Cognitive inhibition and the unbelievability of supernatural ideas

Abstract

After decades of research, the reason why people are attracted to the supernatural (paranormal, magical, superstitions) is poorly understood. It is possible that the question has been approached from the wrong angle and that it is skepticism that needs to be explained, not the beliefs. Taking this as a starting point, we examined (N = 40) whether skeptics have stronger cognitive inhibition than believers. Because cognitive load disrupts inhibition and reveals intuitive thinking, we hypothesized that working memory load increases ontological confusions less among skeptics than among believers. Ontological confusions, such as conceiving of lifeless objects as having mental states, are known to be central to supernatural beliefs. The results supported the hypothesis. Strong cognitive inhibition may thus partly explain why supernatural beliefs, albeit based on natural information processing, seem so unbelievable to millions of people. An ongoing study examines skeptics’ and believers’ cognitive inhibition in more detail.


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