Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Friday, November 12, 2021

Supernatural punishment beliefs as cognitively compelling tools of social control

Fitouchi, L., & Singh, M. 
(2021, July 5).


Why do humans develop beliefs in supernatural entities that punish uncooperative behaviors? Leading hypotheses maintain that these beliefs are widespread because they facilitate cooperation, allowing their groups to outcompete others in inter-group competition. Focusing on within-group interactions, we present a model in which people strategically endorse supernatural punishment beliefs to manipulate others into cooperating. Others accept these beliefs, meanwhile, because they are made compelling by various cognitive biases: They appear to provide information about why misfortune occurs; they appeal to intuitions about immanent justice; they contain threatening information; and they allow believers to signal their trustworthiness. Explaining supernatural beliefs requires considering both motivations to invest in their endorsement and the reasons others adopt them.


Unlike previous accounts, our model is agnostic to whether supernatural punishment beliefs cause people to behave cooperatively. Many cultural traits, from shamanism to rain magic to divination, remain stable as long as people see them—potentially wrongly—as useful for achieving their goals. Prosocial supernatural beliefs, we argue, are no different. People endorse them to motivate others to be cooperative. Their interaction partners accept these beliefs, meanwhile, because they are cognitively compelling and socially useful.Supernatural punishment beliefs, like so many cultural products, are shaped by people’s psychological biases and strategic goals