch-doctors. That’s not a bad plan. It rids us of the small chance of associated human sacrifice, which is always a good thing to avoid (probably). To achieve this, the state sends a researcher into the village. “We’re sorry,” he says. “We were so stupid to mock you. We totally understand why you do this thing. Let’s explain to you what’s actually going on, now that we have an economic translation.”

The researcher explains that, in fact, gri-gri doesn’t work for the individual, but it has the net-positive effect of saving the community. “Give up these childish illusions, yet maintain the overall function of the system,” he exhorts. A villager, clearly stupid, asks: “So it works?” The man smiles at these whimsical locals. “Oh, no,” he sighs. “You will surely die. But in the long run it’s a positive adaptation at the group level.”

No one would fight, of course. The effect only comes from the individual. If he doesn’t think he can survive a bullet, then it’s hard to see how you’re going to make him fight. “But people fight better in groups, don’t you see?” stammers the exasperated researcher. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s also no revelation. I trust that at least a couple of those villagers have brawled before. “Fighting six guys alone vs. fighting six guys with your friends” is a fast lesson with obvious application. Still didn’t make them go to war before the introduction of gri-gri. If that didn’t work, why do you think “time for some #gametheory” will convince anyone?


Gri-gri is magic, and the obvious yet world-shattering revelation is that data breaks the spell. Point one for Leo Strauss, but serious problem for the value of knowledge.

Problem #1: The group is not the person. Even accepting the standard explanation (these survive/are adopted because group selection means that more adherents individually and more communities will survive), you haven’t explained why any given adherent adopts it, nor why they retain it. “Sure – everyone wants to be bulletproof.” Agreed, but now try and replicate that. Go out and convince a group of people to collectively fight back, while recalling that the introduction of your data has the opposite effect. If you’re unable to explain why these beliefs initially arise, why any given person initially adopts them, why people were psychologically primed to, you’re presenting an incomplete picture. Stronger: if you can’t replicate the effect, then what have you explained? Strongest: adopting a practical method is not the same as adopting a belief.

I like the paper, and I don’t blame economists for this. They’re working with a specific tool set, have limited their scope to do so, and are generally successful at it. Still, I can’t help but feel that the wool has been somewhat pulled over my eyes. I don’t think the belief that “persists” is what they think it is. Don’t see it? Belief in gri-gri is not the same as belief in the people who gave it to you. To understand where gri-gri comes from, you need to understand the overarching institution, and for that there’s total silence.

I was originally going to use this article for a joke about empiricism, but it doesn’t really work for that. It’s short, I’ll quote it all:

A Ghanaian man has reportedly been shot dead while testing whether a magic spell has made him bulletproof.

A Ghanaian news agency reported that the man, Aleobiga Aberima, from the village of Lambu in northeastern Ghana, had asked a jujuman — a local witchdoctor — to make him invincible to bullets.

After smearing his body with a concoction of herbs every day for two weeks, a fellow villager volunteered to shoot him to check whether the spell had actually worked.

He died instantly from a single bullet.

The news agency said angry villagers then attacked the witchdoctor, and beat him severely until he was rescued by a villager elder.

Here’s the interest: the overarching mechanism is primordial to the bullet-proofing spell. This witchdoctor was wrong, but that doesn’t falsify the others.

Problem #2: gri-gri is not an old belief. It started, by the paper’s account, in 2012. That was the year an elder received the magic spell and transmitted it. You have to believe in those elders in order to have adopted gri-gri, and I doubt that every single previous thing about the elders was totally rational. This means the real “irrational” belief is not gri-gri, but elders and witchdoctors. This a complex tradition that related to many more things than bullet-proofing. Call it metis, if you want.

When comparing cultural institutions to biological evolution, we rarely get a mechanism for the appearance of new beliefs. I think there’s a general metaphor like “random mutation”. Maybe someone starts doing something because [whatever], and if it’s a helpful adaptation then other people adopt it. That may be true, I have no idea, and I suspect you’d have to go back to cave-painting times to test it. The point is simply: gri-gri is not an example of this. It isn’t random. Gri-gri is the interaction between a previously existing cultural institution and a new condition (guns/warfare). I’ll walk that back some, but only some: it’s mostly not random. Feel better?


[This paper and others similar] say a lot about why things out compete one another and why those customs survive, but they can’t tell us what it’s like inside the believer. That is to say: their phenomenological experience of and therefore understanding of the world is presumably impacted somehow. You can’t just pretend that that’s unimportant. “Sounds like some philosophical overexplaining to me.” Well, that’s only because it is, but you’re the one who wrote a paper that destroys its own effects. If you want to talk about what kinds of knowledge are “useful” or not, then I’m pretty sure I’m winning here.

