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The economic origins of the evil eye belief

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  • Gershman, Boris

Abstract

The evil eye belief is a widespread superstition according to which people can cause harm by a mere envious glance at coveted objects or their owners. This paper argues that such belief originated and persisted as a useful heuristic under conditions in which envy was likely to trigger destructive behavior and the avoidance of other people's envy, effectively prescribed by the evil eye belief, was a proper response to that threat. We hypothesize that in weakly institutionalized societies wealth differentiation and vulnerability of productive assets were the key factors enabling envy-induced destructive behavior and contributing to the emergence and spread of the evil eye belief as a cultural defense mechanism. Evidence from small-scale preindustrial societies shows that there is indeed a robust positive association between the incidence of the belief and measures of wealth inequality, controlling for potential confounding factors such as patterns of spatial and cross-cultural diffusion and various dimensions of early economic development. Furthermore, the evil eye belief is more prevalent in agro-pastoral societies that tend to sustain higher levels of inequality and where vulnerable material wealth plays a dominant role in the subsistence economy.

Suggested Citation

  • Gershman, Boris, 2015. "The economic origins of the evil eye belief," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 110(C), pages 119-144.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jeborg:v:110:y:2015:i:c:p:119-144
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2014.12.002
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    Cited by:

    1. Boris Gershman, 2014. "The two sides of envy," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 19(4), pages 407-438, December.
    2. repec:kap:revaec:v:32:y:2019:i:1:d:10.1007_s11138-017-0405-0 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Gershman, Boris, 2016. "Witchcraft beliefs and the erosion of social capital: Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 120(C), pages 182-208.
    4. Di Falco, Salvatore & Feri, Francesco & Pin, Paolo & Vollenweider, Xavier, 2018. "Ties that bind: Network redistributive pressure and economic decisions in village economies," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 131(C), pages 123-131.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    Culture; Envy; Evil eye belief; Inequality; Institutions; Superstition;

    JEL classification:

    • D31 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - Personal Income and Wealth Distribution
    • D74 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - Conflict; Conflict Resolution; Alliances; Revolutions
    • N30 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - General, International, or Comparative
    • O10 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - General
    • Z10 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - General
    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification

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