The present article examines how people’s belief in an afterlife, as well as closely related supernatural beliefs, may open an empirical backdoor to our understanding of the evolution of human social cognition. Recent ﬁndings and logic from the cognitive sciences contribute to a novel theory of existential psychology, one that is grounded in the tenets of Darwinian natural selection. Many of the predominant questions of existential psychology strike at the heart of cognitive science. They involve: causal attribution (why is mortal (...) behavior represented as being causally related to one’s afterlife? how are dead agents envisaged as communicating messages to the living?), moral judgment (why are certain social behaviors, i.e., transgressions, believed to have ultimate repercussions after death or to reap the punishment of disgruntled ancestors?), theory of mind (how can we know what it is “like” to be dead? what social-cognitive strategies do people use to reason about the minds of the dead?), concept acquisition (how does a common-sense dualism interact with a formalized socio-religious indoctrination in childhood? how are supernatural properties of the dead conceptualized by young minds?), and teleological reasoning (why do people so often see their lives as being designed for a purpose that must be accomplished before they perish? how do various life events affect people’s interpretation of this purpose?), among others. The central thesis of the present article is that an organized cognitive “system” dedicated to forming illusory representations of (1) psychological immortality, (2) the intelligent design of the self, and (3) the symbolic meaning of natural events evolved in response to the unique selective pressures of the human social environment. (shrink)
We investigated whether (a) people positively reevaluate the characters of recently dead others and (b) supernatural primes concerning an ambient dead agent serve to curb selfish intentions. In Study 1, participants made trait attributions to three strangers depicted in photographs; one week later, they returned to do the same but were informed that one of the strangers had died over the weekend. Participants rated the decedent target more favorably after learning of his death whereas ratings for the control targets remained (...) unchanged between sessions. This effect was especially pronounced for traits dealing with the decedent’s prosocial tendencies (e.g., ethical, kind). In Study 2, a content analysis of obituaries revealed a similar emphasis on decedents’ prosocial attributes over other personality dimensions (e.g., achievement-relatedness, social skills). Finally, in Study 3, participants who were told of an alleged ghost in the laboratory were less likely to cheat on a competitive task than those who did not receive this supernatural prime. The findings are interpreted as evidence suggestive of adaptive design. (shrink)
Since Darwin, the idea of psychological continuity between humans and other animals has dominated theory and research in investigating the minds of other species. Indeed, the field of comparative psychology was founded on two assumptions. First, it was assumed that introspection could provide humans with reliable knowledge about the causal connection between specific mental states and specific behaviors. Second, it was assumed that in those cases in which other species exhibited behaviors similar to our own, similar psychological causes were at (...) work. In this paper, we show how this argument by analogy is flawed with respect to the case of second‐order mental states. As a test case, we focus on the question of how other species conceive of visual attention, and in particular whether chimpanzees interpret seeing as a mentalistic event involving internal states of perception, attention, and belief. We conclude that chimpanzees do not reason about seeing in this manner, and indeed, there is considerable reason to suppose that they do not harbor representations of mental states in general. We propose a reinterpretation model in which the majority of the rich social behaviors that humans and other primates share in common emerged long before the human lineage evolved the psychological means of interpreting those behaviors in mentalistic terms. Although humans, chimpanzees, and most other species may be said to possess mental states, humans alone may have evolved a cognitive specialization for reasoning about such states. (shrink)
The commentaries are a promising sign that a research programme on the cognitive science of souls will continue to move toward empirical and theoretical rigor. Most of the commentators agree that beliefs in personal immortality, in the intelligent design of souls, and in the symbolic meaning of natural events can provide new insight into human social evolution. In this response I clarify and extend the evolutionary model, further emphasizing the adaptiveness of the cognitive system that underlies these beliefs.
Consciousness, as a higher-order cognitive capacity allowing for the explicit representation of abstract mental states, might be the incidental byproduct of design features from other adaptive systems, such as those governing expansion of the frontal lobes in primates. Although such abilities may have occurred entirely by chance, the standardized entrenchment of this representational capacity in human cognition may have posed engineering dilemmas for natural selection in that consciousness could not be easily removed without disrupting the adaptive features of other design (...) solutions. If so, then those organisms saddled with the burden of higher-order representation by the occurrence of these chance events were suddenly assaulted with a series of social problems previously unencountered by any other species in evolutionary history. Such consciousness-based problems constituted enormous selective pressure for generating ancestrally adaptive psychological programs designed to cope with them. Each of these design solutions was, by necessity, generated and progressively pruned over an extraordinarily short span of geological time. In addition, these programs ran into conflict with more ancient primate social adaptations — such as those underlying sexual coercion and violence — that did not evolve to be sensitive to the epistemic positions of others. These mosaic processes have likely resulted in selection for innumerable algorithmic properties driving human-specific behaviors which are both proximally and ultimately caused by consciousness. Consciousness by itself should be classified as maladaptive; what is adaptive are those psychological programs in place to support its incidental and problematic arrival in the human brain. (shrink)
We propose a coevolutionary model of secrecy and stigmatization. According to this model, secrecy functions to conceal potential fitness costs detected in oneself or one’s genetic kin. In three studies, we found that the content of participants’ distressing secrets overlapped significantly with three domains of social information that were important for inclusive fitness and served as cues for discriminating between rewarding and unrewarding interaction partners: health, mating, and social-exchange behavior. These findings support the notion that secrecy functions primarily as a (...) defense against stigmatization by suppressing information about oneself or one’s kin that evolutionarily has been devalued in mating and social exchange. (shrink)
Atran & Norenzayan's (A&N's) target article effectively combines the insights of evolutionary biology and interdisciplinary cognitive science, neither of which alone yields sufficient explanatory power to help us fully understand the complexities of supernatural belief. Although the authors' ideas echo those of other researchers, they are perhaps the most squarely grounded in neo-Darwinian terms to date. Nevertheless, A&N overlook the possibility that the tendency to infer supernatural agents' communicative intent behind natural events served an ancestrally adaptive function.