Adults, more than kids, rely on the supernatural

U. TEXAS-AUSTIN (US) — As we age, we often rely more—not less—on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, research shows.

“As children assimilate cultural concepts into their intuitive belief systems—from God to atoms to evolution—they engage in coexistence thinking,” says Cristine Legare, assistant professor of psychology the University of Texas at Austin and the study’s lead author. “When they merge supernatural and scientific explanations, they integrate them in a variety of predictable and universal ways.”

Legare and her colleagues reviewed more than 30 studies on how people (ages 5-75) from various countries reason with three major existential questions: the origin of life, illness, and death. They also conducted a study with 366 respondents in South Africa, where biomedical and traditional healing practices are both widely available.

As part of the study, Legare presented the respondents with a variety of stories about people who had AIDS. They were then asked to endorse or reject several biological and supernatural explanations for why the characters in the stories contracted the virus.

According to the findings, participants of all age groups agreed with biological explanations for at least one event. Yet supernatural explanations such as witchcraft were also frequently supported among children (ages 5 and up) and universally among adults.

Among the adult participants, only 26 percent believed the illness could be caused by either biology or witchcraft. And 38 percent split biological and scientific explanations into one theory.

For example: “Witchcraft, which is mixed with evil spirits, and unprotected sex caused AIDS.” However, 57 percent combined both witchcraft and biological explanations. For example: “A witch can put an HIV-infected person in your path.”

Legare says the findings, published in the journal Child Development, contradict the common assumption that supernatural beliefs dissipate with age and knowledge.

“The findings show supernatural explanations for topics of core concern to humans are pervasive across cultures,” Legare notes. “If anything, in both industrialized and developing countries, supernatural explanations are frequently endorsed more often among adults than younger children.”

The results provide evidence that reasoning about supernatural phenomena is a fundamental and enduring aspect of human thinking, Legare says.

“The standard assumption that scientific and religious explanations compete should be re-evaluated in light of substantial psychological evidence,” Legare suggests. “The data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education, or technology.”

Source: University of Texas at Austin

chat15 Comments


  1. kimbee

    What? “A witch can put an HIV-infected person in your path.” Who are these people that they asked? Are they mental? Ages 5-375 would make a lot more sense. Seriously people still believe in witches in Texas? Mind you I guess it’s not that big of a leap if you’re religious, and mental.

  2. Thomas

    Yes, SCIENCE holds the keys to explaining everything in the universe. Unfortunately someone changed the locks.

    Or for the literate geeks among you, the answer is “42.”

  3. kimbee

    Well the world would be very boring if the doors were wide open. Fortunately we’ve developed some pretty nifty lock picking skills, more advanced than blaming witches and goblins anyway. 42 may be the answer but we’d have to understand the question first, wouldn’t we?

  4. Thomas

    Me, being an Old rocket scientist, [35 years in Aerospace] your blind faith in science amuses me Kimbee.

    I suspect you are twenty something and have yet to come to grips that faith in string theory is really no different than believing in goblins.

    And yes, to the point of the article, a large number of people in Texas believe in some form of Supreme Being and a great percentage of our Latino population believes in and practices witchcraft. I don’t share their hopes and fears, but learned long ago not to ridicule the manner in which other people perceive their place in the Universe and try to explain forces and phenomena they cannot control.

  5. kimbee

    Unfortunately not and I’m not a physicist so can’t say I’m an expert on string theory. Didn’t mean to cause offense (maybe my use of the word metal was a bit harsh but I did say religious and mental, I did not mean to imply that I think religious people are mental) I just meant that faith in something that is not tangible or measurable is comparable to superstition. I’d say my ‘blind’ faith (or just faith) is in mathematics and it’s application. ‘Science’ is the world as interpreted by humans and therefore is as fallible as we are.

    However, I do feel that the evidence for AIDS being caused by the transmission of HIV is much stronger than the evidence that it is caused by witches. I think it is very important that people know about these things so that they can protect themselves from infection. I was very surprised by the article, I’ve never come across those kind of superstitious beliefs before and the only time I’ve spent in the US was with trees.

    I’ll be sure to mind my flippant comments in future, I’ve often been told that I have a crap sense of humor. Glad to have caused you amusement though Old man.

