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china 2592294 640From medieval witch hunts in Europe to contemporary “witch doctors” in Tanzania, belief in witchcraft has existed across human societies throughout history. Anthropologists have long been fascinated by the phenomenon, but have struggled to study it with quantitative methods – our understanding of how and why it arises is therefore poor.

But a study we conducted of one Chinese region provided an opportunity to test the most common hypothesis – that witchcraft accusations act as punishment for those who do not cooperate with local norms. According to this theory, witch tags mark supposedly untrustworthy individuals and encourage others to conform out of fear of being labelled. However, some empirical studies have shown that witch labelling instead undermines trust and social cohesion in a society.

The Conversation - Why are women accused of witchcraft? Study in rural China gives clue