In our house, it has become a Halloween tradition to watch scary movies throughout the month of October. A tradition we refer to as Shocktober. Inevitably, we end up viewing a number of films that involve evil spirts and demonic possessions. Like a lot of fans, we don’t take these stories seriously. We just enjoy the fantasy. However, surveys suggest that many people, particularly those who describe themselves as highly religious, believe evil spirits are more than a fictional creation. But why? Do people gain any psychological benefits from believing that evil supernatural forces are real?
My research lab studies how religious beliefs contribute to perceptions of meaning in life. Not surprisingly, we and other researchers reliably find that religious beliefs help people find and maintain meaning. In general, the more religious people are, the more they believe their lives are meaningful. Religious beliefs make people feel like their existence is purposeful (i.e., God has a plan for them), that they are being watched over by benevolent supernatural agents (God, guardian angels), and that they are part of a larger and meaningful cosmic drama (i.e., God intentionally created the world). Not surprisingly then, when people are struggling with difficult life challenges that make them feel uncertain, stressed, or scared, religious beliefs serve an important psychological function. They restore and protect a sense of meaning in life.
It makes sense that religious beliefs that involve loving and protective supernatural agents such as God and guardian angels would help people feel like their lives are meaningful and purposeful. But what about the darker side of the supernatural? Why are some people inclined to believe in the existence of malevolent supernatural forces such as evil spirits, dark magic, and demons?
Might the belief in supernatural evil forces also help people find and maintain meaning? This is a counterintuitive proposal because most of the research on the psychology of meaning suggests that meaning is derived from positive emotional states. People feel most meaningful when they are happy, not when they are anxious or scared. For instance, the pleasant state of feeling loved by God increases a sense of meaning. We typically do not associate meaning with negative emotional states such as fear and anxiety. But thinking about evil forces causes these types of negative emotions. So how would the belief in evil generate meaning?
Supernatural beliefs about evil forces and spirits may increase meaning because they support a broader worldview about the supernatural world. That is, if there are forces of evil then there are probably forces of good. So people might be motivated to believe in evil supernatural agents and forces because they want to believe in benevolent supernatural agents and forces and the two go hand in hand. If this is true then one would expect that when people are struggling to find meaning in life they would be inclined to believe in the existence of evil forces, but only if they are the type of people who hold more positive supernatural beliefs such as the belief in a loving God.
My lab recently explored and found support for this idea. In one study, we administered questionnaires assessing religiosity and perceptions of meaning in life. We then presented research participants with a task that involved reading a profile of a young man who murdered his sister and responding to questions concerning the causes of his actions. These questions specifically assessed the extent to which participants attributed his actions to non-supernatural causes (e.g., having an abusive father) or supernatural causes involving evil forces (e.g., having an evil spirit).
Here is what we found. Highly religious participants who reported feeling like their lives lacked meaning were the most likely to believe that evil supernatural forces influenced the murderer’s actions. In other words, it was the people who needed meaning (those lacking it) and who derive meaning from supernatural beliefs (highly religious people) who were most attracted to a supernatural explanation of a horrible crime. These individuals were more likely to believe that the murderer had a dark soul. They were less likely to attribute his actions to non-supernatural causes such as growing up in an abusive household.
In a second study, instead of measuring meaning we experimentally manipulated it by having some participants read a philosophical essay arguing that humans are cosmically insignificant and that life is objectively meaningless. This essay challenges the idea that human life is purposeful. Participants in a control condition read a philosophical essay not related to meaning. Next, participants completed a questionnaire assessing belief in evil supernatural forces. This measure included items such as “People should take things like black magic seriously” and “People should avoid things that may provoke evil spirits (e.g., Ouija boards)”.
We observed the same pattern of results as before. Having participants read a philosophical essay that challenged the belief that life is meaningful increased belief in evil supernatural forces. But this was only the case among highly religious participants. In other words, highly religious people who had their perceptions of meaning threatened were the most concerned about the existence of evil supernatural forces.
Humans have long been fascinated by stories about magical forces for good and evil. These stories can be found in many of our religious traditions. Lots of research has focused on the psychological benefits of the good side of supernatural beliefs. Beliefs about the power of prayer, positive energy, a loving God, and guardian angels give people comfort and a sense of security. Our research suggests that there are benefits to the evil side as well. Beliefs about evil spirits and dark forces can be terrifying but they also reinforce broader beliefs about the existence of the supernatural. Good and evil forces are two sides of the same coin. Highly religious people invest in supernatural beliefs to affirm meaning when facing life experiences that threaten meaning. Turns out, these people don’t only turn to the more positive beliefs about benevolent forces when they are seeking meaning in life. Meaning can also be found in the less emotionally pleasant beliefs concerning the existence of forces for evil.