When Perceiving the Supernatural Changes the Natural: Religion and Agency Detection

in Journal of Cognition and Culture
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How does perceiving supernatural agents shape perceptions of natural agents? Despite the ongoing debate on whether supernatural attributions are functionless spillover from a hyperactive agency detector versus more evolved mechanisms that served key adaptive functions for ancestral humans, both accounts concede that one critical, defining quality of religion is that it superimposes intentional agency on natural events. Across two studies, the relationship between religious beliefs and perceptions of both agency and experience for a diverse array of agents were assessed – including ordinary individuals, supernatural beings, villains, martyrs, and celebrities. Across studies, naturalistically-occurring and experimentally-primed religious beliefs facilitated heightened perceptions of agency, but not experience, across both supernatural and natural agents. Thus, religious beliefs promote greater sensitivity to agency more generally. Implications for how this link reconciles the opposing notions of religion as an accidental by-product of agency detection vs. evolved adaptation are discussed.

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