Field of Science

Sex lives of the atheists (and everyone else)

Take a bunch of unmarried students of diverse backgrounds at a university in the south-west of the USA. Now which of them, do you suppose, has the raunchiest sex lives? Christians? Jews? The nonreligious? Or atheists, perhaps?

Well, the answer is... all of them!

Cindy Meston (at the University of Texas) and colleagues interviewed over 1,000 students in their survey of sexual behaviours, and found almost no difference between the different faith groups in what was reported. Virtually all of them reported in engaging in some form of premarital sex.

Women (although not men) who were Jewish or fundamentalist Christians did report a somewhat lower incidence of sexual intercourse - but apart from that pretty much anything goes.

No differences in the types of sexual activities (it was quite a, erm, exhaustive survey), in the number of partners (both in the past and the number anticipated in the next 5 years), or in the age at which they lost their virginity. If anything, Christian women lost their virginity slightly earlier than atheists.

What's more, there was no difference in the level of infidelity between atheists and the religious - more evidence that religious identification is a poor guide to honesty.

In a separate study, they looked at the frequency and types of sexual fantasies. Here there was a clear difference. Atheist and especially agnostic women (but again, not men) fantasise more often and more widely (gender bending, masochism, sadism, - you name it!).

Oddly enough, the only men to confess to having taken part in homosexual intercourse were Christian (just under 10% of Christian men) - although in the second study there was no hint of increased gender-bending fantasies. Make of that what you will.

So far this has all been about self-reported identification. Are you Christian, Jewish, Spiritualist, Non-religious, atheist, or agnostic? But what about intensity of beliefs?

Meston and colleagues also measured beliefs using some fairly standard scales - spiritual beliefs, paranormal/new age beliefs, fundamentalist beliefs, and intrinsic religiosity (how central religious belief is to your life).

When you look at beliefs, rather than identification, some rather starker differences emerge.

Broadly speaking, compared with non-believers, any form of traditional religious belief has a deadening effect on sexual activity (both the act and also fantasies, especially for women). However, paranormal and new age beliefs were linked to an increase in all kinds of sexual activity.

For men, the effect was much less. Indeed, fundamentalist Christian men actually reported more sexual partners in the past year than their non-religious counterparts! A case of get religion and get laid? Or just down to the fact that here is a relative shortage of evangelical men?

So, among these students, it seems that religious affiliation is a poor guide to sexual behaviour and fantasies, but that women (and also some men) with strong religious beliefs try to avoid even thinking about it.

But that's students! What about older folk? Well, Mark Regnerus (also at the University of Texas - it seems to be a hotbed of sex research) and colleagues have just published a study into the sex lives of older Americans.

It turns out that among oldies, too, there is very little relationship between religion and either sexual frequency or sexual satisfaction. Just as with the youngsters, however, unmarried women who were also religious were also less likely to have had sex.

But religion had no effect on male sexual activity. Makes you wonder why religion is so popular among women in the US, and yet shunned by men!


ResearchBlogging.orgFarmer, M., Trapnell, P., & Meston, C. (2008). The Relation Between Sexual Behavior and Religiosity Subtypes: A Test of the Secularization Hypothesis Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38 (5), 852-865 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-008-9407-0

Ahrold, T., Farmer, M., Trapnell, P., & Meston, C. (2010). The Relationship Among Sexual Attitudes, Sexual Fantasy, and Religiosity Archives of Sexual Behavior DOI: 10.1007/s10508-010-9621-4

McFarland, M., Uecker, J., & Regnerus, M. (2010). The Role of Religion in Shaping Sexual Frequency and Satisfaction: Evidence from Married and Unmarried Older Adults Journal of Sex Research, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/00224491003739993

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

The hypnotic power of charismatic religion

Whatever else you think about charismatic preachers, they have a dramatic power over their audience. While their followers believe them to have special powers, a new brain imaging study by Uffe Schjødt at Aarhus University in Denmark suggests that it's all just a product of their imagination.

In fact, the brain imaging study is only part of the story. What's even more remarkable is what it says about how some people come to fall under the spell of these charismatics.

What they did was to take a small group of pentecostal Christians and a matched group of non-believers. Both were chosen so as to represent the extreme ends of the belief scale.

They were asked to listen to prayers being read by three different people who, they were told, were a non-Christian, an ordinary Christian, and a Christian 'known for his healing powers'. In fact, they were all ordinary Christians...

