Many of our questions about religion, says renowned anthropologist Pascal Boyer, are no longer mysteries. We are beginning to know how to answer questions such as "Why do people have religion?" Using findings from anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Religion Explained shows how this aspect of human consciousness is increasingly admissible to coherent, naturalistic explanation. This brilliant and controversial book gives readers the first scientific explanation for what religious feeling is really about, what it consists of, and where (...) it comes from. (shrink)
Ritualized behavior, intuitively recognizable by its stereotypy, rigidity, repetition, and apparent lack of rational motivation, is found in a variety of life conditions, customs, and everyday practices: in cultural rituals, whether religious or non-religious; in many children's complicated routines; in the pathology of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD); in normal adults around certain stages of the life-cycle, birthing in particular. Combining evidence from evolutionary anthropology, neuropsychology and neuroimaging, we propose an explanation of ritualized behavior in terms of an evolved Precaution System geared (...) to the detection of and reaction to inferred threats to fitness. This system, distinct from fear-systems geared to respond to manifest danger, includes a repertoire of clues for potential danger as well as a repertoire of species-typical precautions. In OCD pathology, this system does not supply a negative feedback to the appraisal of potential threats, resulting in doubts about the proper performance of precautions, and repetition of action. Also, anxiety levels focus the attention on low-level gestural units of behavior rather than on the goal-related higher-level units normally used in parsing the action-flow. Normally automatized actions are submitted to cognitive control. This “swamps” working memory, an effect of which is a temporary relief from intrusions but also their long-term strengthening. Normal activation of this Precaution System explains intrusions and ritual behaviors in normal adults. Gradual calibration of the system occurs through childhood rituals. Cultural mimicry of this system's normal input makes cultural rituals attention-grabbing and compelling. A number of empirical predictions follow from this synthetic model. (Published Online February 8 2007) Key Words: childhood ritual; compulsion; event boundaries; evolutionary psychology; obsessive-compulsive disorder; ritual; thought intrusion. (shrink)
This text introduces students, scholars, and interested educated readers to the issues of human memory broadly considered, encompassing both individual memory, collective remembering by societies, and the construction of history. The book is organised around several major questions: How do memories construct our past? How do we build shared collective memories? How does memory shape history? This volume presents a special perspective, emphasising the role of memory processes in the construction of self-identity, of shared cultural norms and concepts, and of (...) historical awareness. Although the results are fairly new and the techniques suitably modern, the vision itself is of course related to the work of such precursors as Frederic Bartlett and Aleksandr Luria, who in very different ways represent the starting point of a serious psychology of human culture. (shrink)
Recent work in biology, cognitive psychology, and archaeology has renewed evolutionary perspectives on the role of natural selection in the emergence and recurrent forms of religious thought and behavior, i.e., mental representations of supernatural agents, as well as artifacts, ritual practices, moral systems, ethnic markers, and speciﬁc experiences associated with these representations. One perspective, inspired from behavioral ecology, attempts to measure the ﬁtness effects of religious practices. Another set of models, representative of evolutionary psychology, explain religious thought and behavior as (...) the output of cognitive systems (e.g., animacy detection, social cognition, precautionary reasoning) that are not exclusive to the religious domain. In both perpectives, the question remains open, whether religious thought and behavior constitute an adaptation or a by-product of adaptive cognitive function. (shrink)
The domain of “folk-economics” consists in explicit beliefs about the economy held by laypeople, untrained in economics, about such topics as, for example, the causes of the wealth of nations, the benefits or drawbacks of markets and international trade, the effects of regulation, the origins of inequality, the connection between work and wages, the economic consequences of immigration, or the possible causes of unemployment. These beliefs are crucial in forming people's political beliefs and in shaping their reception of different policies. (...) Yet, they often conflict with elementary principles of economic theory and are often described as the consequences of ignorance, irrationality, or specific biases. As we will argue, these past perspectives fail to predict the particular contents of popular folk-economic beliefs and, as a result, there is no systematic study of the cognitive factors involved in their emergence and cultural success. Here we propose that the cultural success of particular beliefs about the economy is predictable if we consider the influence of specialized, largely automatic inference systems that evolved as adaptations to ancestral human small-scale sociality. These systems, for which there is independent evidence, include free-rider detection, fairness-based partner choice, ownership intuitions, coalitional psychology, and more. Information about modern mass-market conditions activates these specific inference systems, resulting in particular intuitions, for example, that impersonal transactions are dangerous or that international trade is a zero-sum game. These intuitions in turn make specific policy proposals more likely than others to become intuitively compelling, and, as a consequence, exert a crucial influence on political choices. (shrink)
