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High mentalizing as a correlate of theleological thinking about life events


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Last two decades have given new rise to the atheism movement, now highly visible in numerous/ both print and digital media. With only small percent of the world population describing themselves as nonbelievers and some forms of religiosity omnipresent in most cultures across the world, the matter of the origins of atheism remains open. Numerous researchers begin to study psychological and cognitive underpinnings of non-belief. A common line of thought connects atheism and belief to two modes of thinking, systematic and mentalizing. The latter is often understood as the ability to perceive agency, not only in other people but also in other domains, supernatural as well. Most of the literature on the subject presents studies conducted on the belief in monotheistic gods present in world main religions. Since religiosity is only partially connected to the belief in anthropomorphised gods and most known religions do not adhere to those, a lack of studies done on theleological thinking about the world in general seems apparent. In my paper I will present results of a study of theleological beliefs about life events in general (or lack of thereof) on a sample of Polish students. Participants were asked to answer questions concerning the ultimate casual reasons for their life experiences, not about belief in deities or spirits. Empathy Quotient, Paranoia Scale and Analytical Thinking scores were also measured in order to determine the correlates of the tendencies to the theleological thinking. High mentalizing subjects teneded to view world in more theleological way, finding purpose in their life experiences. Focusing on mind-reading aspects of religiosity opens a new perspective in research. Since many aspects of religiosity consist of some kind of mind-reading of supernatural agents (prayer, offerings, moral decisions, considering the will of the gods, spirits and dead ancestors), inability to do so precludes an individual from fully committing to not only religious but also superstitious worldview. I argue that theleological thinking, connected to mentalizing system of the mind, provides a unique way to understand the mind-blinded atheism – inability to ascribe minds to gods, spirits and universe as a whole - that lends support to atheistic and materialistic world view.

Published in: Science
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High mentalizing as a correlate of theleological thinking about life events