So there was no real difference between the prayers (the speakers were mixed up to make sure differences in speaking style could not affect the experiment). The only difference was what the listener was told, but what a dramatic effect it had!

When asked, the pentecostalists rated the one they were told was a healer as the most charismatic, and the person they thought was non-religious as much less charismatic (see the graph). For the non-believers, there was a slight trend in the same direction, but it was small and insignificant. Basically, they weren't taken in by the deception.

But the pentecostalists were. Just telling a pentecostalists that someone has healing powers makes them think that they are highly charismatic. What's more, they didn't feel God's presence in the prayers read by the person they were told was a non-Christian.

So where does the hypnotism come in? Well, specific regions of the pentecostalist's brains became somewhat activated when listening to the prayer from the 'non-believer', but highly deactivated when listening to the prayer from the 'charismatic healer'. The prayer from the ordinary Christian resulted in deactivation too, but on a small scale.

And the regions that were deactivated by the 'charismatic healer' were all associated with 'executive function' - the part of the mind that evaluates, monitors, and makes decisions. A similar response has been seen in the brains of people undergoing hypnosis - as well as meditation.

In other words, they went into a bit of a trance.

What Schjødt thinks is happening here is that, when we listen someone we trust implicitly, we switch off our critical faculties, and just let what they are saying wash over us. In the words of the researchers, "subjects suspend or 'hand over' their critical faculty to the trusted person."

Now, in this scenario the atheists were immune to the powers of the charismatic preacher. But we shouldn't run away with the idea that this is a particular characteristic of religious people. Stage hypnosis shows that you that you can see similar effects in secular situations - and Milgram's scary experiments in authority also spring to mind.

What strikes me most about this study is that the charisma of the preacher was all in the minds of the subjects. They were willing dupes.

And what this study also shows is just how closely linked the razmatazz of charismatic preachers is to the showmanship of stage hypnotists. They seem to be exploiting a common human weakness - and one that has enormous power!

Hat tip: Paliban Daily and New Scientist.


ResearchBlogging.orgSchjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A., Lund, T., & Roepstorff, A. (2010). The power of charisma - perceived charisma inhibits the frontal executive network of believers in intercessory prayer Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsq023

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

The ethical dilemma for doctors in religious hospitals

One in every eight hospitals in the USA is a religious foundation. As with faith schools in the UK, they receive government funding (in the form of Medicare and Medicaid payments, as well as tax-exempt bonds), but they're allowed to set their own policies to conform with their religious principles.

So, for example, some religious hospitals stop their doctors from providing legal medical treatment, such as contraception, abortion, and certain end-of-life treatment options.

This poses a potential dilemma for healthcare providers. A recent survey, by Debra Stulberg, at the University of Chicago, and colleagues, set out to investigate.

They surveyed over 400 doctors, chosen at random [technical note: this wasn't a completely random sample. To make it statistically robust, they specifically set out to get more doctors with South Asian or Arabic surnames, and they adjusted the results to take this into account].

Just over 40% had worked at one time in a religious hospital. This was pretty evenly spread across age, religious affiliation (or none) and other demographics.

One in five of those who had worked in a religious hospital reported that their treatment decisions had at least sometimes come into conflict with hospital policy. In other words, 20% of doctors in religious hospitals have been prevented from prescribing what they believe to be the best treatment for their patients.

Women were twice as likely as men to have faced this problem (presumably because they are more likely to be dealing with female sexual health). And young doctors were more likely than older ones to have had conflicts with hospital policy.

Although you might expect non-religious doctors to be more likely to have problems with the ethics of religious hospitals, it turns out that they are not alone. As shown in the graph, Muslims and Hindus also had problems (contraception is allowed under Islamic law).

In fact, the differences between faiths were not statistically significant (although this may be because the survey was too small).

What did these doctors do when faced with a conflict? Well, almost without exception they complied with hospital policy and denied treatment to their patients.

Here there was a difference between doctors of different faiths. Nonreligious doctors were five times more likely to disobey hospital rules and give the treatment that they thought best. But even so, 90% of nonreligious doctors turned their patients away.

