… So as a rational, self-interested actor, it makes no sense for me to vote. There is a reason why it’s important to tell us on election day that our votes will make a difference: thinking about it will lead the economically rational to conclude it’s not true. Nor did it make any sense for me to hold my nose. It was even more absurd than the enthusiasm of the football supporters in the pub last night, shouting in disappointment when their team missed a goal on television. They are least were taking part in a collective ritual with their friends; I was quite alone and unobserved.
One way of interpreting all these actions is as a form of sympathetic magic. While my rational mind knows perfectly well that neither my vote nor my pantomime will have any effect they are both behaviours that make sense only if on some level I do expect them to be effective. Similarly, the football fans surely believe that their support helps their team along – they behave as if they do, and still more as if the team was damaged by a lack of belief.
A more radical explanation is that the belief that we believe in magic is itself a rationalisation. Holding my nose while voting or shouting at an invisible football team is is entirely instinctive behaviour, and can be triggered even when it has no purpose at all, any more than giggling when I am tickled does, or sneezing when exposed to bright light. This is actually quite an important point in some theories of religion, like Pascal Boyer’s and one that is hard to answer: almost all our accounts of ritual behaviour are based on the idea that it is a conscious attempt to manipulate the world but maybe it is done entirely for its own sake. …