How Your Supernatural Beliefs Are Shaping Your Thoughts

Psychologists Manvir Singh and Léo Fitouchi discuss how your supernatural beliefs could be controlling you.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 4, 2022

A new study published in the Current Opinion in Psychology reveals how supernatural beliefs can control how people think and behave.

I recently spoke with lead authors Manvir Sing and Léo Fitouchi to understand how believing in the supernatural can drive thoughts and behaviors. Their study also examined how this unfolds on a macro-level scale in populations and cultures. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you give a brief overview of 'cognitive compulsion' and 'supernatural punishment beliefs'?

Manvir: Supernatural punishment beliefs — like beliefs in hell or in moralistic gods — appear incredibly well-designed to promote cooperation. They often involve forces that monitor our behavior, and they make wrongdoing sufficiently costly to counterbalance any benefits people otherwise get from behaving badly.

So, where do these beliefs come from? We've synthesized evidence suggesting that a major part of the story is mutual policing.

People endorse supernatural narratives in attempts to make each other more cooperative. Others meanwhile adopt them because they are cognitively sticky — that is, our cognitive biases make supernatural narratives especially compelling.

We argue that this combination — people's desire to control each other and the cognitive appeal of supernatural narratives — interact to sustain supernatural punishment beliefs.

The term 'epistemic vigilance' stood out to me in your study. Could you elaborate on this and explain how supernatural punishment beliefs bypass this process?

Léo: Epistemic vigilance refers to psychological mechanisms evaluating the reliability of information communicated by other people.

If I tell you, for example, that a given food item is poisoned, I may be providing true and useful information — or I may be trying to manipulate you, to keep more food for myself.

So, you need psychological mechanisms to evaluate whether the information other people provide is true or not.

Psychological experiments suggest that people do this very intuitively, by inferring the trustworthiness of the source — is the communicator competent? Is he benevolent? — as well as the consistency of the information with their prior beliefs.

Humans likely evolved epistemic vigilance because they hugely rely on information communicated by others in all domains of life and thus need to protect against the downside of this communication, namely the risk of manipulation.

Because we argue that supernatural punishment beliefs develop as people try to manipulate others into cooperating, we need to explain how those beliefs bypass epistemic vigilance.

Several cognitive biases, we suggest, make supernatural punishment beliefs appear plausible. Evidence suggests, for example, that people are more likely to accept threatening beliefs — and supernatural punishments, such as warnings against eternal damnation in hell — when they are threatening.

Studies also suggest that people are predisposed to believe that wrongdoers are more likely to suffer misfortunes — which is exactly what supernatural punishment beliefs claim.

You state that supernatural punishment beliefs are more prevalent than previously thought. How widespread do you think these beliefs are in actuality?

Manvir: This is still being resolved, but it looks increasingly like they existed in the majority of human societies — including, importantly, among many hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies.

But most people likely didn't believe in the kinds of omniscient, omnipotent deities that feature in Abrahamic religions. Rather, they probably believed in "smaller" deities — local ancestors or spirits that only punished particular moral domains, like stealing, adultery, or in-group killing.

In my work with the Mentawai people of Siberut Island, Indonesia, for instance, I've found that people believe in a water spirit called Sikameinan or Sikaoinan, which is said to almost exclusively attack individuals who do not share meat.

Do you have any advice for anyone who may find themselves victim to supernatural punishment beliefs?

Léo: In fact, an implication of our research is that there aren't simply victims and aggressors. Rather, supernatural punishment beliefs seem to emerge especially easily in populations where everyone is motivated to control others' behaviors.

In such contexts, it seems, everyone wants beliefs in supernatural punishment to be widespread and entrenched in society, as they intuit that others will not cooperate if they do not believe in supernatural punishment.

You state that: "individuals endorse supernatural punishment beliefs when they perceive that other people need to be monitored to behave cooperatively." Taking this into account, what can we assume about cultures that have high supernatural punishment beliefs?

Manvir: We would then expect that societies in which individuals desire greater social control to have higher supernatural punishment beliefs.

These societies tend to have lower levels of trust and exhibit what psychologists call greater "cultural tightness" — a lower tolerance of deviance and stricter social norms.

In a similar vein, we expect that, as people believe non-supernatural means to be inadequate at maintaining social control — for instance, if they think the police and prisons are ineffective at maintaining obedience — they should invest more in pushing supernatural punishment beliefs.

Considering the findings in your study, what does the acceptance of supernatural punishment beliefs show about human psychology and cognition?

Léo: An important implication of our account, we believe, is that the emergence and maintenance of supernatural beliefs depends on strategic interests — motivating people to invest in communicating those beliefs — as well as on cognitive biases making them intuitive for the human mind.

To explain the spread of religious beliefs — or any cultural products, for that matter — we need to think more about their strategic utility and cognitive appeal.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on cognitive compulsion and social control? Can interventions be tailored to address this issue?

Manvir: An interesting topic that our research touches upon is the effect of AI social control. This is something I'm exploring with colleagues here at IAST and elsewhere. The idea is that, as AI enforcers become more prevalent, they should lead to similar social and psychological dynamics. Look out for more on this soon.