Would You Stick Pins In A Voodoo Doll of Your Child?

By Neuroskeptic | February 5, 2016 3:24 pm

Well? Would you…?

This was the question faced by the participants in a rather extraordinary series of studies described in a new paper from Illinois psychologists Randy J. McCarthy and colleagues. In total, 1081 parents with children aged under 18 were presented with an outline of a person, and asked to imagine that it was their own child. They were told to think of a time when their child made them angry. Finally, they were asked how many pins they would like to stick into the “doll” in order to “inflict harm on or physically punish their child”.


You might think that no parent would choose to stick so much as a single pin in this virtual voodoo doll, but you’d be wrong. Across the studies, while around 80% of parents chose zero pins, that leaves roughly 20% of them who did report a desire to insert in at least one pin. Worryingly, in one study, 10% of parents chose to use at least one pin even after being prompted to think about positive behavior from their child.

In one of the studies, parents were asked to explain their choice in an open-ended text box response. Most of the pin-stickers cited punishment as the motive, e.g. “Because the child should have been spanked for bad behavior.” One parent however simply said “Very angry.” Hmm.

All of these results came from online studies (on MTurk). The “doll” was just an image and the “pins” were imaginary. What would happen, then, if this task were performed in real life? In study #6. McCarthy et al. examined this question, recruiting 196 parents. In this study, the child’s outline was on a piece of paper and parents were given 10 small round stickers which they could physically stick onto the drawing in order to “harm” it.

These real life results were very similar to the online experiments: 80% of participants used no stickers, while 20% used at least one. Sticker usage was correlated with the parent’s scores on questionnaire measures of aggression, depression, and ‘child abuse potential’. There was no difference between males and females.

McCarthy et al. conclude that the Voodoo Doll Task (VDT) is a valid “proxy for aggressive parenting behaviors”. They acknowledge that it is a rather strange task, but they say:

Some readers may be concerned about the artificiality of the VDT. On the face of it, the VDT looks nothing like “real-world” parent-to-child aggression. We concede that the VDT is contrived and artificial: parents are not often in a position to stick pins into voodoo dolls of their children. However, these superficial aspects of the VDT do not invalidate the evidence we provide in the current manuscript.

Should you wish to adopt the Voodoo Doll Task, the materials are available here. The VDT was first introduced, in more general context, in 2013 (h/t Rolf Degen).

ResearchBlogging.orgMcCarthy RJ, Crouch JL, Basham AR, Milner JS, & Skowronski JJ (2016). Validating the Voodoo Doll Task as a Proxy for Aggressive Parenting Behavior. Psychology of Violence, 6 (1), 135-144 PMID: 26839734

  • Rixware

    Hello, Discover Magazine? Are you there?? Do you READ the comments? Do you know that Disqus offers a very simple and handy control panel by which you can remove comments (and even block commenters) that are weirdly incoherent?

    I have really come to dread getting to the end of a very enjoyable post only to find the crazed and seemingly automatic ravings of the SAME persistently unhinged author, over and over, day after day. I’m sure you realize that it only takes one weird comment to effectively block serious discussion by the rest of your readers.

    Or is this some sort of devious experiment? Are you trying to see just how much blather your sane readers will take before rebelling? If so, allow me to wave the white flag. Please show us some mercy and end this torture.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Your concerns have been heard!

    • Emkay

      you received 9 pins, how did it feel?

    • OWilson

      One day maybe we can have that Utopian world where we will all think the same. Your way, of course :)

      (I believe you can still find are still a few progressive worker’s paradises where this is the case, even today)

      • Rixware

        For the record, disagreement is not the enemy, by any means. The twin enemies are incoherence and irrelevance. (And, in your parenthetical addendum, you show your hand.)

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    Isn’t this why people with kids have pets? 😉

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I would not stick a pin in a voodoo doll of my cat. Even though my cat sometimes sticks pins (claws) in my real leg.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Korporate Kulture demand proper response, not empirically valid response. That is why large corporations are more then large enough to fail.

  • Christopher J. Ferguson

    I’ve only taken a quick look, so may be incorrect, but I’m still not sure this is a valid measure of aggression. It seems that the response frequency is pretty low. In the absence of a check for unreliable/mischievous responding (which is what I didn’t see, but will mea culpa if I missed this), it’s hard to know whether this is “real” aggressive responding or just carelessness (or purposeful silliness). I think other studies suggest that easily 10% of responses are unreliable, maybe more, and that these unreliable responses can certainly cause spurious findings.
    And there’s still the basic problem (shared with most aggression measures in fairness), that the behaviors here appear to have been ostensibly sanctioned by the researchers. Further, in some respects, the voodoo task is actually further from the definition compared to other tasks, since respondents know they aren’t really causing harm to another (unless they believe in voodoo).
    So it would be nice to have an aggression “better mouse trap”…but I’m honestly not sure this is it.
    Again, if my quick read of the article has caused me to miss something, I apologize in advance.

  • smut clyde

    McCarthy et al. conclude that the Voodoo Doll Task (VDT) is a valid “proxy for aggressive parenting behaviors”. They acknowledge that it is a rather strange task, but they say:

    It all sounds more like a test of “susceptibility to magical thinking” to me. Put stickers on a photograph? Why the hell not?

  • Pingback: El Vudú como detector de violencia familiar. | Pablo Della Paolera()

  • CL

    So f I do not believe in magic I am more likely to exhibit aggressive parenting behavior according to this proxy… Funny, as the Bible is pretty positive to corporal punishment.

  • Pingback: 20% of Turkers would stick pins in their children | MTurk for Academics()



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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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