  1. 1. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM high mentalizing as a correlate of theleological thinking about life events AnsgarWalk
  2. 2. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM inspiration I think I needed to experience this car crash, so that I'd learn that I need to drive safely While the scientific answer to the question of why humans came to be has already been published in 1859 (Darwin), we can not refrain from searching for the meaning of life itself. Lack of meaning is generally regarded as a highly undesirable state.
  3. 3. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM definition J. Bering coined the concept of existential theory of mind (EtoM) and defined it as explaining system having a biological substrate, that allows the unit to perceive the significance of some of life events. Bering, J. M. (2010). The belief instinct: The psychology of souls, destiny, and the meaning of life. New York: Norton.
  4. 4. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM teleological thinking Representatives of one of the African tribes pointed as angry ancestral spirits as the reason for the collapse of the hut in the presence of one of the members of the tribe. At the suggestion of anthropologists that the construction of the hut has been weakened as a result of termite activity they replied that they knew this all too well. This does not change the fact that what their hut that was eaten by termites, in addition, at a time when that particular person was present. Boyer, P. (2001). Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books.
  5. 5. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM teleological thinking Schrock, K. (2010). People with Asperger’s less likely to see purpose behind the events in their lives. Scientific American. Retrieved may 29 2012 from to-see-purpose-behind-the-events-in-their-lives/ Research shows that teleological thinking about life events is not exclusive to religious people, and is not uncommon for people declaring atheistic worldview. In their case, often it takes the form of talking about destiny and karma- like concepts.
  6. 6. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM Intentionality detector it has been shown that people tend to ascribe causation (agency) and intentionality geometric figures set in motion. The basic functions performed by ID would be interpretation and identification of objects moving in accordance with specific rules, applicable to living organisms An example with geometrical figures shows that ID is hyperactive Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The empathizing system. A Revision of the 1994 Model of the Mindreading System. W: Bruce J. Ellis, David F. Bjorklund (red.) Origins of the social mind: evolutionary psychology and child development. New York: Guilford Press, s. 468-493. Heider, F., Simmel, M. (1944). An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior. The American Journal of Psychology, 57 (2), s. 243-259.
  7. 7. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM HADD (hyperactive agent detection device) Human cognitive mechanisms are adapted to detecting other human beings in the surrounding as they are particularly important for our survival. Guthrie, S. (1995). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Sagan, C. (2011). Demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark. Ballantine Books.
  8. 8. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM atheism Since conceptions of atheism vary, accurate estimations of current numbers of atheists are difficult. 2015 Gallup poll featuring over 64,000 respondents indicated that 11% of them were "convinced atheists". Norenzayan, A., & Gervais, W. M. (2013). The origins of religious disbelief. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(1), 20-25.
  9. 9. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM autistic spectrum disorders Autism is a developmental disorder affecting especially the area of social and cognitive capacities. In the literature there is widespread view that it is related to the malfunctioning of theory of mind module. Simon Baron-Cohen even coined the term "mind blindness" (mind-blindness) as a term synonymous with autism. While the disorder theory of mind module operation causes significant impairment in the ability to empathizing, whereas there are indications that the complement to her ability to systemize. Baron-Cohen S., Leslie A. M., Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a 'theory of mind'?. Cognition 21 (1), s. 37–46.
  10. 10. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM ASD and teleological thinking In EToM studies conducted on individuals with ASD, results were obtained indicating that the deficits associated with the operation of the module theory of mind go hand in hand with being less prone to belief in supernatural beings and their intentional interference with life events Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., Trzesniewski, K.H. (2012). Mentalizing deficits constrain belief in a personal God. PloS one, 7(5). In the first study, participants were asked to describe the reasons for important life events (ie. why they've met their life partner, or why they've contracted the disease). Compared to the 34 neurotypical people, those with Asperger provided lesser teleological responses, ie., less frequently refered to the intentional beings. More often evoked natural causes (illness was a source of infection) or simply elaborated on events, giving more details.
  11. 11. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM ASD and teleological thinking In another study, people with Asperger syndrome were compared with those declaring an atheistic worldview. Atheists often provided anti-teleological responses, for example "It happened for no reason, things just happen." Berring speculates that this indicated the appearance of teleological thinking in their reasoning and then its active suppression. Such responses occurred less frequently in the responses of people with Asperger. Schrock, K. (2010). People with Asperger’s less likely to see purpose behind the events in their lives. Scientific American. Retrieved May 29 2012 from to-see-purpose-behind-the-events-in-their-lives/
  12. 12. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM ASD and teleological thinking ASD scores allowed to predict a lower belief in a personal God. Mediating the association was the ability to mentalise, which is in line with EtoM model. Systemising ability did not mediate the association, neither did two personality variables associated with religiosity - agreeableness and conscientiousness. The ability to mentalise explained the differences in religiosity between men and women. The researchers note, other studies demonstrated a greater ability of women to mentalise. Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., Trzesniewski, K.H. (2012). Mentalizing deficits constrain belief in a personal God. PloS one, 7(5).
  13. 13. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM dual processing According to dual-process theories of human thinking there are two distinct but interacting systems for information processing. One (System 1) relies upon frugal heuristics yielding intuitive responses, while the other (System 2) relies upon deliberative analytic processing. Although both systems can at times run in parallel, System 2 often overrides the input of system 1 when analytic tendencies are activated and cognitive resources are available. Individual differences in the tendency to analytically override initially flawed intuitions in reasoning were associated with increased religious disbelief. Gervais, W. M., & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Analytic thinking promotes religious disbelief. Science, 336(6080), 493-496.
  14. 14. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM methods ● Empathy Quotient for Adults (EQ-40) ● Subtle Paranoia (PA-S) ● Existental Theory of Mind Questionnaire ● analytical/intuitive thinking (cognitive tasks)
  15. 15. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM methods - participants 200 students took the quiestionnaire. The decision was made to exclude from further analysis the responses to the questionnaire that took more than 35 minutes (Mt+/-1 SD). As a result, the final N= 189. Gender distribution was skewed . The share of men was 41 (21.7%), 148 women (78.3%). The average age of participant was 21.81 (SD = 2.02), the typical participant was 21 years old.
  16. 16. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM methods - PETU ● Teleological-symbolic explanation (Kościński, 2005) – percieved causal event X takes place in the future, although it is percieved before event X, thus, becoming the intention behind X (best exemplification of EToM) ● Tautological explanations (Bunge i Ardila, 1998) – a person mostly paraphrases the statement; they are a naturalistic explanation and often come from people declaring rationalist worldview (Berring, 2002b; Schrock, 2010) ● Explanations referring to direct intervention of Higher Power – e.g. God's will ● Anti-teleological explanation (Schrock, 2010) – person deliberately denies the purpose behind the event, justifying the event often saying that „things like that happen” ● Strictly teleological statements („strong” and „weak” variants) (Berring, 2002b)
  17. 17. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM methods - PETU Why did you meet your close one? ● We were meant to meet ● Just so, things like that don't have a reason ● This was meant to happen ● We happened to be in the same time and place ● It was the will of God (or other Higher Power) ● We met so that my life could change
  18. 18. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM methods – cognitive task ● Baseball bat and the ball cost 1.10 zł together. Baseball cost 1 zł more than the ball. How much is the ball? ● 5 machines need 5 minutes in order to produce 5 figurines. How much does it take for 100 machines to produce 100 figurines? ● The pond is covered by the duckweed. Everyday, the area covered by duckweed dobules. The whole area of the pond will be covered in 48 days. How many days will it take for the duckweed to cover half of the lake correct answer: 47 days, intuitive answer: 24 days correct answer: 5 min, intuitive answer: 100 min correct answer: 5 gr, intuitive answer: 10 gr
  19. 19. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM results
  20. 20. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM discussion The resulting correlation between Teleological Thinking and Empathy Quotient, although weak, is consistent with the theoretical assumptions of EtoM concept. No significant correlation between the dependent Teleological Thinking and Analytical Thinking could be considered striking, especially in the context of the results obtained by the researchers, whose way of measurement used.
  21. 21. Michał Kosakowski, IP UAM Michał Kosakowski thanks for your attention