Why do some things pass under the radar of our attention, but other things capture our interest? Why do some religions catch on and others fade away? What makes a story, a movie, or a book riveting? Why do some people keep watching the news even though it makes them anxious?
Professor Jim Davies’ fascinating and highly accessible book, Riveted, reveals the evolutionary underpinnings of why we find things compelling, from art to religion and from sports to superstition. Drawing on work from philosophy, anthropology, religious studies, psychology, economics, computer science, and biology, Davies offers a comprehensive explanation to show that in spite of the differences between the many things that we find compelling, they have similar effects on our minds and brains.
Hardwiring for Socializing
Our preference for social thinking makes explanations that make people the most important thing in the universe very attractive. modern cosmology shows that we are not, but maybe, some believe, aliens are—this is the extraterrestrial hypothesis. There is a disturbingly widespread belief that intelligent extraterrestrials abduct people to perform medical-like examinations on them. Social groups of socalled abductees have shared their stories and developed a subculture with its own mythos, including different alien types with different roles. What we now think of as the prototypical alien (naked, large head, large slanted eyes, small mouth, small or missing nose) is considered by the abductee subculture to be a “grey,” and believers discuss the greys’ nature, the greys’ motives, and probably the greys’ anatomy.
The most striking aspect of these stories is how much the greys look and act like humans. They are bipedal, on average about the size of a human woman, and bilaterally symmetric. They have recognizable eyes, heads, arms, legs, hands, skin, and (sometimes) mouths. although they sometimes have distorted versions of human body parts, those parts are recognizable and in the same places on the body.
Psychologist Frederick Malmstrom has suggested that the face of the grey looks the way a female face looks to a newborn baby. if this is true, perhaps we find the face compelling in part as a kind of primitive nostalgia for the face of our mothers. Newborn babies recognize faces using a very primitive part of the old brain—the hippocampus. it appears to be hardwired. as babies develop, they use different parts of their brains to recognize faces. One aspect of this old face-recognition system is that it does not use the presence of hair or ears to detect a face.
Note that greys are depicted as having no hair and no visible ears. Newborn babies have vision that is coarser than that of adults, which results in the loss of detail required to see the nose and mouth clearly—they vanish or become slits. What a baby sees can be imitated by blurring an image, which in adults can actually improve facial recognition. Further, newborns see the world in shades of grey, which suggests a reason why we’d find the idea of grey-colored aliens compelling.
Using software, an image of a woman’s face was manipulated so that it would resemble the way a newborn would see it. The whole picture went into grayscale, the eyes became narrow and diagonally slanted, the nose and mouth became less prominent, and the ears and hair disappeared. it looked strikingly like a grey alien.
Not only do aliens look like humans, they act like them. According to the abduction narrative, their goals are recognizable, and in fact similar to some human goals. The stories told often involve sex and violence. They perform bizarre sexual experiments on people involving pregnancy, reproductive organs, intercourse, and so on. Journalist Kaja Perina reports that 60 percent of female and 50 percent of male alien abductees claim to have been examined by the aliens while lying naked on a table. stories having anything to do with mating, such as sex and romance, are more compelling.
although the extraterrestrial hypothesis is not normally thought of as a conspiracy theory, a bit of conspiratorial thinking is required for it to make sense. after all, there is no incontrovertible evidence that aliens have visited us. One might think that with the thousands of people being abducted, and with all of the implants the aliens have supposedly been putting into people, some piece of extraterrestrial material would eventually show up and settle the matter. But it hasn’t, so skeptics don’t believe. But what’s a believer to do?
enter conspiracy. First, the aliens themselves supposedly don’t want us to know about them. Fine. so believers in alien abduction introduce evidence of the cover-up into the story. The abduction narrative includes things like memory wipes and implants that look just like normal material that we could find on earth. The alienabduction theorists think that the aliens are advanced and cover their tracks, but they are apparently sloppy enough to leak enough clues to convince a sizable human community of believers.
Further, the extraterrestrial hypothesis holds that human governments are covering up the evidence that already exists. special agents are said to exist who go around hiding it all. Often UFO sightings are later claimed by the government to have been flights of experimental aircraft that were kept secret. Believers say that the government wants you to believe in their secret aircraft so people won’t know the truth about aliens. skeptics say that the government is happy that people believe in aliens so they won’t pay much attention to their experimental aircraft.
What is the government’s motive for hiding the truth from the public? The suggested answer is that the government believes people would panic if they knew the truth. Perhaps this made more sense to the mind of someone in the 1950s, but today, the idea of widespread panic seems very unlikely. Think of all the people that would have had to be involved, over the course of 60 or so years, to keep alien contact a secret. it strikes me as very unlikely that not a single person involved would blow the whistle on this thing in 60 years. Conspiracy theorists of all stripes generally overestimate people’s ability to keep their mouths shut.
Believers say that the sheer number of reports means there must be some truth to the alien theory, but the nature of this narrative has much more to say about human psychology than it does about extraterrestrial life.
