Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Is teleological thinking hardwired into our brains?


And is that the basis of the popularity of creationism? Perhaps, says a new study on human susceptibility to unwarranted teleological explanations of natural phenomena, including that ultimate in teleology - creationism! Dr. Fred Schreiber shares a report from New Scientist on the paper by Kelemen & Rosset, with the following comment:

A similar problem to the one below has been shown in physics students. Quiz them outside of the physics class, they forget Newton and revert to Aristotelian physics. There seem to be intuitive ways of thinking that have evolved to be "good enough" for survival purposes but as scientific explanations are completely wrong. The classic demonstration of this is a set of video interviews at a Harvard graduation. Students and faculty members were asked why do we have seasons and everybody got it wrong. They reverted to intuitive, personal experience physics. - Fred

We are all apparently born with a broad bias for accepting or inventing teleological (purpose-based) explanations for natural phenomena. The perhaps surprising finding of this study is that college education may do little to undo this intuitive inclination for "promiscuous teleology" which remains prevalent even among well-schooled adults! Interestingly, our teleological bias appears to take over most often when we are pressed for time, so that our knowledge of actual causality (established through science and learnt, hopefully, in school) is inhibited under time-pressures! So our first leap towards an explanation may often be a teleological one - and I can see some potential survival benefit of that: fine distinctions between "that leopard is leaping towards me because it wants to eat me" (warranted) and "that rock is tumbling towards me because it wants to crush me" (unwarranted) matter little when the response in either case is to "RUN"!! If we sit down to think about the scenarios (as opposed to experiencing them in real time), and have some knowledge of leopard behavior and gravity, we are perfectly capable of making the distinction between the two, and deducing that the leopard's purpose may indeed be to eat me, while the rock is simply falling with no such purpose. So the trouble (or philosophical muddle) may begin when we blur the distinction and extend the unwarranted teleological explanation into an ultimate one: "someone designed that rock (leopard) to fall (leap) on me in order to kill me" - and place ourselves at the center of all "purpose" in the universe. At what point, and how, do we develop the knowledge-based "inhibitory control" mechanisms to suppress the initial teleological urge and accept a more evidence based rational explanation for phenomena? What strategies might we use to strengthen these inhibitory controls if we are to build a more science-based culture? Something to ponder for us all, esp. those engaged in education...


Deborah Kelemen, Evelyn Rosset (2009). The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults Cognition, 111 (1), 138-143 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.01.001


Scott Hatfield . . . . March 5, 2009 at 3:30 PM  

Here's my comment. To me, it's not so much that we have a teleological bias, but that we have a personal bias, and teleology grows out self-interest in a very natural way.

Why is the leopard acting the way it does?

Because it's out to get ME.

Why does the rock act the way it does?

Because it's out to get ME.

Why are rocks and leopards and all manner of things doing what they do?

Because it's all about ME.

As we all should know, sympathetic magic seems to be an attempt to bring all of this wild 'out-to-get-ME' phenomena back under our locus of control. This, in turn, causes us to regard the phenomena as a means by which the Creator was trying to get MY attention.

So, ultimately, all this move to discern purpose in Nature is about (yikes) 'framing' in terms of which our existence, our needs, our desires are paramount.