Now, I think phenomenology and psychological states are important, inasmuch as that’s technically the entirety of human experience for each of us as individuals, but you can pretend to be outside of all that pleb talk. You’re still left with by far the biggest problem.

Problem #3: Like it or not, all politics (read: use of economics) is power and control. That’s over yourself and others, whether as passing a bill or performing damage control. If you lack an account of the urphenomenon, you lack everything. And if you lack an account of individual adherence, then you lack an account of human motivation. And if you aren’t really talking about human motivations, then you have no idea how to either predict or interact with political developments. “No one understands the internal!” A) Bullshit, the elders clearly do, at least to a point, and B) Did you just admit to complete and total political impotence? Because that’s what it sounded like to me.

I said this, repeated it, and will continue repeating it: metis is both the worldview and the action. All of the problems above come from misunderstanding this. Here’s a suggestion, although I’m unsure of it and will not prove either side. Has it never occurred to you that the benefits of “belief in village elders” (and/or gri-gri) go beyond those easily quantified? At least with our current toolkit. I’m pretty sure that there are a fair number of customs that are continued and adopted for psychological reasons, and if those are not the same thing as economic reasons, then it strongly opens up the possibility that some will have positive psychological effects but a negative or at least not-net-positive economic impact. “But-”


There was some concern over my Seeing Like a State review’s emphasis on the psychological cost of states. That’s fair. I’m also lying. It was one comment, otherwise quite good, whose strawman allows me to pivot towards the next books without too much effort.

I largely reject the easy division between “psychological” and “[whatever the other is]”, but I understand what’s meant. The concern is gri-gri. If we don’t focus on the clear positive benefits of beliefs, then rulers will ban them. I agree, but my concern with legibility is embedded in the haste of that focus: are you explaining away something with a sciencey aesthetic, or are you actually understanding it? The gri-gri paper isn’t bad, it’s just incomplete. The potential use of that paper – ban witch-doctors, explain people’s beliefs back to them – is catastrophic. Worse: it does exactly what Scott warns against under the guise of caring for metis. The focus on the “practical”, ironically, has nothing to do with practicality. It’s about […]

If I have to err on one side, let it be the “psychological”. There are three reasons here, mostly unrelated to gri-gri, but for which it serves as cicerone:

1) Money, efficiency, and [material things in general] are not goods in themselves, but for [some purpose]. Let’s call it “happiness”, which is not my own belief but an easy way to avoid a very long conversation. “Happiness” is psychological, inasmuch as it relates to one individual and the individual’s inner state is all they have. You cannot affix happiness to a person, it arises from [other]. This means that myopically focusing on the material to the exclusion of the “psychological” is weird and makes itself meaningless. I recognize that we normally glide over this, but I’m not going to: If you’re talking about what systems and governments are bad/good for human beings, but “how human beings feel internally” isn’t part of the equation, then frankly I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.

This also means that the majority of whatever suffering state planners have caused is, actually, “psychological”. I’ll exclude physical pain, etc., but that’s a rarity. Banning gri-gri would be an extreme outlier, inasmuch as “exposure to violent militias” is not a common problem. Probably the single largest issue of state legibility at this moment comes from this basic misunderstanding: frustration and sorrow are not “material” in the strictest sense. There are, of course, notable exceptions: kulak liquidation, grain shortages, Hutu mutilation, etc. But did you really need me to point out why famine and gulags are unfortunate?

2) This does not exclude the material, but is inextricably tangled with it. As with gri-gri, if you ignore the individual’s psychology, then the entire system falls apart. This does not mean that material effects are absent or unimportant, just that you can’t hold everything equal. Take the Christianity example: there are huge boons to well-being and productivity and [everything else I talked about] in belonging to a church. Many of these are psychological themselves, but let’s only focus on material aspects. These come from “the church”, but you’d have to show me some really extreme evidence to convince me that those were the primary or only reason they joined. The religious aspect, however you think about that, seems more than a little important.

3) As above: If we’re going to use Scott or Polanyi to talk about anything outside of [truly disastrous High Modernist event], we have to talk about psychological impacts. The moment you open up the psychological tier either you discuss all of it, or you’re avoiding the question. “Money exchanged for goods” is for some kind of happiness. It isn’t the only one – recall ritual, and the kind of community life that Polanyi emphasizes.  Alternately, consider sex and death.

