Friday, August 9, 2019

Compared to fictional agents, religious agents were ascribed a higher proportion of abilities that violated folk psychology & fewer abilities that violated folk physics and biology

The Mickey Mouse problem: Distinguishing religious and fictional counterintuitive agents. Thomas Swan, Jamin Halberstadt. PLOS, August 8, 2019.

Abstract: The Mickey Mouse problem refers to the difficulty in predicting which supernatural agents are capable of eliciting belief and religious devotion. We approached the problem directly by asking participants to invent a “religious” or a “fictional” agent with five supernatural abilities. Compared to fictional agents, religious agents were ascribed a higher proportion of abilities that violated folk psychology or that were ambiguous–violating nonspecific or multiple domains of folk knowledge–and fewer abilities that violated folk physics and biology. Similarly, participants rated folk psychology violations provided by the experimenter as more characteristic of religious agents than were violations of folk physics or folk biology, while fictional agents showed no clear pattern. Religious agents were also judged as more potentially beneficial, and more ambivalent (i.e., similar ratings of benefit and harm), than fictional agents, regardless of whether the agents were invented or well-known to participants. Together, the results support a motivational account of religious belief formation that is facilitated by these biases.



Cognitive scientists of religion still don’t know why only some counterintuitive agents are believable and worthy of devotion. We examined the characteristics of religious and nonreligious supernatural agents directly and found four ways in which they differ. First, counterintuitive abilities that violate folk psychology were more salient for participant-invented religious agents than for nonreligious agents and were more closely associated with religious agents than other types of violations. Second, counterintuitive abilities that were ambiguous–violating nonspecific or multiple folk domains–were more salient for invented religious agents than for nonreligious agents. Third, both invented and well-known religious agents were rated more of a potential benefit than their nonreligious counterparts. Fourth, both invented and well-known religious agents were more ambivalent (i.e., the difference between a religious agent’s threat and benefit rating was relatively small) than nonreligious agents, which were more valenced towards extremes of heroism (high benefit, low threat) or villainy (low benefit, high threat).
We suggest that these biases collectively provide a template for predicting which counterintuitive agents can become objects of religious devotion. In particular, the biases for more beneficial and less threatening abilities (the latter only for well-known agents) suggest that “successful” agents must also be motivationally compelling: minimally counterintuitive traits make agents memorable, but memorable agents must satisfy psychobiological needs to become gods. Such gods are not necessarily more “powerful” or “fitness relevant” overall; it is the beneficial traits that distinguish religious agents, while threatening traits may often be higher for nonreligious agents.
Religious agents’ tendency to violate folk psychology over other folk beliefs is also consistent with this motivational interpretation. In a previous study, we found that agents with abilities that violate folk psychology were rated more of a potential opportunity (i.e., more beneficial) than agents violating folk physics or biology [35]. We surmised that agents violating folk psychology represent an opportunity to gain access to socially strategic knowledge—an opportunity that is particularly salient given our recent evolutionary history in which social threats have become increasingly costly and ubiquitous [54]. Indeed, the fact that agents have greater scope to violate folk psychology expectations may account for why agents feature prolifically in religious narratives [55], and appear more than other ontological categories (e.g., objects) in statements rated religious [14].
Nevertheless, these data only provide partial support for the motivational hypothesis. A motivation to believe in agents with beneficial abilities would not necessarily culminate in the formation of religious beliefs via motivated reasoning (i.e., biased strategies for accessing, constructing, and evaluating beliefs [28]). Belief formation also likely depends on an individual’s personality, cultural environment, and/or developmental history, among other factors. For example, people with a strong or temporarily elevated “fear of death” might possess a stronger motivation to believe in immortal beings than people with less fear [37, 38]. We consider it likely that at least some people form religious beliefs via a motivational path [3745], however, widespread belief would depend on the commonality and thresholds of these individual and cultural factors.
The ambiguous traits used to describe religious agents, while not necessarily motivationally compelling in and of themselves, may interact with other motivational states to facilitate belief. When traits are defined ambiguously, abstractly [56], or metaphorically [57, 58] it becomes easier to attribute them in motivationally attractive ways. For example, the “better than average effect,” in which people rate themselves above average on positive traits and below average on negative traits [28, 59], is smaller when traits are precisely defined (e.g., neat, athletic, sarcastic, clumsy) than when they are ambiguous (e.g., idealistic, sophisticated, impractical, insecure) [29, 60], suggesting that ambiguity allows people to reason their way toward favored conclusions more easily. Similarly, the ambiguous content attributed to religious agents may facilitate motivated reasoning, making it easier to reason toward a belief in these agents. Counterintuitive abilities that can be demonstrated in a variety of ways (violating nonspecific or multiple folk domains), might permit gods to influence manifold situations of motivational significance [24], without precluding or disconfirming their involvement in any [26]. A god’s omnipotence, control of nature, magical powers, or “mysterious ways”, for example, can be applied in whatever manner a believer deems necessary.