Steven Miller March 10, 2009 at 1:20 PM  

I am going to start by saying, there is nothing about this study that is surprising to me nor did I think it was particularly important or groundbreaking. Are these psychologists surprised to learn that so many people have such thoughts about nature?
Children supposedly preferred to state that rocks are pointy so animals won’t sit on them than to “stuff piled up over time.” Is that really the case or have they had a chance to develop the knowledge and understanding in order to engage in non-teleological thought? I will come back to this.
I believe I engaged in thoughts like these when I was a child due to my exposure to children fiction books, video games and things that engaged my imagination. When I was young I do not believe I was ever introduced to Darwin or Dawkins. I never went to sleep while a parent read me, Richard Dawkins’, “The Selfish Gene” or Erwin Schrodinger’s, “What is life?” Unfortunately.
However, despite this lack of information as a child, I do remember being exposed to Catholicism from an extremely early age. Although I now find Catholicism to be – without better words to describe it – insane, this could have played a significant role in determining the way in which I thought about natural events. So as I mentioned earlier, how can it be said that I inherently possess teleological thought processes when this is the only thing I was exposed to from such a young age? I think this is an extremely difficult conclusion to make.
The article mentions Alzheimer’s patients reverting back to these teleological thoughts when ‘causal knowledge is eroded by disease.’ I am somewhat skeptical of this statement. Considering we are not entirely sure how action potentials contribute to the entirety of the richness of my conscious experience, it is interesting to state that Alzheimer’s – in all the patients mentioned – have certainly had their causal knowledge eliminated from the brain. I assume that during their communications with these patients, the patients were still speaking and utilizing some vernacular they’ve accumulated throughout life. Is speaking not a trait we learn to develop from the time we are a child? Is it possible that these patients are possibly reverting back to the mental state where they may have been heavily influenced from popular culture, children fiction books, parents’ religious beliefs, or from other aspects of what Sam Harris has called, “A Christian Nation”?
I am unsurprised to read in the study that adults still possess teleological explanations – explanations that they may have acquired during youth rather than inherently possessed. I also am somewhat skeptical of the study design. I could be asked a mathematics problem and I may answer the problem incorrectly if forced to respond at a rapid pace but what does that mean? Does it mean I naturally possess the inclination to say that 12 times 17 is something other than 204?
“These findings also reveal that despite exposure to the causal explanations characterizing contemporary science, adults maintain certain scientifically unwarranted teleological ideas very explicitly.” What about childhood fears? Cannot the possession of these fears be analogous to the possession of possibly acquired thought processes of teleological explanations for natural events? For instance, as a child, I feared narrow or closed spaces. This is no longer something that concerns me but if I were to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease later in life, would I fear narrow and/or closed spaces again? And if I did, is this because I inherently possess this fear or is this something that I developed?
“By contrast, no link between belief in God and unwarranted teleological ideas was found in the present research” I believe this is not necessarily surprising. Adults without religious belief in god may have still possessed such beliefs as a child and their education may have steered them away from such thoughts. But that does not mean that the plethora of other influences may have caused these same children to engage in teleological thought during childhood.
“At what point, and how, do we develop the knowledge-based "inhibitory control" mechanisms to suppress the initial teleological urge and accept a more evidence based rational explanation for phenomena?” This question asked by Dr. Schreiber is excellent. I think in order to develop a solution to this problem, people need to be ‘saved’ (no pun intended) from teleological thought processes from a young age. Educating parents to introduce their children to secular explanations to natural events from birth may begin to resolve this issue. And this will even allow children to recognize bad teleological thought processes when introduced to them at a later stage of development. Perhaps then, when children are introduced to stories involving gods, witches, demons, elves, etc., these stories might be readily and permanently rejected as false. I think strategies such as this may help strengthen a science-based rational culture. And to be honest, I think children would enjoy and prefer things like natural history museums over catholic sermon. I know I did!

Lorin March 11, 2009 at 10:33 AM  

Just a few notes:
- The Cognition article about which this post has been made does not (as far as I can tell) posit that the teleological bias is innate, native or otherwise pre-installed. Granted, the *summary* says "We are all born with a broad bias.." but I'm pretty sure that the original authors would not have wanted to jump to that conclusion with this study (which was on adults). It is possible that the background material, describing the kids in elementary school, proposes an innate bias, but I have not read it. However, it's also worth pointing out that developmental psychologists who have an interest in proposing explicitly innate mechanisms (i.e., not many) tend to look at infants as young as a few weeks for these types of conclusions, so it's not likely that the studies with the elementary school kids proposed innate explanations either.

This being said, it is highly plausible (and probably likely) that experience plays at least somewhat of a role in the formation of this bias. But that would be a question for a developmental (possibly longitudinal) design. Scott's explanation for experience-based bias seems more likely to me than Steven's, but I suppose we can wait for the facts to come in on that one. At any rate, the authors of *this* article are only arguing that the 'promiscuous teleological' bias exists prior to non-teleological explanatory mechanisms, and is not replaced by the acquisition of such.

-- a number of things about Steven's comments need a response (since it is clear that there is a misunderstanding of psychology going on here) but I'll just pick my favorites:
1) It's ok to be skeptical of the claim that Alzheimer's patients lose "the coherence of causal knowledge" (go, skepticism!) but I'd remind that there are sources here that are being overlooked. Perhaps, on the face of it, such a claim seems unlikely, but in the presence of actual data, one must temper one's skepticism. If you follow the link in the Cognition article to the Lombrozo, et al(2007) article, you'll find links to a host of still further studies supporting the conclusion that AD patients lose causal inference. You'll also find a fairly well designed experiment to test the implications of that statement vis-à-vis promiscuous teleology, and (what I consider to be) fairly convincing evidence in support of the conclusion that AD patients revert to teleological explanations b/c their causal reasoning is deteriorated.

on the issue of the study design: again, it's ok to be skeptical but please consider the long (35 years or so) history of using speeded classification judgment designs in psychology to isolate the effects of bias and discriminability in decision making processes. Unfortunately, the authors of the cognition article did not cite any sources for the task (pet peeve!) but if you're interested you can see Garner, 1974 or Maddox, 1992

and finally, a (slightly snarky) rejoinder to Steven's initial comment:
"I am going to start by saying, there is nothing about this study that is surprising to me nor did I think it was particularly important or groundbreaking. Are these psychologists surprised to learn that so many people have such thoughts about nature?"

The finding may not be surprising, but I might remind that we don't typically like to admit 'facts' into the record without sufficient empirical evidence in support of them; otherwise, we could just make stuff up (for example, I don't know, just off the top of my head: "all this incredibly complicated stuff around me in the natural world is so doggone beautiful, there *has* to be a Creator for it.")


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