In Debt, David Graeber notes that marriages and funerals are the two major expenses for the majority of the world’s population. Graeber’s source is specific to certain Himalayan communities and I was unable to find the source for “globally”, but it seems just-close-enough to make sense. I’ll make the smaller but equally pregnant: “funerals and marriages are a shockingly substantial expenditure.” You wouldn’t have articles like these without that: One-third of couples go into debt for their wedding day; Families forced into ‘death poverty’ and debt as funeral costs surge. Those are respectively about the US and the UK, but the situation seems even worse in poor countries. Hence a World Bank report: Wedding cost a key cause of poverty. Hell, everyone talks about the student debt crisis (which itself might be cultural, but w/e), but few people seem to mention that the average debt from loans is $30k, and the average wedding also costs about $30k. I don’t want to get into why people do that. The point is that marriages and funerals  are clearly important to a whole lot of people, and they’re weird rituals rather than “items”.

Sometimes we say something like “The best part of a capitalist society is that everyone can buy whatever they want, and consume whatever they want. Some people have lavish weddings, others drown in balloon porn. America!” That’s true, but it hides something. Inasmuch as a wedding has a price it’s a commodity, but that doesn’t mean we can replace it and expect all things to be equal. “They banned marriage, so I bought thirty thousand grapefruits.” Qualitative differences, yeah, but the difference will be psychological, where “psychological” means human desires and reactions to loss. Stronger: even if you don’t care about the internal loss, people will not react the same way, which means great external changes that you’re unprepared for. Failing to account for that doesn’t mean you’re objectively analyzing the data, it means you’re bad at your job.

The fact that weddings price certain people out is “bad”, sure, but possibly unavoidable. This isn’t a problem of modernity: You can read cuneiform that bitches about bride prices prices/the subsequent debt-servitude, and the Nuer famously conquered half of East Africa over dowry problems. What is new to the market society is constant competition. Any custom which cannot adapt to the market disappears. They will be priced out, their adherents outcompeted, etc. Weddings and funerals can adapt, but you know that we had other things before those, right? They might have been important for, like, human thriving. There might be something missing now. “Weddings are just another good”, which is how they’re treated, but you get that most goods disappear, right?

Let me bold this. There are other customs that could not adapt to a modern economy, but whose loss may be no less psychologically devastating.

The standard argument: things that are beneficial to the species survive because they provide [utility]. Hence, we can be assured that weddings and funerals were more important for [reason]. Choose your favorite, I guarantee the evopsych one involves the phrase “intramale competition”, it won’t explain the problem.

I already showed why this argument is wrong, you just have to look for it.


Different environments allow for the survival of different beliefs. I suspect this actually fucks with the way that a lot of people analyze adaptive customs. They see what has survived, what remains, whatever can adapt to modernity, and then try and figure out why that should have been so helpful in the past. But why on earth do you think that it was the most important ritual then, or that it exists in the same form (with the same emphasis) now as it did then? The kind of ritual that’s useful to a farmer is not necessarily useful to an investment banker. Agrarian community is different from industrialized, capitalist nation, duh. Gri-gri was not important before, which is why it only appeared in 2012.

It’s easy to confound belief in gri-gri with belief in the elders. We have a legibile account now for “gri-gri“, but we’re lacking one for the elders. That doesn’t make them unimportant – without them we get no gri-gri. But it’s not clear to me that “witchdoctors” can actually survive in any significant way in a modern society. Congo-Kinsasha is much less of a market society than the US is, which seems somewhat important. All beliefs survive even here, of course, but larger community is real important for most of their effects. Gri-gri: less effective if only one dude snorts it.

Consider the following: it’s not very hard to recognize that “adherence to ancient ritual” can be a time suck in modernity. Time is critically important for success in a capitalist society, and that goes doubly for people who desire status. Status, and what people with it do, notably impacts how the rest of the community behaves. There’s not many steps between that and the  “institution of elders” disappearing over time in a market-society. I’ll go one further, add up these two facts: 1) Belief in the unlimited wisdom of elders, as well as belief in magic, were both pretty widespread only a few hundred years ago. That includes a lot of what-would-become modern industrialized nations. 2) Now, nursing homes.

This makes it sound like the elders were just sitting around waiting to invent gri-gri when the time came, and sure, kind of. These institutions have reasons, they may not always be obvious, and judging their use based on “survival” in a highly limited time-frame is flat-out ridiculous. That’s been the argument up until now.

