What influences people’s appreciation of works of art? In this paper, we provide a new cognitive approach to this big question, and the first empirical results in support of it. As a work of art typically does not activate intuitive cognition for functional artefacts, it is represented as an instance of non-verbal symbolic communication. By application of Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) Relevance Theory of communication, we hypothesize that understanding the artist’s intention plays a crucial role in intuitive art appreciation judgements. About 60 works of fine art, representing a wide range of periods, genres and styles, were selected in the permanent exhibitions at Tate Britain in London, and rated by more than 500 visitors for goodness and understanding of the artist’s intention. Results suggest that works of art whose artist’s intention is easy to understand tend to be preferred over those with more obscure intentions, even when controlling for familiarity effects.
Is reasoning about religious ritual tethered to ordinary, nonreligious human reasoning about actions? E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley’s ritual form hypothesis (rfh) constitutes a cognitive approach to religious ritual – an explanatory theory that suggests people use ordinary human cognition to make specific predictions about ritual properties, relatively independent of cultural or religious particulars. Few studies assess the credibility of rfh and further evidence is needed to generalize its predictions across cultures. Towards this end, we assessed culturally Chinese “special patient” rituals in Singapore. Our findings strongly support rfh predictions for special patient ritual repeatability, reversibility, sensory pageantry and emotionality.
If “Big Gods” evolved in part because of their ability to morally regulate groups of people who cannot count on kin or reciprocal altruism to get along (Norenzayan, 2013), then powerful gods would tend to be good gods. If the mechanism for this cooperation is some kind of fear of supernatural punishment (Johnson & Bering, 2006), then we may expect that mighty gods tend to be punishing gods. The present study is a statistical analysis of superhuman being concepts from 20 countries on five continents to explore whether the goodness of a god is related to its mightiness. Gods that looked more like the God of classical theism and gods that were low in anthropomorphism were more likely to be regarded as morally good and to be the target of religious practices. Mighty gods were not, however, especially likely to punish or to be a “high god.”
Are the places that superhuman beings purportedly act and dwell randomly or arbitrarily distributed? Inspired by theoretical work in cognitive science of religion, descriptions of superhuman beings (e.g., ancestors, demons, ghosts, gods, spirits) were solicited from informants in 20 countries on five continents, resulting in 108 usable descriptions, including information about these beings’ properties, their dwelling location, and whether they were the target of rituals. Whether superhuman beings are the subject of religious and ritual practices appeared to co-vary in relation to both features of physical geography and cognitive factors. Good gods were more likely the focus of religious practices than evil gods, and where the gods are thought to dwell mattered. If either the being was thought to dwell in a dangerous place or a resource rich place, it was more likely to have practices directed at it.