Study links poor understanding of the physical world to religious and paranormal beliefs

Poor understanding of the physical world is related to religious and paranormal beliefs, according to a recent study published this June in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Many people like to believe in supernatural phenomena, for example, breaking a mirror brings you 7 years of bad luck. In the past, studies have shown that people see natural phenomena as having intentions, and give human characteristics to God and other supernatural agents. Moreover, paranormal and religious believers have been shown to take such statements as ‘Earth wants water’ or ‘Force knows its direction’ as more literally true than skeptics, who interpret the statements more metaphorically.

Another possible factor, highlighted in the Empathizing–Systemizing theory, proposes that people who are poor at physical cognition are called low systemizers because they have poor abilities and low interests in such things as map-reading, mathematics, intuitive physics, or technical and motor systems.

Although supernatural (paranormal or religious) beliefs often paint a peculiar picture about the physical world, the possibility that the beliefs might be based on inadequate understanding of the non-social world has not received research attention.

The study, by Marjaana Lindeman and Annika Svedholm-Häkkinen of the University of Helsinki, involved 258 participants who took part in an online study examining how physical-world skills and knowledge predict religious and paranormal beliefs. Data about religious and paranormal beliefs, physical world skills and interests (systemizing), mechanical abilities, intuitive physics skills and knowledge about physical and biological phenomena were collected.

The results showed that religious and paranormal (supernatural) beliefs correlated with all variables that were included: low systemizing, poor intuitive physics skills, poor mechanical ability, poor mental rotation, low school grades in mathematics and physics, poor common knowledge about physical and biological phenomena, intuitive and analytical thinking styles, and in particular, with assigning mentality to non-mental phenomena. Regression analyses indicated that the strongest predictors of the beliefs were overall physical capability (a factor representing most physical skills, interests, and knowledge) and intuitive thinking style.

The researchers concluded, “Nonscientific ways of thinking are resistant to formal instruction…” adding that this can “affect individuals’ ability to act as informed citizens to make reasoned judgments in a world that is increasingly governed by technology and scientific knowledge.”

The findings open up the possibility for future research to help develop understanding of the relationship between intuitive thinking and supernatural beliefs in greater depth.