Coding and Quantifying Counterintuitiveness in Religious Concepts: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
Justin Barrett Centre for Anthropology & Mind, Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, 64 Banbury Road, Oxford, OX2 6PN United Kingdom

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Boyer's theory of counterintuitive cultural concept transmission claims that concepts that ideas that violate naturally occurring intuitive knowledge structures enough to be attention-demanding but not so much to undermine conceptual coherence have a transmission advantage over other concepts (Boyer et al. 2001: 535-64). Because of the prominence of these counterintuitive concepts in religious belief systems, Boyer's theory features prominently in many cognitive treatments of religion. Difficulties in identifying what are and are not counterintuitive concepts in this technical sense, however, has made empirical treatment of Boyer's theory irregular and difficult to evaluate. Further, inability to quantify just how counterintuitive a given concept is has made ambiguous specifying where the alleged cognitive optimum lies. The present project attempts to clarify Boyer's theory and presents a formal system for coding and quantifying the "counterintuitiveness" of a concept, and hence, facilitates empirical scrutiny of the theory.

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