Sep 3, 2006
By Mark Henderson,
The human brain is hard-wired to be susceptible to supernatural beliefs as a result of tens of thousands of years of evolution, a British psychologist said today.
Religion and other forms of magical thinking continue to thrive, in spite of a lack of evidence and the advance of science, because people are naturally biased to accept a role for the irrational in their daily lives, according to Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol.
This evolved credulity suggests that it will be impossible to root out belief in ideas such as creationism and paranormal phenomena, even though they have been refuted by evidence and are held as a matter of faith alone.
People ultimately believe in them for the same reasons as they attach sentimental value to inanimate objects like wedding rings or teddy bears, and recoil from artefacts linked to evil, as if they are pervaded by a physical "essence".
Even the most rational people behave in these irrational ways, and supernatural beliefs are part of the same continuum, Professor Hood told the British Association Festival of Science in Norwich today.
To demonstrate, he asked members of his audience if they were prepared to put on an old-fashioned blue cardigan in return for a £10 reward, and had no shortage of volunteers.
He then informed them that the cardigan used to belong to Fred West, the mass murderer.
"Most hands went down," he said.
"When people did wear it, most people moved away from them. It’s not actually Fred West’s jumper. But it’s the belief that it’s Fred West’s jumper that has the effect. It is as if evil, a moral stance defined by culture, has become physically manifest inside the clothing."
Similar beliefs, which are held among the most sceptical of scientists, also explain why few people would agree to swap their wedding rings for identical replicas. The difference between attaching significance to sentimental objects, and believing in religion, magic or the paranormal, is only one of degree, Professor Hood said.
These tendencies, he said, are almost certainly a product of evolution. The human mind is adapted to reason intuitively, so it can generate theories about how the world works even when mechanisms cannot be seen or easily deduced.
While this is ultimately responsible for scientific thinking, as in the discovery of invisible forces such as gravity, it also leaves people prone to making irrational errors about what cause and effect.
"In most cases, intuitive theories capture everyday knowledge, such as the nature and properties of objects, what makes something alive, or the understanding that people’s minds motivate their actions," Professor Hood said.
"But because intuitive theories are based on unobservable properties, such theories leave open the possibility of misconceptions. I believe these misconceptions of naive intuitive theories provide the basis of many later adult magical beliefs about the paranormal."