Is this a problem? After all, patients can go somewhere else if they don't like the hospital's policy. Well, the problem is that modern medical care is best provided in specialist units. As a result, hospital services are steadily consolidating:
As a result of widespread hospital consolidations many patients, and perhaps particularly those in underserved communities, have fewer choices regarding where to receive health care.
As a result, the authors say:
... patients cared for in a religious hospital or practice who seek time-sensitive but restricted interventions—such as emergency contraception—may face delays as their physicians transfer or refer them to nonreligious institutions. Whether these delays are seen as harmful to the patient depends on one’s beliefs about the intervention itself; even among the authors of this paper, judgments vary.
It seems an oddly paternalistic attitude, in this age of patients' rights. Which is why, perhaps, young doctors in particular are disgruntled by it.


ResearchBlogging.orgStulberg, D., Lawrence, R., Shattuck, J., & Curlin, F. (2010). Religious Hospitals and Primary Care Physicians: Conflicts over Policies for Patient Care Journal of General Internal Medicine DOI: 10.1007/s11606-010-1329-6

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Why religion can lead to racism

Religious people are more racist than average [edit: this is in the USA. It probably also applies to Europe, but not necessarily to the rest of the world]. That fact has been known for decades, and it's rather surprising given that mainstream religions are unanimous in preaching racial tolerance. Just why this should be is not well understood.

Does religion really cause racism, or is it that are racists drawn to religion? Three recent studies have shed a little light on that question, with fascinating results.

Do subconscious religious prompts increase racism?

Can you make someone more racist simply by subtly reminding them about religion? That's what Wade Rowatt and colleagues set out to discover. They gave a group of college students a task that had religious cues embedded within it. The idea was to prime their subconscious with religious thoughts.

Then they asked them about their racial attitudes. Although the primed students didn't come straight out and admit to greater racism, their covert racism did increase. Rowatt and colleagues also found that students, when religiously primed, were more likely to agree that they dislike African-Americans.

So religious thoughts seem to trigger racist thoughts. One obvious explanation for this is that religion tends to increase benevolence towards co-religionists, but can increase hostility towards outsiders.

But in the USA, most Whites and African-Americans are Protestant Christians - not only the same religion, but the same sect! It's true that worship and religious styles are often segregated, but it seems far-fetched to say that the religious differences came first.

There might be more to this study than first meets the eye, however. Rowatt's group of students were rather unusual. They were all undergraduates at a southern, Christian university (Baylor College, Texas). There is a powerful tradition of segregation in this region. Perhaps the religious prompts were triggering feelings of social conservatism?

Religious conformity is linked to racist attitudes

That would fit with the results of a recent analysis of studies reaching back over several decades and looking at the correlation between different aspects of religion and racism (all of which were done mostly or entirely in the USA). This analysis, by Deborah Hall at Duke University and colleagues, found no correlation between racism and the liberal, 'questioning' form of religion.

The aspect of religion that was linked strongly to racism was so-called 'extrinsic' religiosity - a measure of whether the individual's religious attitudes are driven by a desire for social conformity and social status.

An even more fascinating finding was that the strength of this correlation is declining. As racist attitudes gradually become socially unacceptable, so the link between 'extrinsic' religiosity and racism is ebbing away.

They also found a tight link between fundamentalist religion and racism. This isn't too surprising, but what was interesting was that there were close parallels between fundamentalism, racism, and right-wing authoritarianism.

Fundamentalists also tend to be 'right-wing authoritarians' - they value obedience to authority, hostility to outsiders, and conventionalism. When you take this into account, it turns out that right-wing authoritarianism pretty much explains the link between fundamentalism and racism.

Does religious fundamentalism increase right-wing authoritarianism?

The world view promoted by religious fundamentalism has many facets that look a lot like the precursors of right wing authoritarianism. Fundamentalists tend to believe that knowledge consists of simple truths which are either right or wrong (good or evil, with us or against us), which are unchanging, and which are handed down by a powerful authority and not to be questioned. All of these could lead to right-wing authoritarianism.

Laura Barnes, at Oklahoma State University, and her grad student John Hathcoat set out to test this model analysing the beliefs of undergraduate students. They used a statistical technique, bootstrapping, to test whether the model was plausible.

They found that three key beliefs about how the world works seemed to mediate the relationship between fundamentalism and authoritarianism: certain knowledge (the idea that there are fixed, absolute truths), simple knowledge (the idea that the world is simple and straightforward, not complex), and omniscient authority (the idea that authority should be obeyed).

