Monday, January 05, 2015

Is there a reason for everything? - Teleological reasoning about life events

Banerjee and Bloom  explore the view that the tendency to develop teleological beliefs about life events is a byproduct of certain universal social-cognitive biases, a cognitive byproduct of humans’ natural tendency to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design. Their detailed descriptions of the three studies noted in the abstract below (in the journal "Cognition") are difficult to summarize in this brief post, so I pass on just the highlights and abstract. Motivated readers can request a copy of the article from me.

• We examine religious believers’ and non-believers’ belief in purpose in life events. 
• Mentalizing ability predicts the tendency to hold teleological beliefs about events. 
• Adults’ teleological beliefs about life events do not depend upon a belief in God. 
• The perception of purpose in events is rooted in universal social-cognitive biases.
People often believe that significant life events happen for a reason. In three studies, we examined evidence for the view that teleological beliefs reflect a general cognitive bias to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design. Consistent with this hypothesis, we found that individual differences in mentalizing ability predicted both the tendency to believe in fate (Study 1) and to infer purposeful causes of one’s own life events (Study 2). In addition, people’s perception of purpose in life events was correlated with their teleological beliefs about nature, but this relationship was driven primarily by individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs (Study 3). Across all three studies, we found that while people who believe in God hold stronger teleological beliefs than those who do not, there is nonetheless evidence of teleological beliefs among non-believers, confirming that the perception of purpose in life events does not rely on theistic belief. These findings suggest that the tendency to perceive design and purpose in life events—while moderated by theistic belief—is not solely a consequence of culturally transmitted religious ideas. Rather, this teleological bias has its roots in certain more general social propensities.


  1. A friend who claims to be a Luddite challenged by the prospect of doing a comment has asked me to pass on her thoughts:

    I was struck by how we just keep addressing the "reason" for things by your piece today on the blog. I am reading Stace - his history of Greek philosophy and we just keep looking at the same things over and over again. As I am now soooo old - I become more and more convinced that we keep applying more sophisticated tools to the same questions and it really all boils down to one question - why the hell do we need to continually demonstrate our insatiable need for an allusion/illusion of control? Ya' know - there is no GOD or GODS other than those we manufactured for myriad reasons. Let's just get on with our lives and try some decency with one another? How about some thoughtful decency? How about focus on the operational definition of decency?

  2. Anonymous2:15 PM

    In the latest issue of Cognition, there is an article which claims just the opposite: Mentalizing abilities do not predict teleological beliefs:

  3. Thanks for the reference. I've downloaded the article and will have a look.