I want to make a far larger claim here. I can’t prove it now, but you may as well hear it: loss of [whatever you want to call elders and religion] is not simply the loss of a tool. It’s the loss of a worldview, one which impacts psychology. Given that economics and politics are (nominally) about “happiness”, as in “internal states”, this is probably an important thing to consider. I mean that in the broadest possible way, but you can take the restrictive version if you want: certain things are either not on the market or adhering to them necessarily limits your competitiveness (at this moment), and this is a real thing. See: salary of a monk vs. Zuck, who I’m sure is otherwise “really spiritual and stuff”.


I’m not a luddite, don’t make me explain why. I also don’t accept the bog standard: “But I grew up in modernity, and I’m fine!” That’s what every human in history has thought, no matter whether or not they’ve been lying to themselves. Everyone knows that their society is the best for human thriving, every group has been “fine”.

No, I don’t mean that modernity is totally “soulless”, and that isn’t how I’d put it,  but immediate resistance to the idea that “Hey, maybe we lost some important things” is telling in itself. What does that mean? “I’m good like I am, I don’t need to change.” Ah, there it is.

We’re wealthier than anyone has been in the history of the world. We consume more than anyone ever has. Anyone who makes the argument that capitalism necessarily impoverishes has to deal with that fact; I’m not making that argument. If gold and doodads were all anyone needed we’d all be blissed to the eyeballs. Instead, the 20th century is a horror show and nearly all of its philosophical achievements are about just how bad it is. Instead, we view Kafka as “really getting at the heart of modernity”. I agree to a point, but what does that tell you about us? Not Kafka himself, but the fact that the cultural consensus gives him our laurels?

The order of this series is Scott, Polanyi, Hoffer, Lasch, and the current essay looks a whole lot like I’m expanding on the first two. I mean, it is, but it’s necessary preface to the latter two. I said here that these four books are all “external”, and I stand by that. I’m not going to attempt some theory of human motivation, nor (stronger) get into why people act any given way. I have no total psychology to offer you right now. That doesn’t stop me from recognizing: hey, maybe that internal thing is sort of important.

If you don’t understand the above, it’s going to be hard to understand what Hoffer and Lasch offer, and even harder to understand why they’re related to Scott and Polanyi. The kinds of complaints they deal with – where mass movements come from – isn’t as dramatic. I won’t explicitly address much of what I did here, but it’s necessary background noise. Hoffer/Lasch are still economic and political, but they can’t just be categorized by more stuff/less stuff. Economies and internal states are not at odds, but they also aren’t perfect approximations of each other. There’s a give, also a take, and occasionally a systemic collapse.

Sum it up: Survival of a belief or trait is environment dependent, and a market-society is a unique environment. The survival of a belief or trait is not the same as it leading to human thriving.

Our aim is for thriving.

Yours might be mere survival, but ignoring this lesson won’t help you. Rid yourself of useless witchdoctors and there will be no gri-gri when the militia comes.

(PS. Tocqueville effect, yes. That’ll be in the Hoffer, but also: why do you think that means what you want it to? What is the mechanism for it?)

top image from Werner Herzog’s Happy People

Part of the Uruk Series

Author: Lou Keep

34 thoughts on “The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life”

  1. Thanks much! Seems to relate a lot to issues that I’ve been wondering / internally fuming about, especially as relates to the modernist / rationalist / SSC worldview.

    My (somewhat biased) attempt at a summary: A premise of modernism is that rational decision-making is 100% compatible with human thriving. Gri-gri is a counterexample showing that this is not the case, at least if you remove the assumption of a market economy. (More precisely, counterexample to the standard rationalist premise that knowing the truth never makes you worse off.) Fair?

    But I feel like you’re also trying to say something further about environments and psychology and state policy which I didn’t totally understand. Is that true? Care to provide a TL;DR for what this is and why it matters?


    1. I think that the modern rationalist movement is aware of the dangers that truth seeking can cause, see for example: , or discussions of instrumental vs epistemic rationality, or information hazards.

      But as the link says, there is no way to be both aware of the advantages of certain ‘irrational’ behaviours and then decide to implement them yourselves. Co-ordination problems in a western country could not be solved by introducing gri-gri to some office or political system.


    2. You’ve mentioned part of it. Some of the more radical claims are things that I cna’t really prove without a whole lot more writing. I just put them in as flags for later pieces, or food for thought. There are probably two major threads in this piece. They’re related:

      I would say that survival and thriving aren’t the same. Judging adaptations merely by their survival or use for survival says nothing about whether they give us the kind of life we want to live. “Thriving” is much more internal, hence one should pay attention to human psychology. Certain rituals are more important for that than they first appear, and some of those will get outcompeted. That’s the more radical claim, actually.