  6. Thomas

    I am not offended, just amused.

    I am a physicist and there are lots of current hypothises and theories that you take on faith. Even mathematical proofs are sometimes later shown to be invalid.

    I believe a virus causes HIV, but I couldn’t prove it. I just have faith in the medical researchers that publish papers that have declared it a virus based disease.

    If some bruja [witch] tells a vaquero [cowboy] his ailment is caused by una espíritu [a spirit] I couldn’t disprove that either, but I would still think it was a virus.

  7. kimbee

    You seem to be assuming a lot about me. I said that I am not a physicist, I did not say that I was a layman. I understand your point and we do not entirely disagree. I enjoy hearing the opinions of others, particularly when they differ from my own. I do not enjoy being patronised.

    P.S. A retrovirus (HIV) causes the disease AIDS just so’s you know
    P.P.S Once again, honoured to be your source of amusement

  8. Sundew

    Wow, I hope this is a joke. Faith in supreme beings (if such is needed) is well enough in mderation, but to believe in a first-world country that witches cause AIDS?? I had no idea that the American education system was quite this messed up. Do educated people really believe there is no difference between evidence-based Scientific discovery, and superstitions?

  9. Thomas

    I guess you would have to define what you mean by educated.

    People with advanced schooling in scientific/mathematic disciplines tend to have faith in scientific principles. People with liberal arts majors or those who have not had any university training are much more open to having faith in supernatural explanations for the way the universe operates.

    Over the years I have met some highly educated people who believed what I considered to be really goofy shit. I try not to antagonize them about it, because some of them are fanatical about their beliefs and might want to fight over them.

  10. kimbee

    ‘People with liberal arts majors or those who have not had any university training are much more open to having faith in supernatural explanations for the way the universe operates.’

    Where is your evidence for this?

  11. Thomas

    My evidence is in sixty years of life, including teaching Physics at a University, in the Military, working NASA programs, working in the Aerospace Industry, as Law Enforcement officer, working Film and Television production, living at various times in places from the Arctic to Antarctica, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. I have been with primitive natives all the way to knowing a couple of guys that have Noble Prizes.

    One size of course does not fit all, however as a generalization I have observed;

    People with a background in science tend not to accept any explanation of a phenomena other than a “Scientific Theory” even if to justify some of those beliefs the theory has to include particles or energies that no one has yet been able to detect or measure. “We know they are there, we just haven’t been able to detect them with our current technology!”

    People without training in science are much more prone to say “God did it” or “It’s Magic.”

    I watched a program last night about Evil Places. Some researchers went into areas that the native population had legends of as being cursed places from which people should stay away. Turns out several of them contained pitchblende, which is a uranium ore and one had cinnabar which is a mercury ore.

    If you camped on the pitchblende your hair and teeth fell out. If you camped on cinnabar you went insane. Scientific explanation would be radiation poisoning and heavy metal poisoning. The natives said you were cursed by evil spirits.

    This is simply two viewpoints of dealing with the same phenomena. They are both valid. I am perfectly happy agreeing with some native that radiation and heavy metals are Bad JuJu and you should stay away from them.

  12. Thomas

    Nobel Prizes.
    I hate auto spel korrect.

  13. kimbee

    Well you certainly do get around. I can’t claim such great feats, however, I do have a wide circle of friends within the European Art community and, on a number of occasions, have acted as a technical advisor on a number of projects. In my experience, I have found that the artistic community has a fascination with science and technology, and on the whole tend to be well informed. A very good friend of mine who now works as an artist full-time sat next to me in my maths and physics classes in college and helped me as much as I helped her.

  14. Thomas

    I don’t think of my life as a series of great feats, but it has never been boring to me and I have seen a lot of people and places.

    As I admitted, one size [description] does not fit all.

    Come to think of it, I know lots of artistic types that know some technology, but I have difficulty coming up with any hard core scientist I have met that is skilled in a creative art. A bunch of them I know like music.

    Maybe they are like Heinlein’s Lazarus Long character and think that art is something you do privately behind closed doors, never tell anyone, and wash your hands when you finish.

  15. Origami

    Well…the fact is that we still have many unanswered questions and if there is not scientific proof, we tend to credit that to unknown forces or entities.

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