Cognitive psychology of belief in the supernatural

american_scientist_2006-03.jpgThe current issue of American Scientist has an excellent feature article on ‘The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural’.

It argues that our ability to reason about other people’s intentions underlies many common supernatural beliefs. In other words, we have a tendency to see intentions and consciousness even in mechanical aspects of the world.

The author is psychologist Dr Jesse Bering who has been using cognitive psychology to try and understand areas that are traditionally tackled by philosophy, such as belief in souls, causation and existential meaning.

In one experiment, Bering used puppets to describe a story in which a mouse is eaten by an alligator. Children of different ages were then asked to describe the mouse’s ability to feel or know things after its death.

Younger children were more likely than older children to attribute thoughts, desires and even biological states to the mouse, suggesting that the idea of an afterlife is more likely to be intuitive and not one that is learned through ongoing cultural experience.

Jesse is interested in how some of the beliefs surrounding these issues might be influenced or related to common aspects of the mind that have evolved to solve other, more practical problems of life and survival.

The article is only available in the print edition, or online to subscribers, but Jesse has kindly offered to provide a copy of the article to anyone who contacts him by email.

Link to summary of article from American Scientist.
Link to homepage of Dr Jesse Bering.

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