December 3, 2023

new study Posted in Current opinion in psychology Examines how our beliefs in heaven and hell, and other “super-punishment” accounts, can override our reasoning and, to some extent, dictate our behaviour. The paper suggests that there are pros and cons to these common belief structures and provides a reason for why they are so prevalent in cultures around the world.

“People endorse supernatural narratives, such as beliefs in hells or moral deities, in an effort to make each other more cooperative,” explains psychologist Manvir Singh of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Toulouse, France. “Moreover, we embrace it because it is cognitively ‘sticky’ – that is, our cognitive biases make paranormal narratives particularly compelling.”

According to Singh and co-author Léo Fitouchi, supernatural beliefs can control us because they go beyond what they call “cognitive alertness,” or the lens through which humans assess the reliability of information conveyed by others.

“If I tell you, for example, that a certain food item has been poisoned, I might provide real, useful information or I might try to manipulate you into keeping more food for myself,” says Vitoshi. “Therefore, you need psychological mechanisms to assess whether or not the information provided by others is correct.”

Both Singh and Vitoshi highlight that negatively significant beliefs such as the threat of punishment are more likely to override our cognitive alertness.

“Studies show that people are inclined to believe that offenders are more likely to suffer—which is exactly what supernatural punishment beliefs claim,” Vitoshi told. “People are also more likely to accept threatening beliefs, such as warnings of eternal damnation in Hell.”

With this in mind, Singh and Vitoshi explain that supernatural punishment beliefs are especially prevalent in cultures that possess a strong social desire to control others. These cultures typically exhibit what researchers call “cultural narrowness” – meaning that they have strict social norms.

Although this may sound bleak, their findings reveal that belief in supernatural punishment can lead to positive outcomes for society.

“Supernatural punishment beliefs promote cooperation,” Singh explains. “Often that involves forces watching our behavior and making mistakes that are costly enough to offset any benefits people would otherwise get from behaving badly.”

For example, in Indonesia, the indigenous people believe in a water spirit that attacks anyone who does not share meat. This belief encourages people to share food with others, which increases cooperation in the tribe.

The more cognitively attractive a belief is, the greater the chance that it will transcend cognitive awakening and become a reality.

Vitoshi concludes that “to explain the spread of religious beliefs – or any cultural products for that matter – we need to think more about their strategic usefulness and epistemological appeal”.

A full interview with Manvir Singh and Léo Fitouchi discussing this new research can be found here: How your supernatural beliefs shape your thoughts

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