The hidden economic lessons of the evil eye

It’s powerful.
It’s powerful.
Image: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki
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In Brazil, it’s olho grande. Italians call it il malocchio. Hungarians refer to gonosz szem. Deochi in Romania. In urdu, it’s known as nazar lagna. In Arabic, ayn al-hasud literally means ‘eye of envy.”

Despite its myriad names, belief in the evil eye carries striking similarities across countries and cultures around the world. At its heart is the conviction that a glance rooted in envy has the power to destroy property and other coveted objects. And in some parts of the world it has particular resonance. Roughly 90% of respondents to polling in Tunisia carried out in 2011 and 2012 believed in the “evil eye or that certain people can cast spells and do harm.” Even in the world’s largest, most-sophisticated economy, the US, roughly 16% of respondents believed in the evil eye and related powers, according to Pew Research.

Pure evil.
Pure evil.
Image: AP Photo

Such folkloric beliefs have long been grounds for study by anthropologists. But economists now find they have something to add, too. A recent paper published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization argues that the belief in the “evil eye” is actually a finely honed defense mechanism for property holders in societies where envy is more likely to result in destruction of assets rather than economically productive impulse sometimes known as “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.”

“The idea is that these cultural rules of thumb, or heuristics, are simple guides to actions that are actually approximating rational behavior,” said Boris Gershman, the American University professor who authored the paper.

In other words, a belief in the evil eye leads to economically sensible behavior, especially for those who own property. Here’s how: If you, the property owner, believe that envious glances have destructive power, you’re likely to try to avoid such glances by not flaunting your wealth. That would, in turn, reduce the risk of actually destructive attacks on your assets. In other words, believing in the evil eye is good for asset preservation.

Gershman believes he found support for his theory by crunching a data set that, remarkably, contains data on the belief in the evil eye gathered by anthropologists who’ve studied some 186 societies around the world. He found the evil eye belief is much more likely to be found in highly unequal societies, as well as societies where wealth is stored in highly visible, material possessions, such as farming and animal herding societies. (Think of societies where wealth is measured in livestock, for example.) Its existence in such societies squares with Gershman’s theories on why it might be useful. “The evil eye belief is a useful cultural response in an environment conducive to destructive manifestations of envy,” Gershman wrote.

This may sound strange to people in wealthy economies, where envy is often thought to lead to striving for more material goods rather than destroying someone else’s property.

“That’s the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses part,” says Gershman, who came to the US from Moscow eight years ago. “If you’re from Russia, like me, you’re familiar with a different side of envy—which is malicious envy or destructive envy.” (Anyone who has ever had a new car “keyed” knows, destructive envy can still pop up in even the most sophisticated economies.)

In fact, the destructive might of envy has been found to be a giant hurdle for economic development in many societies, where envy-avoiding behavior can have deleterious effects. Anthropologist George Foster, who studied the rural Mexican community of Tzintzuntzan for more than 50 years, found that initial opposition to putting glass windows into the walls of homes was  ”was caused not by fear of thieves but by the fear that passersby would look inside and envy what they saw.” In his landmark 1966 opus, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, Helmut Schoeck noted that some Indian farmers would pass on using certain fertilizers, for fear that a bumper crop elicited feelings of envy from fellow villagers. Likewise some other wealthy farmers would purchase several smaller fields, rather than one large tract, in the hopes that they could avoid arousing jealous feelings. “The fear of the evil eye affects real economic decisions by discouraging effort, wealth accumulation, and upward mobility and encouraging unproductive practices such as concealment of wealth,” Gershman writes.

In short, envy can be an economic power. But whether it’s positive or negative stems largely from how it’s channeled. Strong property rights, police services, and courts are thought to mitigate some destructive elements of envy. (If the costs of destroying your snooty neighbor’s property are high enough, you’d likely stew passively.) Stark inequality can also stoke the flames of destructive envy.

At any rate, hardline responses alone won’t solve nasty behavior completely. For instance, experiments found that people’s willingness to destroy the wealth of competitors in games was far less sensitive to higher costs than they would have guessed, suggesting that making destructive behavior more costly won’t be enough to banish the evil eye forever.