      I should say: I’m quite fond of Scott Alexander, and I don’t think I’m saying anything here that he doesn’t know. I’m not sure about the broader rationalist community, but at least SSC’s Moloch is a good example of this (/much better explanation than I have here).

      The other is about utility of rituals for survival. That’s the environment one:

      Market societies are such new environments that rituals/adaptations which have survived or prospered under it aren’t really representative of whatever “normal human psychology” is. Many of the earlier rituals (useful for previous environments) have since been outcompeted. That’s bad for “thriving”, perhaps, but it’s also bad for survival. Some of those will not show their use immediately, and in that waiting period might disappear.

      Gri-gri is useful, because it’s dependent on a different “irrational” belief (elders/witchdoctors). Before gri-gri could arise when needed, those institutions had to survive. I suspect that many such institutions have been/are eligible to be outcompeted in market-societies before their use shows (i.e. gri-gri, or whatever its equivalent would be). It’s a function of time (what if this thing disappears before we need it). The warning is that judging things based on their current use says nothing about what their actual value might be, and yet that’s a far-too-common method of analysis.

      As sohois below says, gri-gri wouldn’t be helpful for the modern US and we have no idea what would be, but it might come from a source that’s considered “totally useless” at the moment. Only after it shows its use can we analyze why it was so helpful.

      Does that make some sense? I may edit this piece in a day or two to add in a TL;DR conclusion, actually, in which case it’ll hopefully be cleaner and clearer than this comment.


      1. I think that many social institutions, other than being simply out-competed by a differing socially emergent institutions could just as likely fall due to a greater cultural shift that causes people to no longer value what the institution represents. It might not be a case of decline because older values are performing its perceived primary function inefficiently, but it’s probably important to differentiate the loss of a critical social institution because its primary function has been out-competed, and when the loss of a critical social institution happens because people no longer believe the worldview that the institution is rested upon.

        Also, do you have a background in public administration? Because I’m personally seeing a lot of potential crossover between some of the points you make about broader social institutions and the existing literature in that field, moreso than just concepts you’ve mentioned from Scott. (Or it may be because I tend to self select for literature that ideologically alligns with his viewpoint in the first place, and building on the ideas mentioned you’ve struck a similar cord.

        “The warning is that judging things based on their current use says nothing about what their actual value might be,”
        In terms of actually determining value in those scenarios, I’d personally just pull from the Public Admin maxim that “the older an institution is, the broader the scope of the social function it serves.”


    3. “(More precisely, counterexample to the standard rationalist premise that knowing the truth never makes you worse off.)”
      Not true for this case. It’s useful for an individual in a community that’s being attacked by militias to know that gri-gri doesn’t actually work because they’re more likely to live through any battles and take steps to avoid being shot. If an individual believes in gri-gri’s power to make you invulnerable, that hurts the individual (because it increases the chances they’ll be shot as they won’t take additional steps against it) but it benefits all the other individuals in the community, as the gri-gri believers will fight harder, or fight at all, because they believe the cost for fighting is lower.
      The ideal position from a game theory perspective is to be the lone individual who knows gri-gri won’t protect you from bullets in a community where every other individual believes. This way you can free ride on the sacrifices of others.


  2. “But it’s not clear to me that “witchdoctors” can actually survive in any significant way in a modern society.” I dunno, homeopathy and the like do OK in the modern market-society.


  3. To extend the metaphor: that throwing out religion is thought to be just throwing out a few programs whose functionality can be reimplemented in new and improved apps, when the reality might be that throwing out religion also throws out some illegible core OS functionality which results in some weird dependency bugs.


  4. Seems to me the obvious next question would be whether feeling philosophically aghast at modernity is itself somehow adaptive. This reaction does not necessarily contain a signal about the state of modernity as compared to previous times. “Sad is happy for deep people” and such. I wouldn’t be surprised if most intellectuals had claimed that the current times are a clear horror compared to the golden age of antiquity, and that something essential to the human condition had been lost, for as far back as such a concept as antiquity existed.


    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if “most intellectuals” fit your description either. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if most of them turned out to be right.


    2. The golden age myth is in our earliest texts. Eden, of course, although one can read that as a description of the (harrowing) transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian. Gilgamesh has it, sort of (in the figure of Utnapishtim). Homer constantly mentions things done “such as no ten men of today [could do]”, and Hesiod has a full taxonomy of decay. Later on, of course: the Romantics, although they were reacting against the early industrial age (kind of).

