Thursday, 5 May 2011

Thoughts of death increase the appeal of Intelligent Design

Why do so many people, including many science teachers, continue to find value and appeal in Intelligent Design (ID) - the pseudoscientific account of life's origins that mainstream science has rejected? Part of the answer, according to a new study by psychologists, is that ID offers relief from existential angst, even among those who aren't religious.

Across four studies, hundreds of participants - including psychology students, a diverse sample of US adults, and natural science students - either imagined their own death or a visit to the dentist (used as a control condition), and then read either a short description of ID or of evolutionary theory. They then rated the value and evidence for the theory they'd read about.

For psychology students, being reminded of their own death led them to rate ID more positively, but had no effect on their view of evolutionary theory. For the diverse sample of adults, thoughts of death increased the appeal of ID and led them to derogate evolutionary theory. For natural science students, the opposite pattern was observed - thoughts of death accentuated their support for evolutionary theory and led them to derogate ID.

What's going on here? For psych students, thoughts of death weren't enough for them to disregard evolutionary theory, which their training tells them is over-whelmingly supported by scientific evidence. However, it appears to have made ID more attractive to them, perhaps because the notion of an intelligent designer provides an easy antidote to nihilistic thoughts.

For the diverse adult sample, thoughts of death were enough to turn people against evolutionary theory, with its mechanistic account of life, and to turn them on to ID, with its appealing idea of a superior intelligence. These effects held regardless of the participants' religious status or educational background.

Finally, for the natural science students, for whom evolutionary theory is a vital part of their identity and world-view, thoughts of death actually led them to subscribe more strongly to this theory, presumably because they were able to find solace in its elegant explanatory power and vision. This fits with Terror Management Theory and its findings, which show that people respond to the fear of death by entrenching their cultural world view.

Further support for the idea that evolutionary theory has the potential to be a source of existential comfort came from a fifth study, in which psych students additionally read a poetic account by Carl Sagan of science, and the meaning it gives to life. Reading Sagan's account led these psych students to respond to thoughts of death just like natural science students, by subscribing more strongly to evolutionary theory and derogating ID.

'No previous study has examined whether psychological motives influence the ongoing debate between proponents of Intelligent Design Theory and Evolutionary Theory - a debate of great importance to the future of science and science education,' Jessica Tracy and her colleagues concluded. 'The present research suggests that attitudes toward scientific (or seemingly scientific) views and ideologies can be partly shaped by unconscious psychological motives to maintain security and ward off existential angst through the cultivation of meaning and purpose.'

ResearchBlogging.orgTracy, J., Hart, J., and Martens, J. (2011). Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution. PLoS ONE, 6 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017349

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.


George Juarez said...

With so many differences on people's opinions and views in life, it seems that everybody else is just taking the relief with something that can explain the things that they can't. The modern generations believes in the present era, while the older ones keeps on comparing the past from what is at present. It is not very surprising at all if these people would see death as appealing unlike before right? Who knows, this might lead to another one of the greatest breakthroughs in philosophy and science that man is always eager to have about.

Matt G said...

Arrg! The study authors call it Intelligent Design Theory and then describe how it is not a theory. Call it what it really is: a variant of creationism. That said, I wonder how the reading of other statements (about religion, for example) would fare in such a study.

Anonymous said...

Matt, just because you don't like it does not make it "unscientific" or creationism. ID is not an explanation for origins (most ID theorists accept evolution).

ID is the study of design (including how people recognise design) and design in nature. ID uses the same methodology I was taught in my BSc degree (e.g. direct observation). Creationists on the other hand argue that evolution is flawed and that it should be dispensed with.

The debate about meaning (see article) is clearly more philosophical/religious than scientific.

Lindsay said...

Ha, that's interesting.

Not altogether surprising, but interesting anyway.

It kind of dovetails nicely with the other study you reported on, about ecological-footprint feedback and people's attitudes toward environmentalism.

Like Matt, I would also like to see a comparison between the effects of a memento mori on how people feel about a range of religion-related propositions, not just the origins issue. (Stuff about the existence of souls, or an afterlife, would seem more directly germane to anxieties about mortality to me).

Anonymous said...

Why not tell us something about the effect size?

Anonymous said...

@Matt, just because you don't like it does not make it "unscientific" or creationism. ID is not an explanation for origins (most ID theorists accept evolution).

ID us the epitome of unscientific because it abandons the search for serious causal explanations in favor if an "intelligent" force whose very reason for existence is presumed to be beyond rational explanation.

Intelligent design is creationism in a flimsy disguise.

Ethan said...

The brain emits a signal as soon as it sees something interesting, and that "aha" signal can be detected by an electroencephalogram, or EEG cap. While users sift through streaming images or video footage, the technology tags the images that elicit a signal, and ranks them in order of the strength of the neural signatures. Afterwards, the user can examine only the information that their brains identified as important, instead of wading through thousands of images. No existing computer vision systems connect with the human brain, and computers on their own don't do well at identifying unusual events or specific targets. "You cannot take a system that is intended to recognize faces and apply it to recognizing handwriting or identifying whether one object in a photo is behind another. Unlike a computer, which can perform a variety of tasks, a computer vision system is highly customized to the task it is intended to perform. They are limited in their ability to recognize suspicious activities or events."
eeg of brain

Lucy R. Fisher said...

To say that evolutionary theory can soothe existential angst is a bit like saying "when I, an atheist, look at the stars, I still have a sense of wonder". These are just religious hangovers - why do we need them? Aren't we getting our feelings tangled up with what is? How did our feelings get to be so important?

Anonymous said...

Pretty much every article that mentions Intelligent Design calls it "pseudoscientific," but fails to actually define it. Is it the brazen suggestion that evolution didn't happen at all? Is it the suggestion that the origin of life cannot be explained by natural means? Or is it just the suggestion that the universe, and its natural laws, exhibit design? The tendency to criticize an amorphous theory without defining it says more about the prejudices of the critics than the "theory," in my view.


Right. Well let me ask you this: why do we need anything? And how did anything get to be so important? (Presumably you have something meaningful to offer me that nobody else can, so far as I've seen). You don't have these feelings yourself. But if you can't understand them, you're living in a stupor.

Unknown said...

Intelligent design does not actually need an intelligent designer. If humans are strategically intelligent, then it's more likely that we "inherited" that capacity from existent universal strategies than invented strategic choice making all by ourselves, yet somehow without the intelligent capacity to invent.
Assuming that some gods were then needed to invent it in the universe assumes further that those gods invented their own capacities, and it's gods inventing themselves all the way down. I'd prefer to think there were no first inventors and that strategies have more simply evolved from the something strategy that could not have come from nothing strategy.

Unknown said...

The universe, and its natural laws, exhibit logical construction, which in turn exhibits a form of trial and error intelligence.

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