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All Paths Lead to Magical Thinking

Which cognitive biases lead to which supernatural beliefs?

In recent years, psychologists have come to understand religion and paranormal belief as resulting, in most people, from simple errors in reasoning. You believe in God or astrology or a purpose in life because you apply ideas about people—that they have thoughts and intentions—to the natural world. Some display this tendency more than others, but it’s there in everyone, even atheistic heathens like me. What has not been clarified is exactly how the various cognitive biases interact to produce specific ideas about the supernatural—until now.

In the November 2013 issue of Cognition, Aiyana Willard and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia report on the relative influence of three cognitive tendencies on three types of supernatural belief, as well as the role of cultural influence.

Several studies show that people who think more intuitively are also more susceptible to magical thinking. One intuition that’s been proposed as a foundation for religious thought is Cartesian mind-body dualism, the idea that a mind can exist independently of a body. (See chapter 5 of my book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: “The Soul Lives On.”) This proposition allows for souls, ghosts, spirits, and Gods, all made of disembodied mind-stuff. Explanations for dualism include belief in free will and the mutual inhibition of brain areas responsible for pondering feelings and physics.

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Another psychological process related to mysticism is anthropomorphism, the tendency to apply human-like traits to non-human entities or concepts. (See chapter 6 of my book: “The World is Alive.”) God or the Universe is hearing your prayers. Your laptop meant to crash during your presentation. Your dog understands you. Anthropomorphism can be motivated by loneliness or the need to predict and control our environment. It’s a form of pattern-seeking in which the pattern is another coherent mind.

A third process involved in magical thinking is teleological reasoning, seeing a purpose (telos, Greek for end) in objects or events. (See chapter 7: “Everything Happens for a Reason.”) Many things have a purpose (chairs, weddings). Many don’t (the Grand Canyon, hurricanes), but we sometimes feel like they do. Again, searching for purposes is a way to understand and ultimately control the world around us.

Behind these three phenomena is mentalizing, the process of thinking about thoughts. It’s been shown that prayer activates parts of the brain associated with “theory of mind,” and that people with reduced mentalizing capabilities—those with autism or penises—are less religious. Why think about the mind of God if minds don’t interest you in the first place?

In their study, Willard and Norenzayan measured these tendencies among a group of UBC undergrads and a group of American adults, and also measured belief in God, the paranormal, and purpose in life.

Dualism was measured using a scale that avoided religious content; subjects rated agreement with statements such as “The ‘self’ I introspect about controls both the mind and the brain.” The anthropomorphism scale used questions including “To what extent does the ocean have consciousness?” For teleology, subjects rated the accuracy of sentences such as “The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize.” And for mentalizing they took the Empathy Quotient scale: “I am good at predicting how someone will feel,” etc.

The measure of belief in God had three items, including “I believe in God.” Belief in life’s purpose was also measured with three items, including “Things in my life happen for a reason.” And for belief in the paranormal they used a version of the Paranormal Belief Scale that left out subcales for religiosity (to avoid confounds) and extraordinary life forms (the abominable snowman may not be real but neither is he supernatural, unless you count that magical smile). They retained the subscales for belief in psi (telekinesis and telepathy), witchcraft, superstition, spiritualism (out-of-body experiences, reincarnation, speaking with the dead), and precognition (astrology and psychics). For Americans, the researchers also measured cultural exposure to religion using statistics on church attendance in their area.

What Willard and Norenzayan produced was a model for each subject group that looked like this (here’s the one for the American sample):

It’s messy, but here is their “preliminary summary”:

[W]e have found that individual differences in mentalizing tendencies encouraged mind-body dualism, teleology, and anthropomorphism (albeit, weakly); dualism, and to a lesser extent teleology in turn led to belief in God, belief in paranormal events, and belief in life having an underlying and possibly transcendental purpose. … Anthropomorphic tendencies failed to predict belief in God, but predicted paranormal belief, and to a much lesser extent, belief that life has a purpose.

They also tested a statistical model in which mentalizing led to belief in God, the paranormal, and life’s purpose, which then led to dualism, anthropomorphism, and teleology, but this model did not fit the data well.

The proportion of religious adherents in a respondent’s county also predicted belief in God, but not dualism or teleology, indicating that culture and cognitive biases each promote religiosity on their own, although they probably interact. Local church attendance actually appeared to reduce anthropomorphism. The researchers speculate that Christianity’s history of denouncing animism as idolatry may suppress anthropomorphism in some people.

Here are some possible explanations for the main findings.

Dualism was the strongest predictor of the three types of supernatural belief. It’s the foundation for belief in God, a disembodied mind. It’s also necessary for belief in spirits, part of the paranormal package. And it may encourage belief in life’s purpose because people see disembodied intentionality acting everywhere, or because belief in the afterlife enhances life’s meaning.

Teleology leads to belief in life’s purpose when one turns the process on oneself. It may lead to belief in God when one supposes God as the source of all the perceived purposefulness. And it could encourage paranormal belief if one supposes the source of purpose to be a spirit or a witch or the telekinetic powers of someone who has read The Secret.

Anthropomorphism could lead to paranormal belief if you see the world as alive and receptive to your thoughts or spells, or predictable through astrology. It might lead to belief in life’s purpose if one sees the whole world as conspiring to help or harm you. “Anthropomorphism of ‘life’ or ‘the universe’ shouldn’t be any different from anthropomorphizing the ocean, albeit a little bit more abstract,” Willard tells me. “Life has intentions for you.” Anthropomorphism does not increase belief in God, however. Somehow seeing the world as alive doesn’t translate into conceiving of one central personality pulling all the strings.

Interestingly, belief in God strongly predicted a sense of life’s purpose (more than the cognitive biases did), but a sense of life’s purpose did not predict belief in God. I’m still trying to figure that one out. It could be a mere artifact: Willard and Norenzayan note that the entire study is correlational, and that demonstrating causality conclusively will require more work.

Take another look at the diagram above. It’s worth noting that at the entrance of that maze of boxes and lines haunted with ghosts and witches and talking trees is one simple item: mentalizing. Which means that if you’re a fully developed human, with an understanding that minds exist, then through one path or another you’re probably going to end up in magic-land.

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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