      I think there’s a real question as to whether these really are the same or whether they simply look the same. There’s a difference between Homer writing about the great men of the past, and our emphasis on the tragic figures of modernity. One affirms, the other denies, to put it a certain way. Different, but related: if one age is worse than another (I think that’s true, inasmuch as I wouldn’t want to live in a few of them) then presumably some of them are more right than others. But either way: I agree with you, and I don’t think “look at modernity and how sad its art is” is nearly as obvious as it might first appear. I’m more interested in the self-image, as you point out.


      I debated throwing in a line on this but decided against it. It’s unquestionable to me that there are adaptive traits for modernity, but I was worried that my own biases would dictate which ones I chose. Hence, silence until some later point. There are a few I can think of, let’s go with the most jarring:

      I’m not positive on this, so don’t quote me if I totally contradict myself in a later piece, but one way to view narcissism is precisely that. I’m not sure how far I want to take that, but (spoiler alert) it’s probably why I’m slightly more concerned with structural change against individual change. Both are important, of course, but if narcissism is adaptive, then we don’t want to rid ourselves of it. At the same time certain traits are helpful in bad situations and no others, which means we should probably change the situation to the best of our ability (also, impossible to stop such an adaptation without changing the environment). That’s probably a good breakdown of what I meant by “psychological aspects” that can be good or bad independent of their use, but w/e. You get the point.


    1. No, but thanks! This is super interesting, and right up my alley. I’ll read it and get back (may take some time).

      The best part of this blog so far is people sending me interesting papers that I wouldn’t have found on my own.


  5. Banning gri-gri would be an extreme outlier, inasmuch as “exposure to violent militias” is not a common problem.

    Yes, but…why is “exposure to violent militias” not a common problem? It’s that damned state that wants you to have a surname that also takes care of violent militias.


    1. If you insist on reading this series as some sort of Libertarian or Anarchist rant against the state (or for that matter as a Conservative argument for the importance of religion) you’re missing 90% of the value.
      The interest is not in any particular claim that’s made, it’s in the reasoning behind the claims, and that reasoning is appropriate to vastly more circumstances than the examples being given. The claims of importance are things like “if only legible data are taken into account, then everything will optimize for that legible data”, and that’s as true whether you are designing web sites, running a state, or trying to build the best life for your family.


  6. Another winner, you’re on a roll. I especially liked the line: “No one understands the internal!” A) Bullshit, the elders clearly do, at least to a point, because these ‘unscientific’ ‘elders’ are routinely put down in modern society, and it’s nice to see the recognition that the modern approach is sometimes simply far inferior. Another parallel I’d take is ‘Orientalism’ or the understanding of foreign cultures. You’d think that a century of scientific progress and the increasing application of brainpower to sociology might have led to a better understanding of, say, Middle Eastern culture. And yet, Lord Cromer controlled Egypt with a relative handful of soldiers and a minimal technological advantage (“whatever happens, we have got / the Maxim Gun, and they have not”), and kept it so peaceful that large numbers of Europeans went to live in Cairo simply for fun (and Egypt’s economy prospered in this period); meanwhile America with its massive corps of bureaucrats and sociologists, gigantic budget, and insane sci-fi technology has managed to completely bungle the management of Iraq, pouring blood and treasure into what might as well have been a Sarlacc and turning the whole place into a pit of chaos. Bush the Younger and Bremer had all the above advantages, plus a hundred years of social theory; and yet somehow Cromer comes out on top. It’d be funny if it hadn’t resulted in so much worthless bloodshed.

    If this all sounds familiar, I stole this point from Moldbug. And now for something completely different.

    I’m curious if you see any military equivalent to gri-gri in modern Western culture (not modern high-academic culture, but the slightly more traditional kind). There certainly were things that could motivate people to endanger their lives, but those tended to be things like “Russia” or “socialism” or “democracy” or a simple fraternal bond with their comrades-in-arms, i.e. they knew they were endangering their lives but did it anyway for the sake of something greater. While this may be functionally equivalent to gri-gri in a lot of ways – a mechanism to get lots of people to do ‘irrational’ things which become rational as a group strategy – I think it operates a little differently. Gri-gri (and similar things like the Righteous and Harmonious Fists) make a very ‘materialist’ claim, i.e. invulnerability to bullets; things like patriotism operate ‘metaphysically’. One says, “fight because you cannot be harmed”; the other says “fight even though you are risking harm, because [insert higher good here]”.

    [I’ll throw in a third ‘martyrdom’ option as in the ’72 virgins’ thing / ‘all crusaders go to heaven’ – “fight because if you die you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife” – but this is similar to option 2 in many ways.]

