• 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.Abstract
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.