Religions “in the wild” are the varied set of religious activities that occurred before the emergence of organized religions with doctrines, or that persist at the margins of those organized traditions. These religious activities mostly focus on misfortune; on how to remedy specific cases of illness, accidents, failures; and on how to prevent them. I present a general model to account for the cross-cultural recurrence of these particular themes. The model is based on features of human psychology—namely, epistemic vigilance, the (...) set of systems whereby we evaluate the quality of information and of sources of information, and threat-detection psychology, the set of evolved systems geared at detecting potential danger in the environment. Given these two sets of systems, the dynamics of communication will favor particular types of messages about misfortune. This makes it possible to predict recurrent features of religious systems, such as the focus on nonphysical agents, the focus on particular cases rather than general aspects of misfortune, and the emergence of specialists. The model could illuminate not just why such representations are culturally successful, but also why people are motivated to formulate them in the first place. (shrink)
Cognitive developmental evidence is sometimes conscripted to support ''naturalized epistemology'' arguments to the effect that a general epistemic stance leads children to build theory-like accounts of underlying properties of kinds. A review of the evidence suggests that what prompts conceptual acquisition is not a general epistemic stance but a series of category-specific intuitive principles that constitute an evolved ''natural metaphysics''. This consists in a system of categories and category-specific inferential processes founded on definite biases in prototype formation. Evidence for this (...) system provides a better understanding of the limited ''plasticity'' of ontological commitments as well as a computationally plausible account of their initial state, avoiding ambiguities about innateness. This may provide a starting point for a ''naturalized epistemology'' that takes into account evolved properties of human conceptual structures. (shrink)
Research on social transmission suggests that people preferentially transmit information about threats and social interactions. Such biases might be driven by the arousal that is experienced as part of the emotional response triggered by information about threats or social relationships. The current studies tested whether preferences for transmitting threat-relevant information are consistent with a functional motive to recruit social support. USA residents were recruited for six online studies. Studies 1a and 1B showed that participants more often chose to transmit positive, (...) low-arousal vignettes. Studies 2A and 2B showed higher intentions to transmit emotional vignettes to friends. Study 4 showed a preference for transmitting stories that participants had modified and were therefore novel and unique. Studies 2A and 3 suggest that motivations for seeking social support might influence transmission preferences. Overall, the findings are not easily accounted for by any of the major theories of social transmission. We discuss limitations of the current studies and directions for further research. (shrink)
How do people detect mental dysfunction? What is the influence of cultural models of dysfunction on this detection process? The detection process as such is not usually researched as it falls between the domains of cross-cultural psychiatry and anthropological ethno-psychiatry . I provide a general model for this “missing link” between behavior and cultural models, grounded in empirical evidence for intuitive psychology. Normal adult minds entertain specific intuitive expectations about mental function and behavior, and by implication they infer that specific (...) kinds of behavior are the result of underlying dysfunction. This suggests that there is a “catalogue” of possible behaviors that trigger that intuition, hence a limited catalogue of possible symptoms that feed into culturally specific folk-understandings of mental disorder. It also suggests that some mental dysfunctions, as they do not clearly violate principles of intuitive psychology, are “invisible” to folk-understandings. This perspective allows us to understand the cultural stability and spread of particular views of madness. It also suggests why certain types of mental disorder are invisible to folk-understandings. (shrink)
In reply to commentary on our target article, we supply further evidence and hypotheses in the description of ritualized behaviors in humans. Reactions to indirect fitness threats probably activate specialized precaution systems rather than a unified form of danger-avoidance or causal reasoning. Impairment of precaution systems may be present in pathologies other than obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism in particular. Ritualized behavior is attention-grabbing enough to be culturally transmitted whether or not it is associated with group identity, cohesion, or with any (...) other social aspect of collective ceremonies. (Published Online February 8 2007). (shrink)
