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Saturday, September 09, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Is Evolution keeping us superstitious?

From The Times

HUMANS have evolved over tens of thousands of years to be susceptible to supernatural beliefs, a psychologist has claimed.

Religion and other forms of magical thinking continue to thrive — despite the lack of evidence and advance of science — because people are naturally biased to accept a role for the irrational, said Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol.

This evolved credulity suggests that it would be impossible to root out belief in ideas such as creationism and paranormal phenomena, even though they have been countered by evidence and are held as a matter of faith alone.

People ultimately believe in these ideas for the same reasons that they attach sentimental value to inanimate objects such as wedding rings or Teddy bears, and recoil from artefacts linked to evil as if they are pervaded by a physical “essence”.

Even the most rational people behave in irrational ways and supernatural beliefs are part of the same continuum, Professor Hood told the British Association Festival of Science in Norwich yesterday.

To demonstrate his theory he asked members of the audience if they were prepared to put on an old-fashioned blue cardigan in return for a £10 reward. He had no shortage of volunteers. He then told the volunteers that the cardigan used to belong to Fred West, the mass murderer.

“Most hands went down,” he said.

“When people did wear it people moved away from them. It’s not actually West’s jumper. But it’s the belief that it’s West’s jumper that has the effect.

“It is as if evil, a moral stance defined by culture, has become physically manifest inside the clothing.”

Similar beliefs, which are held even among the most sceptical scientists, explain why few people would agree to swap their wedding rings for replicas. The difference between attaching significance to sentimental objects and believing in religion, magic or the paranormal is only one of degree, Professor Hood said.

These tendencies, he said, were almost certainly a product of evolution. The human mind is adapted to reason intuitively, so that it can generate theories about how the world works even when mechanisms cannot be seen or easily deduced.

While this is ultimately responsible for scientific thinking, as in the discovery of invisible forces such as gravity, it also leaves people prone to making irrational errors. “In most cases, intuitive theories capture everyday knowledge, such as the nature and properties of objects, what makes something alive, or the understanding that people’s minds motivate their actions,” Professor Hood said.

“But because intuitive theories are based on unobservable properties, such theories leave open the possibility of misconceptions. I believe these misconceptions of naive intuitive theories provide the basis of many later adult magical beliefs about the paranormal.”

This innate tendency means it is futile to expect that such beliefs will die out even as our scientific understanding of the world improves, he said. “The mind is adapted to reason intuitively about the properties of the world. Because we operate intuitively, it is probably pointless to get people to abandon belief systems.

“No amount of evidence is going to get people to take it on board and abandon these ideas.”

Credulous minds may have evolved for several reasons. It was once less dangerous to accept things that were not true than it was to reject real facts, such as the threat posed by a nearby predator. This may have predisposed humans to err on the side of belief. Superstition may also give people a sense of control that can reduce stress.

“I don’t think we’re going to evolve a rational mind because there are benefits to being irrational,” said Professor Hood. “Superstitious behaviour — the idea that certain rituals and practices protect you — is adaptive.

“If you remove the appearance that they are in control, both humans and animals become stressed. During the Gulf War, in 1991, in areas attacked by Scud missiles there was a rise in superstitious belief.

“I want to challenge recent claims by Richard Dawkins, among others, that supernaturalism is primarily attributable to religions spreading beliefs among the gullible minds of the young. Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces.”