Some have likened belief in alien abduction to religion, and indeed religions the world over contain beliefs about supernatural beings with desires and personalities. The most obvious personified forces in supernatural beliefs are gods.
Let’s look at other aspects of the occult and compare them to scientific theories. some of the beliefs popular with new-age religions include: crystals can channel life force; energy is passed between people; people have auras that are different according to mood and personality; the position of heavenly bodies, relative to earth, have an effect on your personality and future; souls are reincarnated after death. all these theories have one thing in common: they all involve people. Why are there no supernatural beliefs about why mitochondrial DNa is not passed down in the same way as the rest of our genetic code? about why steel is stronger than wood?
Now, certain religions do have beliefs about nonhuman things, such as the cycles of the moon, harvests, etc. However, it is interesting that religions that involve rituals based on seasons, or the calendar in general, are mostly absent in societies without farming. Once a society becomes agricultural, suddenly calendrical rituals pop up. Why? Because supernatural explanations are generated and maintained, in general, when they are relevant to human lives.
Religious explanations tend to be based on the divine will of gods or spirits, which are, basically, people, with their own opinions and motivations. social compellingness theory predicts that religious beliefs that reject personhood in the supernatural in favor of nonagentive entities (such as a nonanthropomorphic energy) will have more trouble surviving and will evolve (culturally) into more successful, anthropomorphic versions, if they survive at all. One bit of “evidence” for this is that in all (or nearly all) religions, people believe in supernatural agents. Of course, if these agents are a part of religion’s definition, it’s not saying much to claim that all religions have them.
Our ability to reason about what other people are thinking is known in cognitive science as “theory of mind.” Cognitive scientist Jesse Bering suggests that much of our religious belief comes from an overactive theory of mind applying itself to places where there are no minds at all, which is also the first part of social compellingness theory. although some people might prefer to talk of God as being some nonpersonified force, when people pray, the same parts of their brain are active as when they are interacting with other people. At a perceptual level, we can mistake nonanimate things for animate things. We might see a garbage bag as a crouched person or see a face in the headlights and grill of a car, but it is rarely the other way around. in addition to the perception of humanlike forms, we also have a natural tendency to infer that other things have minds like ours.
Anthropologist Wendy James describes a cult in sudan that believed that ebony trees could hear people’s conversations and would sometimes reveal what they heard. What is also notable, however, is that the cult focuses on the trees’ observations of people, as opposed to the myriad other things that could be observed, such as changing cloud patterns. also, this religious idea would not be as compelling if the information the trees gathered was never revealed. Of course the conversations that matter are the socially strategic gossip-worthy ones. Religions focus on supernatural agents’ knowledge about people, knowledge that can in turn affect human affairs, be it through divination, wrath, curses, or something else. Not all gods are believed to have moral (socially strategic) knowledge, but the ones that do are offered sacrifices. according to research by anthropologists stephen sanderson and Wesley Roberts, gods (in many religions) that do not have or share strategic knowledge do not have rituals dedicated to them.
One thing that is particularly notable is that even if you are not in this sudanese cult, and even if you don’t believe in anything supernatural, you probably have a pretty good idea of what it’s like for something, even a tree, to hear a conversation, based only on my very short description. This is because we all have similar representations of minds and plants, and when i combine them, or you combine them, or the members of this sudanese cult combine them, we get similar results—similar concepts in our minds. ideas of supernatural agents can be communicated very efficiently because every person more or less correctly reconstructs the idea in his or her own head. These entities are made of relatively simple conceptual building blocks that we already have.
Some religions claim that God is not a humanlike entity, but some kind of force. This conception of a god is not common in religion, and seems to be a function of intellectualizing by religious authorities. in these religions, the belief that God is not humanlike might be “theologically correct,” in that it is in agreement with what religious authorities say, but it does not accurately reflect the beliefs of laypeople. it turns out that laypeople might express theologically correct ideas when asked about religious theory generally, but when you ask them to interpret specific situations, people show their true theologically incorrect colors. Catch them with their guard down, so to speak, and God becomes much more anthropomorphic. Psychologist Justin Barrett reports in his survey of cognitive studies of religion that people might, when asked, claim that God can listen to many things at once, but misremember stories as saying that God could not hear something because there was a loud noise at the time.
Children are particularly susceptible to seeing agency in inanimate objects. elementary concepts such as agency are among the first to be acquired but are frequently overgeneralized to inanimate things. at four years of age, children seem to believe that all motion is intentional. But it seems that even many adults attribute agency to things that are apparently self-propelled: certainly animals, but also wind and astronomical objects like stars, planets, the sun, and the moon, which seem to move through the sky without anything pushing them. These beliefs turn up in religions.
