This paper outlines an anthropological approach to religious representations that is grounded in recent findings and hypotheses in cognitive psychology. The argument proceeds in four points. First, the main goal of this framework is to account for the recurrence of certain types of mental representations in religious systems. Recurrent features are not necessarily universal. They are the outcome of cognitive systems that make certain representations easier to acquire than others. Second, a cognitive approach must take into account the diversity of religious representations. It is argued here that religious systems bring together ontological assumptions, causal claims, episode types and social categories. These four "repertoires" may have different functional properties, and may therefore be acquired and represented in different ways. Third, universal features of tacit, intuitive systems may impose strong constraints on the variability of religious ideas. This is illustrated on the basis of ethnographic data. Finally, the type of representations one finds in religious belief-systems consists in conjectures, the cognitive salience of which is variable and should be evaluated in precise terms.
Research on social transmission suggests that people preferentially transmit information about threats and social interactions. Such biases might be driven by the arousal that is experienced as part of the emotional response triggered by information about threats or social relationships. The current studies tested whether preferences for transmitting threat-relevant information are consistent with a functional motive to recruit social support. USA residents were recruited for six online studies. Studies 1a and 1B showed that participants more often chose to transmit positive, low-arousal vignettes (rather than negative, high-arousal vignettes involving threats and social interactions). Studies 2A and 2B showed higher intentions to transmit emotional vignettes (triggering disgust, fear, anger, or sadness) to friends (rather than to strangers or disliked acquaintances). Study 4 showed a preference for transmitting stories that participants had modified and were therefore novel and unique. Studies 2A and 3 (but not Studies 2B and 4) suggest that motivations for seeking social support might influence transmission preferences. Overall, the findings are not easily accounted for by any of the major theories of social transmission. We discuss limitations of the current studies and directions for further research.
Motor behaviours typically include acts that may seem irrelevant for the goal of the task. These unnecessary idiosyncratic acts are excessively manifested in certain activities, such as sports or compulsive rituals. Using the shared performance (commonness) of acts as a proxy for their relevance to the current task, we analysed motor behaviour in daily tasks, sport-related tasks, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tasks. For each task, these motor behaviours comprised common acts that were performed by all the individuals, and idiosyncratic acts that were performed by only some individuals. In all three tasks there was a temporal section that included all the common acts (termed ‘body’). This body section was preceded by a sequence of idiosyncratic acts that we termed ‘head’, and was followed by another sequence of idiosyncratic acts that we termed ‘tail’. While both head and tail sections were relatively short in the daily tasks, the head was relatively long and the tail largely absent in sport-related tasks, which have a definite end and high stakes. In contrast, OCD behaviour had a relatively long tail. In light of these results, we suggest that the head is a preparatory phase and the tail a confirmatory phase. The head may be viewed as a warm-up phase for the pragmatic section of the task (‘body’), and the tail as a cool-down phase. Finally, we suggest that rituals may be viewed as a descendant of pragmatic activities, which differentially feature a greater terminal phase of idiosyncratic acts in OCD, and an extended initial phase of idiosyncratic acts in sport rituals.