This analysis doesn't prove the causal link, but it does show that it's plausible. What's more, they tested a model that worked in the opposite direction, and found it didn't fit the data nearly so well.

In other words, fundamentalist beliefs really do seem to lead down a pathway towards right-wing authoritarianism (and so on to racism).


ResearchBlogging.orgMegan K. Johnson, Wade C. Rowatt, & Jordan LaBouff (2010). Priming Christian Religious Concepts Increases Racial Prejudice Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1 (2), 119-126 : 10.1177/1948550609357246

Hall, D., Matz, D., & Wood, W. (2009). Why Don't We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14 (1), 126-139 DOI: 10.1177/1088868309352179

Hathcoat, J., & Barnes, L. (2010). Explaining the Relationship Among Fundamentalism and Authoritarianism: An Epistemic Connection International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 20 (2), 73-84 DOI: 10.1080/10508611003607884

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Why cloning is yucky

A team lead by Douglass Turnbull at the Newcastle University in the UK has just announced that they have successfully transplanted a human egg nucleus into a new cell. The advance holds out the prospect that mothers with inheritable defects in their mitochondrial DNA can nonetheless give birth to healthy children.

It got a predictable denunciation from religious conservatives, who described it as:
"a further step toward tampering with the very essence of humanity, and demonstrates not just a contempt for life itself – all the embryos in this experiment were destroyed for science – but a profoundly dangerous and arrogant belief that we can tamper with the genetic makeup of our fellow human beings." (Family Research Council)
This is a familiar theme. While many people find the idea of cloning to be disturbing or even repugnant, few people can actually put their fingers on what exactly the problem is - leaving exclamations of disgust as their only means of argument (like this from 2008 on animal hybrids).

Bioethicists who oppose human cloning have turned this into a rationale of sorts. They call it "The Wisdom of Repugnance". If something seems intuitively wrong, that's because we have an intuitive wisdom - even if we can't articulate what the problem is.

Jussi Niemelä of the University of Helsinki, in a recent paper in the journal Bioethics, takes issue with this stance. He points out that cloning violates a raft of instinctive - yet wrong - intuitions about how the world works. The reason we find it yucky is that it violates our evolved ways of thinking about the world.

For example, we intuitively believe that all things - especially living things - have an essence that makes them what they are:
The cat will continue being a cat no matter how much its outer appearance might change over the years of its existence. A human baby, an adult and an elderly person with a prosthetic leg and one lung removed are all equally human, no matter how different they are morphologically. This tendency can also be called "postulation of causal essence".
We also have intuitions about how the biological world works. For example, according to Pascal Boyer (author of "Religion Explained") we have an animal 'template' that says, for example. that animals are born and not made:
Thus a skunk [concept] falls under the inferential rules of an animal [template]. This is to say that if a cat [animal] has baby cats, needs to eat, has a mind etc., then a skunk [animal] also has baby skunks, needs to eat and so on. These things need not be learned separately for each concept as long as the concepts are linked to the right template supplying the inferential framework.
These are 'cognitive shortcuts'. Simple rules that our brains have evolved to allow us to make rapid decisions about the world around us. The problem comes when we try to apply these instinctive rules to situations that never occurred in our evolutionary past.
Folk-biological reasoning is an essentialistic, automatic and streamlined way of making sense of incredibly complex world of living kinds. The automatic cognitive tendencies are, as discussed in the section about essentialism, quick and useful in everyday life, but not necessarily correct in a scientific sense. This is why natural thinking tendencies get into all sorts of trouble when genetics are involved.
Cloning breaks the intuitive rules about biological life in a number of ways. Because clones are manufactured, folk-biological reasoning puts clones in the category of artefacts, rather than living things - and yet they are alive. They break the break the template that specifies that 'animals' are conceived through procreation.

Cloned organisms also break the folk-biological rule about species classification - that cats procreate and give birth to cats, cows to cows, etc.

What's more, cloned organisms don't appear to have an essence (or 'soul'). As the Catholic Church says:
The spiritual soul, which is the essential constituent of every subject belonging to the human species and is created directly by God, cannot be generated by the parents, produced by artificial fertilization, or cloned. (s1060, Pontifical Academy for Life.)
So repugnance isn't wisdom at all. It's an intuition that something is wrong, for sure, but that intuition is driven by our evolved rules for understanding how the world works.
Cloning represents a radical deviation from the norms of reproduction and the features of living kinds human minds have evolved to understand. As such, it is not surprising that it should give rise to just these kinds of reactions: a strange, eerie feeling of something out-of-place, a fear of transgressing invisible, unspeakable yet profound boundaries etc.
And when we sense that something doesn't fit our intuitions about the natural world, our moral system of disgust kicks in. That doesn't mean that cloning is right, of course. But it does mean that we can't trust our intuitions to give us a morally correct answer.