A common argument against motivation-based theories of religion is that some gods are not comforting–they’re scary–and why would anyone want to believe in a scary god? We suggest that, like ambiguity, ambivalence facilitates the motivated reasoning process. We think anxiety and uncertainty attributed to threat-capable gods [61] can motivate belief-reinforcing behaviors, such as rituals and other deferential practices [45, 46, 62, 63], and that these behaviors become more intuitively compelling if the agent to whom they are directed is ambivalent. For example, rituals and prayers often depict a transaction in which a god is requested to perform a counterintuitive act in return for worship, good behavior, or a tangible offering. An entirely malevolent god would have little interest in accepting requests, just as an entirely benevolent god would have little interest in refusing them. Thus, an ambivalent god is the only god for whom transactional prayers and rituals make sense. Furthermore, an ambivalent god with whom we can communicate and occasionally extract positive outcomes may be more appealing, and more plausible, than a valenced god, or a god that acts capriciously or randomly. Thus, ambivalence should help make rituals and prayers an intuitively compelling avenue through which gods can deliver benefits (see [64] for other intuitively compelling ritual content), facilitating motivated reasoning towards a belief in these gods.
One anomalous finding is that well-known fictional agents were rated more threatening than well-known religious agents, but this wasn’t the case for invented agents. Negative information, such as about threatening agents, is more cognitively attractive than positive information [65]. A cultural unfolding of this negativity bias, constrained by the motivation to disbelieve overly threatening agents, may explain why it was restricted to culturally popular fictional agents. Such agents might share or even surpass the cognitive attractiveness of religious agents, in being counterintuitive and threatening, but may lack motivational attractiveness, resulting in popular but unbelievable beings. In other cases, threat may be lacking while benefit is not, which might result in motivationally attractive beings that don’t demand our attention for long enough to become religiously established (e.g., Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny). The cognitive attractiveness of threat may therefore be an alternative or additional reason why ambivalence appears to be a key feature of religious beings.
Nevertheless, it is adaptive to pay attention to threats, and possibly also to believe the reality of those threats in some contexts. In evolutionary terms, the cost of falsely believing a threatening agent is absent should be greater than falsely believing it is present, and this negative credulity bias [66] may explain why (an apparent minority of) religious agents deviate from ambivalence into malevolence [67]. Some cultural environments may require and activate our agency detection device more than others [68], making malevolent deities more likely.
Although American participants, mostly Christian, provided our data, we would expect similar results in other cultural contexts to the extent that they afford and foster similar motivations that are natural to the human mind (e.g., to avoid negative affective states). Conversely, cultural differences in the characteristics of religious agents may reflect motivations that arise or are more salient as a consequence of particular environments. Similarly, individual differences within cultures may reflect idiosyncratic motivations (e.g., for more social contact) associated with particular traits (e.g., death anxiety). This essentially motivational account of the characteristics of religious agents has the advantage of catering to the existence of atheists: despite observing the same content and contexts as everyone else, they lack belief, presumably because they lack a motivation for which this content is relevant.
Although the current study contributes to the development of a “belief template” that could, eventually, predict which agents are most likely to inspire religious devotion, it is just a start, with several acknowledged limitations. For example, we did not measure levels of belief in the well-known agents cited by participants, which could provide a better understanding of the role of individual differences. In addition, our distinction between religious and fictional entities neglects some counterintuitive agents, such as ghosts and spirits, that many people believe exist, but that are not necessarily objects of religious devotion. Future work might present participants with specific beings, entities, and other paranormal phenomena with a diverse range of a-priori plausibility before measuring belief and their perceived features. Similarly, our request for supernatural abilities restricted the number of intuitive features that participants attributed to their invented agents. Although we found no difference in rated intuitiveness or the number of intuitive abilities listed, the trend was towards religious agents being more intuitive, as found in other work [16, 17]. Finally, our proposed template neglects some religious agents, such as Satan and Loki, that are apparently neither beneficent nor ambivalent. It could be argued that belief in such agents (and polytheism in general) is declining, in line with the template’s proposed optimum, however, in less optimal settings, the ambivalence criterion might also be applied to groupings or entire pantheons of agents. Thus, we acknowledge that cultural and environmental factors may affect the reliability of the template, which is more a measure of cultural evolutionary success than a strict set of exclusionary criteria.
These limitations notwithstanding, we suggest a religious agent template, tentatively comprising beneficent yet ambivalent agents with ambiguous and folk-psychology-violating abilities, goes some way to solving the Mickey Mouse problem. Mickey Mouse lacks the necessary beneficence, ambivalence, and ambiguity, and we therefore lack the motivation and latitude to believe he is real.

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