I predict that people more disposed to thinking socially will be more likely to perceive animacy where there isn’t any. if we look at extremes of social thinking, we see some evidence in support of this view. One extreme of social thinking is autism, which, as noted earlier, is characterized by a decreased ability to think socially. i don’t think it’s a coincidence that people with autism-spectrum disorders also tend to be nonreligious, according to Catherine Caldwell-Harris. The impaired ability of people with autism to use “theory of mind” to understand the mental states of others might also explain why they tend not to believe in gods. some have said that psychosis and autism are at opposite sides of a spectrum (this theory is not currently accepted by mainstream psychiatry). People with psychosis often see personal meaning in lots of random events.
Sociologist Fred Previc has shown that women worldwide tend to be more religious than men (there are exceptions for some regions and religions) and in general have more paranormal experiences. This is possibly a side effect of their heightened abilities to reason socially. To test this, we would need to find a correlation between an individual’s social-thinking tendencies and religiosity. There is preliminary support for this hypothesis in a study that showed a significant correlation between self-reported religiosity and emotional intelligence in Christians, and that autism-spectrum measures correlate with reduced belief in God. Of course, the fact that religion seems to have a global hold on humanity, even in the parts of the world where men are in power, indicates that religion is far from being a strictly female phenomenon.
In this chapter i’ve examined a few related cognitive processes that are implicated in our beliefs about supernatural agents. i’ve described them under the umbrella of social compellingness theory, but they likely constitute a variety of functions. For example, there is a specialized place in the brain that handles the detection of faces. This face-detection process explains why we see faces in clouds or toast. But there is a different process being used when thunder is attributed to a god, because there is no experience of a face. Animacy detection is used in the scientific literature to mean the perception of something that moves on its own accord—unlike rustling leaves, for instance. This mental function evolved to detect predators and prey. if we hear a rustling in the leaves, it behooves us to know if it’s something dangerous or just the wind. Steven Mithen and Walter Burkert suggest that our intuitive processes regarding predation inform our beliefs in supernatural agents. Although this theory is speculative, there are intriguing bits of support. There appear to be lots of hunting metaphors in religious stories; experiences with supernatural beings are often frightening, and further they often involve being able to see but not hear, or hear but not see the agent—situations that are particularly salient and frightening when facing a predator. One interesting way to study this would be to survey gods who are pictured as animals and rate whether they are predators (carnivores and omnivores, perhaps) or prey (herbivores).
Agency detection is perceiving that something has a will and can take action—that something has a mind. animacy and agency are often used to mean the same thing, though in certain cases, such as the closing of a venus flytrap, something can be animate but not be an agent. Theory of mind is our ability to reason about minds. Theory of mind can be said to use folk psychology, though this term is sometimes reserved for our explicit ideas of how minds work, rather than how we reason about them intuitively. agency detection is a part of theory of mind.
But keep in mind that just because scientists use different terms, it does not necessarily mean that the terms refer to different functions in the mind. it could be that many terms are just different uses of the same mental machinery. Psychologist adam Waytz found that anthropomorphism activates the same brain area implicated with social cognition in general, and psychologists Lasana Harris and susan Fiske found that this area is less activated when thinking about certain groups of people as being less than human.
In the section on gossip above, i described the relative social status hypothesis, and noted that we are most interested in gossip about those people who are similar to us in sex, age, and social standing. it turns out that this has religious ramifications as well. some cultures have a belief in the “evil eye,” a curse brought on by envy. However, the evil eye is not often thought to be cast by a poor person on a very rich person. The evil eye tends to be brought up in the context of social and economic equals when one of them is perceived to have gotten ahead in some way (given birth to a beautiful child, or received a sudden windfall of money). Pascal Boyer hypothesizes that this belief system piggybacks on our “cheater detection” system. if someone is pulling ahead, perhaps it is because they are magically stealing something from others.
When a religion gets very popular and starts to spread to different cultures, it often must somehow deal with the local god and spirit beliefs of the new converts. Often the spreading religion demotes these gods and spirits to lesser beings with respect to the bigger, more universal gods. Hinduism did this particularly effectively, incorporating the idea of local gods into the basic doctrine. many heroes and even gods of the ancient Greek religion were appropriated as saints in Christianity. if the spreading religion fails to incorporate locally believed supernatural agents, many people will continue to believe in them anyway, outside of the scope of the spreading religion. The people in charge of religious doctrine would often like ordinary believers to be a bit more theologically correct, but it is a testament to the strength of our theory of mind, and possibly human nature, that these kinds of beliefs keep coming back. People will continue to believe in gods and spirits that are local, and will even believe that the dead have interactions with their day-today lives.
Our instincts make us want to pay attention to people and social interactions. as shown in this chapter, this has two important effects. First, we overextend our social thinking into places where it is inappropriate, resulting in anthropomorphizing inanimate entities. second, we find people fascinating and prefer them in our arts and explanations. an alien anthropologist looking at our arts and religions would have no trouble understanding humanity. Our natures are unambiguously inscribed on all of it.
Riveted © Jim Davies, 2014