Counterintuitive Concepts Across Domains: A Unified Phenomenon?

Cognitive Science 47 (4):e13276 (2023)
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Abstract

The minimally counterintuitive (MCI) thesis in the cognitive science of religion proposes that supernatural concepts are prevalent across cultures because they possess a common structure—namely, violations of intuitive ontological assumptions that facilitate concept representation. These violations are hypothesized to give supernatural concepts a memorability advantage over both intuitive concepts and “maximally counterintuitive” (MXCI) concepts, which contain numerous ontological violations. However, the connection between MCI concepts and bizarre (BIZ) but not supernatural concepts, for which memorability advantages are predicted by the von Restorff (VR) effect, has been insufficiently clarified by earlier research. Additionally, the role of inferential potential (IP) in determining MCI concepts’ memorability has remained vague and only rarely controlled for. In a pre‐registered experiment, we directly compare memorability for MCI and MXCI concepts, compared to BIZ concepts, while controlling for IP as well as degree of bizarreness. Results indicate that when IP and bizarreness are controlled for, memorability of counterintuitive and BIZ concepts—relative to intuitive control concepts—is similar across concepts with one, two, and three characteristics. Findings suggest that the MCI and VR effects may be manifestations of the same underlying mechanisms.

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