The Economic Origins of the Evil Eye Belief
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.
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