The Memorability of Supernatural Concepts: Some Puzzles and New Theoretical Directions

Journal of Cognition and Culture 22 (1-2):90-135 (2022)
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Abstract

We evaluate the literature on the memorability of supernatural concepts, itself part of a growing body of work in the emerging cognitive science of religion. Specifically, we focus on Boyer’s Minimally Counterintuitive hypothesis according to which supernatural concepts tap a cognitively privileged memory-enhancing mechanism linked to violations of default intuitive inferences. Our assessment reveals that the literature on the MCI hypothesis is mired in empirical contradictions and methodological shortcomings which makes it difficult to assess the validity of competing theoretical models, including the MCI hypothesis itself. In light of this fractured picture, we make the case for an account of the MCI effect which dispenses with a memory mechanism specific to supernatural concepts. This account has several desirable properties. First, it preserves Boyer’s pioneering insights regarding the ontological status of supernatural concepts and the cognitive mechanisms that give rise to their cultural prevalence. Second, our account is based on independently-motivated mechanisms that are well-established in the literature. Third, this account offers a principled resolution of the tension in the extant literature between studies that do replicate the MCI effect and those that seemingly fail to do so. Finally, because the proposed mechanisms are not specific to supernatural concepts, the scope of the MCI effect may be extended to account for a broader range of highly transmissible concepts than those it was originally intended to explain. We conclude with a set of theoretical and methodological prescriptions designed to guide future research on the memorability of supernatural concepts.

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