- Sensing supernatural agency
- An empirical quest on the socio-cognitive foundations of supernatural beliefs
- Award date
- 6 April 2018
- Number of pages
- Document type
- PhD thesis
- Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG)
Why did people started to belief in the supernatural (i.e., in culturally specific unverifiable beliefs about non-physical phenomena that do not coincide with a naturalistic worldview) independently from each other? According to proponents of evolutionary ‘by-product’ theories, supernatural beliefs are a side effect of a set of adaptive cognitive biases. We investigated two of them: hypersensitive agency detection (i.e., the tendency to explain phenomena in terms of intentional agents) and mentalizing (i.e., the tendency to explain phenomena in terms of intentionality). We observed that people did not have an agency detection bias, but that people do have a mentalizing bias. Nevertheless, both cognitive processes were inconsistently related to supernatural beliefs, which is in contrast to the by-product account of supernatural beliefs. Yet, both cognitive processes are still very useful in explaining why certain elements, such as intentional agents, are so widespread among supernatural beliefs. Why we believe in the supernatural nowadays seems to be especially well explained by social learning. However, social learning cannot adequately explain why people started believing in the first place, it can only explain how beliefs are transmitted from one generation to other, as soon as they have been formed. Finally, we discussed that the predictive processing framework can explain why people frequently detect agency and intentionality and why they are prone to having extraordinary experiences. Due to our life-long interactions with the surrounding world, we created mental models that strongly influence how we interpret, perceive and experience sensory events and self-generated mental imagery.
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