Anthropology, Placebos, and Magic Voodoo Doctors

Authors, Blog, Omar Abdelhamid, Science and Technology, Society, Uncategorized

When the anthropology students of Horace Miner harshly judged and mocked the cultures of the people they studied and read about, Miner showed his students the humanity of these cultures and put them in a better light in a very clever way. He wrote an article  about the Nacirema, a Tribe with very strange customs and traditions, such as a mouth-rite ritual done by sticking horse hairs in the mouth. How strange indeed. A culture with medicine men and women and a charm-box in the washing room.

Nacirema, of course, is American backwards. The customs above, what we know as brushing teeth, going to the doctor, and medicine cabinets respectively, are expressed in ways that people unknown to our daily lives could perceive. And Miner proved that it was so easy for Anthropologists to make people in other cultures seem almost less than human, when what they were doing would make perfect sense to them, and to us if we were born into the same culture.

When we think to cultures with what we see as “Magic Voodoo Doctors” people who seem to cure illnesses in bizarre ways, we also tend to see these Doctors, and the people foolish enough to think anything of their credibility, as foolish and also less than human.

But if we look with from a scientific standpoint, the reality is that people living in tribes long ago had a lot of reason to believe that the magic Voodoo doctors could really cure them.


Because they did.


Yes, the magical Voodoo doctors’ magical cures did cure the sick. And this is all because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is an actual physical effect in which you could be physically affected if you believe that you will be physically affected.

For example, if you are given a pill by a doctor that you trust, and the doctor tells you it will give you a headache, in many cases, it does.

Even if the pill actually has no side effects.

There have been reports of addiction to pills that you can’t get addicted to, and actual withdrawal affects, just because the patients were told that they would have these effects.

That’s why your doctor tells you that a shot won’t hurt when they give it to you.

This is more than misattribution. Studies have proven that an actual anti-placebo vaccine exists, in which you don’t go through with the effect, in the same situation. It’s something that really does go on in your body, not just a mind set, and it could cause real side effects, just through the belief of them.

This works in a number of ways. One easy to understand way that the effect takes place is that your body’s “symptoms” to diseases are often just defense mechanisms. For example, fevers are your body trying to make your body uncomfortable for disease causing bacteria through body temperature. If you are told that a pill cures the illness, it might actually seem to do so, because your body will cease to think it needs the defense mechanisms because it believes that the source of the illness is gone, and thus you will lose your fever, and you will consciously think that your disease is gone. This in turn makes your body more susceptible to the disease, and allows you defense to be put down before it should.


How does this apply to our Voodoo doctors? Well, the answer is quite clear.

These magic Voodoo doctors were obviously a big part of the culture of these tribes.  Over time, they were trusted, because of how many people they cured. And as trust rose, they were able to cure more people, because, due to the placebo effect, people would think that methods that the doctor used were actually curing them, and it would. The concept seems bizarre, but it is a perfect explanation as to why the credibility of these doctors were always in tact, even though their methods of curing weren’t scientific, elaborate, or overall effective. In reality, the belief of the patient that they were effective made them effective.

And the next time you get a shot, trust your doctor. Because if you do, he’s right.


-Omar Abdelhamid