Laws of Sympathetic Magic: Introduction

by on January 15, 2011

Science is based on observation and reproducibility, but prior to genuine scientific understanding, humans reasoned that unexplainable phenomenons were caused by supreme beings and magic. This mentality is still a significant part of human behaviour and should be factored in food and drink creation because the actions of people do not necessarily follow the most logical path. Even though these laws are broadly applied, they do have a significant influence on what and how we eat and drink. Beyond that, if you understand these two simple laws, your can bring your bartending skills to another level.

The Laws of Sympathetic Magic (magical thinking) were described by James Frazer (The Golden Bough, 1890) and Marcel Mauss (Outline of a General Theory of Magic, 1902) to account for a wide variety of magical practices and beliefs in traditional cultures that seemed to be outside of scientific reasoning. Because these patterns are seen across many cultures they are thought to be laws that govern human thought and behaviour.

The neat thing about these laws is that they can be used in very practical ways when working behind the bar and making drinks. In an interesting twist, this information seems less applicable to chefs, but the laws can still be applied to food.

In their simplest form the two laws are Similarity and Contagion.

Law of Similarity

Things that have similarities, share some inherent properties - “like produces like” or “the image is equal to the object”. Most people will commonly recognize this as the voodoo doll ritual. Creating a figurine in the likeness of a person will cause the figurine to share the persons identity. This is where the law says that action taken against one will influence the other. So poking your voodoo doll with a hot firebrand will inflict pain upon the person.

Similarity also occurs in religious idols and statues of rulers. If you are Christian, the idea of performing an dirty, nasty, sinful act like a “Guatemalan Handshake”, in the presence of a crucifix could be blasphemous* because the crucifix is “equal to the object” or a representation of God. Or, if you follow the teachings of Islam, a picture of Mohammad is considered blasphemous. Again, “the image is equal to the object”.

*Madonna received a lot of heat for her videos in the 1980s and 1990s because they combined sexuality and religious symbols.

Law of Contagion

This can be summarized as “once in contact, always in contact”, or “the part is equal to the whole”. It is a type of magical thinking that suggests that once two objects have been in contact, they continue to affect each other, even when their contact is broken.

When a fly lands in your mashed potatoes, even if we scoop out the area where it landed, the whole pile of potatoes is still considered “contaminated”. Many people will avoid eating the potatoes, even though any chance of disease has been removed.

Even though we know scientifically that incidental fly contact, followed by removal of the contaminated area, does not contaminate the rest of the potatoes, humans have a belief system that can contradict logic. Since this is a known factor, scientists have had to incorporate this nonscientific causal reasoning into their studies which resulted in the Laws of Sympathetic Magic.

Facts About Magical Thinking
These laws are absent in very young children.
Tears are the only body fluid that are not found to be universally disgusting.
Women are substantially more sensitive to disgust than men.
Disgust declines as we age, especially after teenage years
Almost equal for men and women by the time of retirement age
Education is negatively correlated with disgust

Obviously, the most basic use of this information is that fruit flies and liqueur don’t mix. The majority of people who get a fruit fly in their drink will send it back. Same goes for a misplaced hair. Once the disgust response is evoked, it can really turn a person off from their choice of drink and in some cases the whole establishment.

In Part II I’ll write about Incorporation, Contamination and Transvaluation with respect to magical thinking. That’s when we get into the meat of this topic and begin to understand how and why people react a certain way to specific events.

And yes, all of this information is very useful in the world of food and drink, especially with regards to marketing of spirits. It will also answer why vodka and certain cocktails are so popular.

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