People Merge Supernatural and Scientific Beliefs When Reasoning With the Unknown


Reliance on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, often increases rather than declines with age, according to a new psychology study from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study, published in the June issue of Child Development, offers new insight into developmental learning.

“As children assimilate cultural concepts into their intuitive belief systems — from God to atoms to evolution — they engage in coexistence thinking,” said Cristine Legare, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “When they merge supernatural and scientific explanations, they integrate them in a variety of predictable and universal ways.”

Legare and her colleagues reviewed more than 30 studies on how people (ages 5-75) from various countries reason with three major existential questions: the origin of life, illness and death. They also conducted a study with 366 respondents in South Africa, where biomedical and traditional healing practices are both widely available.

As part of the study, Legare presented the respondents with a variety of stories about people who had AIDS. They were then asked to endorse or reject several biological and supernatural explanations for why the characters in the stories contracted the virus.

According to the findings, participants of all age groups agreed with biological explanations for at least one event. Yet supernatural explanations such as witchcraft were also frequently supported among children (ages 5 and up) and universally among adults.

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  1. The key, then, is to place far greater emphasis on debunking and rubbishing supernatural claims in the culture at large. This sort of result is precisely what we would expect from cultures that still maintain an overt measure of respect for supernaturalistic beliefs, and fail to emphasise the obvious incompatibility of science and silliness.

  2. In reply to #2 by Stafford Gordon:

    What? I wish they’d come to me! My scepticism increases with age. A very healthy and positive trend methinks, and long may it continue.

    Hear, hear! I’m 78 and have never been more sceptical. As for the “long may it continue” bit, well, I try to be optimistic!

  3. I thought, after reading the article that the study was flawed. But, on second thought, I guess it does prove that if you’re surrounded by people who believe in something, the culture supports it, etc. then you’re less likely to “grow out” of your views and will use your intellect to keep rationalizing your beliefs. I’m sure that a few do grow out of it but it is probably much harder to do that when everyone around you supports the delusion. Like the US southern states. It must be very difficult to overcome christianity when everyone’s whole life is wrapped up in it.

    This highlights the urgency with which Richard’s teachings on scientific reason and literacy are so important. Even if he gets through to just a couple of people here and there, it is enormous progress.

  4. The mechanism I propose is that for older people, the only social capital they can “cash in” as they get older is the value of the narratives they have, their accumulated “wisdom”.

    Science and the expertise it brings can alienate those who have chosen not to be a part of it. Whilst not being anti-science, for very many, science is not particularly at their disposal in terms of useful (novel) advice they can offer others. Made up shit, however, with a bit of a personal twist, sells. Salesmen get to believe what they sell. It sells better when they do.

  5. They also conducted a study with 366 respondents in South Africa, where biomedical and traditional healing practices are both widely available.

    And Apartheid guaranteed that much of the population has limited education in what is behind biomedical treatments. Ask much of the South African population (at least the non-whites) what a virus is and I’m sure you’d find a huge discrepancy between what the older non-white who grew up under apartheid would be able to tell you compared the largely educated white South Africans. You cannot make a valid choice or judgement on how humans behave in this case as even if non-educated South Africans choose western medicine over traditional medicine, unless they know why it works they can’t be making that decision on the basis of valid data (which the exception of noticing people treated by western medicine seem to be healthier). You can make generalisations about South Africans but little else.

  6. If they conducted this study in 30 years time with another group of oldies they get a different result. It is spurious to think supernarual belief increases with age! They need to look at the possibility that most people approaching 70 were brought up in a time when religion and supernatural shite were routinely rammed down youngsters throats and they are still living with the rules that they were made to follow as children.

    We all had this crap as kids. Morning assemblies and bible study classes from an raving old loony waving his arms animatedly and expectorating with excitement as he told us bible stories. Not once in an entire education did we have a single lesson on evolution.

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