Ownership is universal and ubiquitous in human societies, yet the psychology underpinning ownership intuitions is generally not described in a coherent and computationally tractable manner. Ownership intuitions are commonly assumed to derive from culturally transmitted social norms, or from a mentally represented implicit theory. While the social norms account is entirely ad hoc, the mental theory requires prior assumptions about possession and ownership that must be explained. Here I propose such an explanation, arguing that the intuitions result from the interaction (...) of two cognitive systems. One of these handles competitive interactions for the possession of resources observed in many species including humans. The other handles mutually beneficial cooperation between agents, as observed in communal sharing, collective action and trade. Together, these systems attend to specific cues in the environment, and produce definite intuitions such as “this is hers”, “that is not mine”. This computational model provides an explanation for ownership intuitions, not just in straightforward cases of property, but also in disputed ownership (squatters, indigenous rights), historical changes (abolition of slavery), as well as apparently marginal cases, such as the questions, whether people own their seats on the bus, or their places in a queue, and how people understand “cultural appropriation” and slavery. In contrast to some previous theories, the model is empirically testable and free of ad hoc stipulations. (shrink)
A large amount of research in cognitive psychology is focused on memory distortions, understood as deviations from various (largely implicit) standards. Many alleged distortions actually suggest a highly functional system that balances the cost of acquiring new information with the benefit of relevant, contextually appropriate decision-making. In this sense many memories may be examples of functionally adaptive misbelief.
Identifying objects as members of ontological domains activates category-specific processes. There is evidence that these processes include particular ways of “tracking” substances and could do all the “tracking” necessary for concept acquisition. There may be no functional need or evolutionary scenario for a general tracking capacity of the kind described by Millikan.
Folk-sociology is a set of intuitive assumptions that organize our spontaneous theories about society, including the notion that social groups are agent-like. Pietraszewski's model may explain this folk-sociological assumption in an elegant way. However, large-scale group dynamics include features that seem to escape agent-like descriptions. Therefore, one may want to find out whether the “event-grammar” proposed here can account for these features.
Specific features of our evolved cognitive architecture explain why some aspects of the economy are “seen” and others are “not seen.” Drawing from the commentaries of economists, psychologists, and other social scientists on our original proposal, we propose a more precise model of the acquisition and spread of folk-beliefs about the economy. In particular, we try to provide a clearer delimitation of the field of folk-economic beliefs and to dispel possible misunderstandings of the role of variation in evolutionary psychology. We (...) also comment on the difficulty of explaining folk-economic beliefs in terms of domain-general processes or biases, as developmental studies show how encounters with specific environments calibrate domain-specific systems. We offer a more detailed description of the connections between economic beliefs and political psychology and of the probable causes of individual variation in that domain. Taken together, these arguments point to a better integration or consilience between economics and human evolution. (shrink)
Bering argues that belief in posthumous intentional agency may confer added fitness via the inhibition of opportunistic behavior. This is true only if these agents are interested parties in our moral choices, a feature which does not result from Bering's imaginative constraint hypothesis and extends to supernatural agents other than dead people's souls. A by-product model might handle this better.
Atran's account of cultural transmission can be further refined by considering constraints from early-developed, domain-specific intuitive ontological understanding. These suggest specific predictions about the cultural survival of “memes,” depending on the way they activate intuitive understanding. There is no general dynamic of cultural inheritance; only complex predictions for domain-specific competencies that cut across cultural domains.
The study of causal inferences is an essential part of the study of other cultures. It is therefore crucial to describe the cognitive mechanisms whereby subjects are led to find specific causal explanations plausible and "natural." In the anthropological literature, specific causal connections are described as the result produced by applying a general "conception of causation" or some general "theories" to specific events; the essay aims to show that these answers are either trivial or false. The "naturalness" of explanations must (...) be examined in the context of concept acquisition and belief-fixation. On the basis of an ethnographic example, it is possible to show how certain presumptions (e.g., about the use of certain categories as natural kind terms) can be involved in the processes whereby certain explanations are made cognitively salient. (shrink)
We are pleased to present the following Review Forum of Harvey Whitehouse’s book, Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 204 pages. ISBN 0-19- 823414-7 (cloth); 0-19-823415-5 (paper). We have given the contributors and the book’s author sufficient space to discuss its themes carefully and thus make a significant contribution to the further analysis of religion and ritual generally.