    I can see several advantages of the ‘metaphysical’ approach, the obvious one being that gri-gri makes testable claims which don’t seem like they’d survive contact with reality and bullets. I mean, suppose a band of villagers using gri-gri fight a militia force, and one gets shot. Wouldn’t that cause the others to break and flee, because it invalidates their ritual (even if it doesn’t disprove gri-gri as a concept)? But the “Die for Russia” (possibly an actual Soviet Army slogan?) approach doesn’t have this weakness.

    If these people have the concept of an afterlife (ideally with a ‘heaven/hell’ dynamic already in play) it seems the martyrdom route might be easier to sell and more robust against reality. Was the culture in these places simply not conducive to such an approach? Or does the gri-gri approach have some sort of advantage I’m not seeing?

    PS. Unrelated, but fully half the letters in Nathan Nunn’s name are “n”. For some reason this stuck out to me.


    1. Man, that Nathan Nunn thing got me good. I should’ve noticed that.

      I don’t know what a military form of gri-gri we have is. I’ll have to think on that. In general, I assume that forms of it (or at least versions of the elders) exist throughout societies, but I haven’t decided what a specific would be here. It’s something I’ve been thinking on and haven’t fully determined.

      A major problem is that the US is so culturally diverse as to make anything that strong almost certainly local. I assume that a whole lot of the Christianity examples I’ve discussed are functionally equivalent in peacetime, and could possibly lead to wartime rituals, but I just don’t know. When was the last time [littletown], Indiana had enough violence to make that a necessity?

      I do recall reading about a lot of weird ritualistic stuff happening among soldiers in Vietnam, but I don’t remember enough to actually be sure. I suspect that some of the more material (and military) variants only come out in situations that require them. Gri-gri, after all, only appeared in South Kivu in 2012 as a result of instability. If we lack some equivalent, I suspect that we’re weaker for it.

      Not the US, but one example I can think of from a previously-stable and Christian society suddenly exposed to violence and adapting is the Santa Muerte Cults in Northern Mexico. There must be some fascinating economic work waiting for whoever wants to explore that.


    2. «No one would fight, of course. The effect only comes from the individual. If he doesn’t think he can survive a bullet, then it’s hard to see how you’re going to make him fight. “But people fight better in groups, don’t you see?” stammers the exasperated researcher.»

      It seems worthwhile, in this context, to ask how early (up until not-so-early) states achieved this same goal of everyone fighting in a group. Something like the phalanx, as I understand it, only works if everyone operates on exactly the same page, all the way up to the “squares” and precisely timed firing of the 1700s up to the Napoleonic Wars.
      It’s possible the phalanx was justified by magic, I have no idea, but as far as I know squares were justified on rationality and discipline.
      In other words rationality can work! Of course discipline (apparently substantial, aggressive, amounts of it) are also required. So perhaps it’s fair to say only that we need irrationality if discipline is not a feasible option?

      I don’t know where that gets us. Maybe the particular case you described is unusual? Or maybe, if you enforce the discipline for long enough, you can bend the society to your will, enough that people don’t even realize that their behavior is “unnatural” (cue Protestant ethic, or claims about the point of school being to breed docile workers…)?
      I suspect it’s a little of both. You can bend people quite a bit; but firstly there are limits, and secondly the bending has to be more or less rooted in reality — if it comports with “natural desires”, and/or if it delivers visible benefits, imposed bending can be done, but try to fight both of those simultaneously and you’re in trouble?

      For the general point you are making about psychology, of course, my goto phrase is “TV is more important than food”:

      For earlier versions of gri-gri:


  7. That gri-gri magic isn’t really that efficient (psychologically) – and it isn’t that new. Che Guevara, who fought in Congo in 1965, described it (then it was named dawa):

    Still another unpleasant surprise for Che was the discovery of the rebels’ faith in witchcraft, or dawa. They believed that a magic potion protected them from harm. Che learned about this magic in his very first meeting with the Congolese command. A pleasant-seeming officer introduced himself as Lieutenant Colonel Lambert and explained, cheerfully, “that for them, the [enemy] airplanes were not very important because they possessed the dawa medicine that makes them invulnerable to bullets.” Lambert assured Che that he had been hit by bullets several times, but because of the dawa, they had fallen harmlessly to the ground. “He explained it between smiles,” wrote Che, “and I felt obliged to go along with the joke, which I believed was his attempt to demonstrate the little importance he conceded to the enemy’s armaments. After a little while, I realized the thing was serious, and that the magical protector was one of the great weapons of the Congolese Army.”

