Your Brain on Politics

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The Religious Brain: A Default Setting?

New research suggests that we may indeed be "built" for belief.

For some time on my podcast Point of Inquiry, I've been doing occasional shows that explore what you might call the "innateness" of human religiosity--or in other words, why the way our brains are built can turn scientific thinking into a kind of also-ran.

In one program, for instance, I spoke with Emory University cognitive scientist Robert McCauley about his book Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, which argues that our minds, from very early on, are geared towards certain tendencies that privilege religious belief over critical thinking. 

In another show, meanwhile, I spoke with psychologist Will Gervais about how a more basic and intuitive cognitive style, one that comes to us quite naturally, promotes religious belief. 

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Now there's new research on this front--and once again, it's bad news for those who hope that we'll someday elevate ourselves into an Enlightenment state where critical thinking becomes a default tendency. In a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, a team of scientists at Boston University find that even professional physicists are susceptible to one of the key mental defaults associated with religion--namely, teleological or purpose-oriented thinking.

The experiment involved a group of 80 physical scientists, who were compared to control groups of 1) college undergraduates; 2) college graduates who were the same age as the scientists, but did not have advanced degrees; 3) scholars from the humanities (in a second study). All experimental participants were asked to judge the truth of a variety of short statements that contained false teleological explanations: e.g., "Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe," and "Germs mutate in order to become drug resistant." Critically, sometimes the participants were required to evaluate the statements very quickly, but at other times they were allowed to take their time and think it through.

What the study found is that the physicists were, in general, much better than the first two control groups at avoiding teleological fallacies. But when they were asked to give their answers quickly, teleological errors increased among physicists just as they did for all the groups, as you can see:

To be clear--the physicists were obviously much better at avoiding teleological traps. And they were also surveyed and found, not surprisingly, to be less religious than the first two control groups. But nevertheless, when their cognitive resources were limited by the experimental requirement to answer rapidly--or as the researchers put it, "when they did not have time to censor their own thinking"--even the physicists too showed an apparent teleological default.

There's another notable upshot from the figure above. It appears that physicists and humanities scholars alike are a lot better at this teleology avoidance game than college undergraduates, or people with bachelor's degrees but no specialized academic training. In other words, it may be an advanced academic training, rather than advanced scientific training per se, that helps you check teleological thinking.

What's the big picture here? Well, once again, this research would seem to support a "built for religion" interpretation of the human mind. As the researchers conclude:

A broad teleological tendency...appears to be a robust, resilient, and developmentally enduring feature of the human mind that arises early in life and gets masked rather than replaced, even in those whose scientific expertise and explicit metaphysical commitments seem most likely to counteract it.

And again:

Notions of purpose are central underpinnings of the world’s religions, and the present research reveals not only that they are a natural default for the human mind but also that they are intimately connected to intuitions about agency. The formal beliefs and binding cultural effects of religion therefore appear to have robust roots in intuitive theoretical biases present from early childhood. The enduring effects of the human teleological bias on science and culture may be more profound than we realize.

So the next time you hear scientists--or physicists--decrying human irrationality, and wondering why people refuse to accept what is scientifically obvious...well, it seems like this is a paper they ought to consult.

Reference: Kelemen et al, "Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as a Cognitive Default," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Online publication, October 15.

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science.

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