As Niemelä says, on a topic like cloning our instinctive reactions have about as much to do with wisdom or ethical thought as does a knee-jerk reflex!


Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Blood donations: religious and non-religious are equally generous

According to a new analysis of data from the US National Survey of Family Growth, there is no relationship between giving blood any facet of religiosity. Neither the religion in which the person was raised (versus none), nor religious service attendance, nor the importance of religion in daily life, were related to whether the person had given blood in the past.

In terms of raw numbers, women raised as mainline protestants were slightly more likely to have given blood than people from other religions or none (see figure), but these effects disappeared once the statistics were adjusted for other factors (for example, people who are born in the USA are more likely to give blood than are immigrants). There was no effect among men, even in the unadjusted data.

By cutting and dicing the statistics, the authors (Frank Gillum at Howard University and Kevin Masters at Syracuse) were able to find occasional groups that seemed to be more generous donors (Catholic men aged 35-44, for example), but I think they have fallen foul of the problem of multiple comparisons. If you make enough groups (nearly 50 in this case) some are going to come out high just by random chance.

This is a surprising result, given that the religious are supposed to be more charitable and pro-social than the non-religious. If nothing else, you would expect religious service attenders to donate more, simply because (in the US at least) conscientious and dutiful people are expected to do both.

The authors think that it might be because religiously-motivated charity is primarily directed to people of the same 'tribe'. The problem with blood donations is that anyone could benefit - even people who are outsiders.

That would certainly fit with other research into charitable giving (some 80% of evangelical charitable giving goes to other evangelicals), and charitable giving to co-religious is inversely related to support for broad-based state welfare. It also fits with theories that explain religion as an invented (or socially evolved) tool to increase group solidarity.

But I can't help thinking that another process might also be at work here. One of the interesting things about religion is that, although religious people tend to report that they are more pro-social, when tested in controlled conditions they are not (except when previously primed with religious messages).

Now, blood donations are all traceable. That means you might think twice to make sure that you give an accurate report of your donation history, and resist the temptation to inflate your contributions to match your self image!


ResearchBlogging.orgGillum RF, & Masters KS (2010). Religiousness and blood donation: findings from a national survey. Journal of health psychology, 15 (2), 163-72 PMID: 20207660

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Spite is the flipside of brotherly love

The biologist JBS Haldane famously said that he would lay down his life for two brothers... or eight cousins. That's kinship altruism - the idea that it makes evolutionary sense to sacrifice yourself to benefit close relatives (who share a lot of your genes). But there's another side to kinship altruism, as described by two Oxford University biologists, Stuart West and Andy Gardner, in a recent paper in Science.

They point out that spiteful behaviour - acting cruelly for no gain to yourself - actually makes sense (in certain circumstances) for the same reason kinship altruism does. If your relatives benefit from your spiteful behaviour (or even if the target of your spite is less related to you than the average stranger) then then your genes could benefit.

In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, spite and kinship altruism are the same thing (they're both explained in mathematical terms using 'Hamilton's Rule').

Now, West & Gardner don't mention religion, but this fact has interesting implications. As the anthropologist Lyle Steadman has pointed out, almost all the world's religions use kinship terms (mother, father, brother, sister) to refer to their co-religionists.

The idea is that religion helps to stabilise large societies by subverting our intuitive kinship altruism and extending it to non-relatives. Which is all well and good for co-religionists, but the downside is that people of a different religion then become emphatically non-kin (failing both real and religious kinship criteria).

Which might help to explain the spiteful actions that often occur between followers of different gods.

West and Gardner also discuss so-called 'green beards'. This refers to genes (or gene-complexes) that code for an altruistic trait and also for a signal. Dawkins coined the term to describe the hypothetical case of a gene that simultaneously codes for the green beard itself and also for co-operative behaviour towards fellow green beards.

It's been suggested that just such a linkage could explain the rise of religion - if religious displays are a reliable guide to honest behaviour.