    Dawa gave soldiers courage before the battle, but in the battle all that courage disappeared:

    The attack, which begun on July 29, was a catastrophe. The assault leader, Víctor Dreke, reported that at the first outbreak of combat, many of the Tutsi fled, abandoning their weapons, while many of the Congolese simply refused to fight at all. Over a third of the men had deserted before the fighting even began. […]

    The Africans attributed their defeat to bad dawa, and said that the witch doctor who had applied it to the fighters had been inadequate. “[The witch doctor] tried to defend himself, blaming it on women and on fear, but there were no women there … and not all the men were prepared to confess their weaknesses,” Che wrote. “It didn’t look good for the witch doctor and he was demoted.”

    (source: “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson, who quotes from Che Guevara’s memoir)


    1. Yeah, gri-gri is likely just a new form of it. There clearly is some difference, because gri-gri was “invented” recently, but I’m not clear what it is. Either way: I think the point is “in contrast to what?”

      In the case of gri-gri, the contrast is most definitely “not fighting at all.” Fighting with gri-gri may be less effective than simply being brave and fighting without it, but that doesn’t appear to be an option. Similarly, most reports I’ve read of gri-gri/dawa/other fall pretty firmly on the side of “It makes people fight, although they may be less effective when they do.” Which is, you know, better than nothing.

      Che’s case may be special, and there are exceptions to every rule, but I am somewhat skeptical of that reading. It would surprise me if the enemy soldiers weren’t also using dawa, and one can imagine the opposite passage from their perspective (for what it’s worth, this seems to be the case in most related conflicts I’ve read about). I looked through Che’s diary and found that it seemed really important (he says “La creencia es tan fuerte que nadie va a combate sin hacerse la dawa.”), and I doubt that would be reserved for one single group. It seems that the proper comparison appears to be “not fighting at all” rather than “fighting without dawa.”

      I think Machiavelli is probably a good comparison here. Discussing the Samnite rebellion, he says:

      “Whence [the Samnites] decided to make one last try: and since they knew that to want to win it was necessary to induce obstinacy into the courage of the soldiers, and that to induce it there was no better means than Religion, they decided to repeat their ancient sacrifices through the medium of Ovius Paccius their Priest, who arranged it in this form: that a solemn sacrifice being made, (and), in the midst of the slain victims and burning altars make all the heads of the army swear never to abandon the fight; then they summoned the soldiers one by one and in the midst of those altars and surrounded by many centurions with bared swords in their hands, they made them first swear that they would not reveal the things they saw or heard, then with execrable phrases and words full of terror they made them swear and promise the Gods that they would go readily wherever the Emperor should command them, and never to flee in battle, and to kill whomever they should see fleeing; which oath if not observed would be visited on the head of his family and on his descendants. And some of them being frightened, (and) not wanting to swear, were quickly put to death by the centurions: so that the others who followed, terrified by the ferocity of the spectacle, all swore. And in order to make this gathering of theirs more imposing, there being forty thousand men there, they dressed half of them in white clothes with crests and plumes on the helmets, and thus arrayed they took position at Aquilonia: Papirius came against them, who in encouraging his soldiers said, “Those crests cannot inflict wounds, and paint and gilding keep Roman javelins from transfixing shields”. And to weaken the opinion that his soldiers had of the enemy because of the oath they had taken, he said that it (the oath) was to inspire fear, and not courage, in those (who had taken it), for it made them at the same time fear their own Citizens, their Gods, and their enemies. And coming to the fight, the Samnites were defeated; for the virtu of the Romans, and the fear conceived from the past routs overcame whatever obstinacy they were able to assume by virtu of their Religion and by the oath they had taken. None the less it is seen that they (the Samnites) did not appear to have any other refuge, nor try other remedies to be able to revive hope and reestablish their lost virtu. Which fully testifies how much confidence can be obtained by means of Religion well used.” (Discourses on Livy, I, 15)

      Note that they still lost, and they were routed, and the Romans mocked them. Still, the choice isn’t fight perfectly/imperfectly. It’s fight/don’t fight, and recourse to religion and superstition seems more useful than, well, lacking it.


    2. and it isn’t that new

      I hadn’t heard of the Congo Crisis case before, thanks. But “bulletproofing” rituals aren’t even limited to one continent. The other examples I’ve seen before are the “ghost shirts” in the Ghost Dance War, the martial arts beliefs in the Boxer Rebellion, and “war medicine” in the Maji Maji Rebellion.

      Searching around, I see commenters at list a few more examples, though some of them are marginal (Crusaders and Imperial Japanese believed in divinely-ensured victory, not in personal invulnerability) and some I can’t find any better sources for (whirling Dervish dances as a protection ritual in the Mahdist War).

      Liked by 1 person

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