If you thought ghosts and witches were things of childhood, think again.
A new study led by assistant professor of psychology Cristine Legare shows that not only do people combine both scientific fact and supernatural belief when they deal with major life events, but the majority of us lean more heavily toward the supernatural as we age.
The study, published in the June issue of Child Development, posited a choice of either biological or supernatural explanation for a series of life events. Legare’s team reviewed more than 30 studies across numerous nations focusing on the origin of life, illness, and death. Per their findings, said Legare in a UT press release, “The standard assumption that scientific and religious explanations compete should be re-evaluated in light of substantial psychological evidence. The data … shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education, or technology.”
The team also studied 366 people from South Africa, a country that makes both science-based and traditional medicine readily available to patients. Legare focused her studies on the causes of AIDS, of which South Africa is purported to have more patients than any other country.
The results were striking. For instance, only 26 percent of respondents believed AIDS could be caused by either purely witch- or biological-based means. However, 57 percent believed AIDS was caused by a combination of the two, with one of the options noting that a “witch can put an HIV-infected person in your path.”
The results of Legare’s study don’t just rebut the common wisdom-through-age assumption, but they also present a further round of difficulty for medical officials hoping to combat AIDS through biological treatment. And they illustrate that the merging of scientific and supernatural belief is relegated not merely to those in non-Western societies—the results show that all of us have some form of supernatural thought floating around at one moment or another.
“As children assimilate cultural concepts into their intuitive belief systems—from God to atoms to evolution—they engage in coexistence thinking,” Legare said. “When they merge supernatural and scientific explanations, they integrate them in a variety of predictable and universal ways.”
Photo by Martin Gommel on Flickr