However, West & Gardner put the kybosh on that idea. Green beards are unlikely to be relevant to human evolution, because personality traits are complex and not due to genes that could also code for a visible signal:
Some models for altruism in humans and social insects implicitly invoke greenbeard mechanisms without realizing this, such as the suggestion that altruistic individuals differ from individuals who are not altruistic in some observable characteristic [such as being more likely to smile and laugh] or models of “strong reciprocity” that assume punishment and altruism to be genetically linked. However, there is no reason to suspect that traits such as smiling or punishment will be encoded by the same gene or closely linked genes as those that lead to altruism. Consequently, falsebeards could arise, and these proposed explanations for altruism would not be evolutionarily stable.

And finally... I actually learned about this article from a Christian blogger, who picked up on one sentence about how kinship altruism can lead to a particular kind of social behaviour. He says the authors:
... point out that "strict lifetime monogamy, in which females only mate with one male in their entire life, is crucial for the evolution of eusociality." This provides a very natural scientific basis for understanding the critical importance of "thou shalt not commit adultery"
Now, this is very funny when you know that 'eusocial' is a very specific term used to describe the kind of society exemplified by honey bees - one dominant queen, with a slavish workforce comprising her sterile daughters. It sounds like adultery is the only way to save us from a bleak future!

I don't think the blogger is actually hoping for a bible-based eusocial future for humans. Most likely he simply doesn't realise what eusocial means - hard to believe when the paper illustrates it with pictures of termites and sterile worker shrimps!


ResearchBlogging.orgWest SA, & Gardner A (2010). Altruism, spite, and greenbeards. Science (New York, N.Y.), 327 (5971), 1341-4 PMID: 20223978

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

You either believe in it all, or you don’t

Many people believe in fate. When bad or good things happen, they tend to think they happened for a reason – even for events that are entirely random (winning the lottery, for instance). Often, people think that these things happen because some guiding hand or supernatural force caused them.

So the question is, why are these delusions so common? Do we humans have an inbuilt predisposition (a cognitive bias) that leads us to anthropomorphize events? That’s one explanation that’s been suggested. The idea is that the brain machinery devoted to figuring out what’s going on inside another person’s head (the so-called ‘theory of mind’) also acts to interpret major life events as purposeful and meaningful.

Alternatively, fatalism might simply be one other aspect of basic errors in thinking that lead to all sorts of mistakes about how the world operates. Perhaps fatalism is just a kind of paranormal delusion, and they are all caused by an inability to understand how the world works.

New research from Annika Svedholm and colleagues from the University of Helsinki suggest that’s exactly what happens.

They surveyed over two thousand Finns (mostly women, but with a good age range – not just students) on whether they believed that seemingly random events were in fact caused by an invisible agency. Then they asked about their paranormal beliefs.

They also asked a series of questions to test their subjects’ basic understanding of how the world works (their ‘core knowledge confusion”). Here’s some examples – many people would recognise them as poetic metaphors, but those with core knowledge confusion tend to think that they are literally true:
  • “Stars live in the sky” (Lifeless natural objects are living)
  • “Planets know things” (Lifeless objects are animate)
  • “Flowers want light” (Living inanimate objects are animate)
  • “A home knows its inhabitants” (Artificial objects are animate)
  • “Force can sense a human being” (Force is living and animate)
  • “The mind falls apart when ill” (Mental states are material)
Next, they worked out how all these factors were related statistically. What they found is depicted in the graphic.

Paranormal beliefs and beliefs in the purpose of events were strongly correlated (leading to a factor they call “General Paranormal Pelief”. What’s more, all the elements of ‘core knowledge confusion’ were inter-correlated.

What does that mean in practice? Well, what they were left with was a strong link between basic errors in thinking and belief in the paranormal – including fatalistic beliefs.

What this suggests is that there is nothing particularly special about the belief that things are ‘caused’ in some mysterious way – or indeed about paranormal beliefs in general.

If Svedholm and colleagues are right, there is no special brain pathway that makes people believe things happen for a reason. It’s simply that some people just have problems understanding how the world really works.

In the words of the French sociologist Marcel Mauss, “Either you believe in it all, or you do not”!


ResearchBlogging.orgSvedholm, A., Lindeman, M., & Lipsanen, J. (2010). Believing in the purpose of events-why does it occur, and is it supernatural? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (2), 252-265 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1560

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.