Evolution of Religion

On the acquisition of supernatural thinking: Agency - Why Examine Cause and Effect?

Why do people believe in myths? One possibility is that people are simply prone to see causal agents in an event, even when these agents are non-existent. Barrett (2000) mentions Guthrie’s ideas on a  Hyperactive Agent-Detection Device ( HADD) as a possible reason for imagining causal agents. The HADD could serve as an inbuilt or early-acquired) propensity for humans to understand any change in their environment as an action-response situation which is inflicted by an agent’s actions upon its environment. Seeing an agent behind actions certainly makes a lot of sense in a world that is both predominantly social and full of hidden predators. In a social world, most activity is centered around intentional agents (other people) and fosters understanding as to how actions lead to reactions, which is essential for our understanding of the world around us. In addition, intentional agents allow us to understand intentions: changes around us occur as a result of actions by an agent, with certain needs driving its behavior. Having the ability to infer an agent as causing a situation helps in survival: knowing that an action is linked to an agent allows us to predict its future behavior and to respond accordingly. However, this Agent-Detection Device could possibly lead to inaccuracy; the ADD could explain an agent’s action as being due to traits it possesses, while in fact the agent was forced by environmental factors (a situation that closely resembles the  Fundamental Attribution Error). Take, as an example of how ADD would explain behavior; a candy machine. You want a chocolate bar, but the machine swallowed the coin. Just beyond your reach is an object you rightfully paid for, dangling on the edge, about to fall and become yours, yet almost willfully defying the laws of gravity. What would you do to get that chocolate bar? The same most people do: kick the machine. It’s a tried method which has had pretty decent results in the past, so what’s keeping you from giving that machine a nice firm kick and claiming what’s rightfully yours? But now imagine what happens when someone else happens to walk by and notices how you are kicking a lifeless piece of machinery. What will they think about your actions and about you? Research on the Fundamental Attribution Error tells us that people are highly likely to blame the actor for its behavior: so you kicked the machine because you must have some aggressive traits (Jones & Harris, 1967) even though the real reason you kicked that machine is because you know that this increases your chances of getting the chocolate! In a similar way the ADD could push us even further: it might even infer the presence of agents where there are no agents at all (or at least there is no direct proof to support the existence of the agent)! If that is the case, then the Hyperactive Agent-Detection Device might be directly responsible for our ability to create mythical properties such as supernatural agents in the world around us. People see events unfold, create meaning in these actions, and assume that these actions are caused by some sort of invisible agent.

Getting deeper into the matter: the power of counter-intuitive thoughts

We have now elaborated on a framework of religion and on agent-caused meaning. These ideas hint as to why people may see mythical actions in their environment. This raises the question, ‘Why do we use these mythical actions as a source to explain the world around us?’ An invisible deity (or, in fact, an existing person that has been mystified!) is beyond verification and diminishes the need to find other possible explanations, a situation which goes against science and, some would argue, even at odds with common sense. So what is it that makes people accept ideas and spread them? One particularly interesting answer describes the power of counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs.

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