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Why Being Wrong can be Right: Magical Warfare Technologies and the Persistence of False Beliefs

Nathan Nunn, Raul Sanchez de la Sierra

NBER Working Paper No. 23207
Issued in March 2017
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Development Economics, Economic Fluctuations and Growth, Law and Economics, Political Economy

Across human societies, one sees many examples of deeply rooted and widely-held beliefs that are almost certainly untrue. Examples include beliefs about witchcraft, magic, ordeals, and superstitions. Why are such incorrect beliefs so prevalent and how do they persist? We consider this question through an examination of superstitions and magic associated with conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Focusing on superstitions related to bulletproofing, we provide theory and case-study evidence showing how these incorrect beliefs persist. Although harmful at the individual-level, we show that they generate Pareto efficient outcomes that have group-level benefits.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23207

Published: Nathan Nunn & Raul Sanchez de la Sierra, 2017. "Why Being Wrong Can Be Right: Magical Warfare Technologies and the Persistence of False Beliefs," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 107(5), pages 582-587, May. citation courtesy of

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