Could Empathy Encourage Hyperactive Authority Detection?

Misplaced Faith? an interview with Professor Luke Galen, inspires some interesting speculations that I’ll offer in response.  First, the mention of gender differences in the context of individual differences in the “sensus divinitatis” and agency detection is potentially important.  Several factors that may help explain gender differences in religiousness are currently under investigation (e.g., discrimination in patriarchal societies).  My first idea builds on the gender difference in empathy.  The androgen testosterone inhibits empathy, and feminine roles and norms emphasize empathy, so I wonder if the resultant gender difference could explain part of the difference that makes women more religious than men on average.

This builds on the hyperactive agency detection theory that came up in this interview.  This theory argues that people apply the theory of mind – the attribution of independent minds and motives to other living beings – in an overzealous way, sometimes mischaracterizing inanimate objects as living beings and attributing actions and desires to them.  I usually think of hyperactive agency detection as the self-protective assumption that a predator is the source of every bump in the night, at least until proven otherwise.  The striving for control over otherwise-uncontrollable events like natural disasters, incurable diseases, and difficult or complex challenges (e.g., war, gambling) may also lead to superstitious attempts to manipulate supernatural forces like luck or appeal to supernatural powers that might tip the outcome in one’s favor if appeased.  Even birds have been said to act superstitious under variable interval reinforcement schedules.

Yet other mechanisms may partially mediate effects of hyperactive agency detection on supernatural beliefs, such as the (innate?) motive to align with and internalize the goals of one’s (para-)social superiors.  As with emotion detection, more empathic or emotionally intelligent individuals may perceive the ingroup’s motives more easily and automatically, possibly even to the point of overdetecting more motives or motivational complexity than the group actually possesses.  In this general scenario, a highly empathic person wouldn’t have to overdetect the presence of agents, but might overestimate their activity or desire to act.  This hypothesis could begin to explain differences between deists (who believe in passive creator gods) and believers in gods that intervene actively.

As social animals, humans not only try to understand the motives and emotions of others, but also learn from them.  People construct sets of behaviors and infer laws through social learning from other agents, particularly ingroup members of higher authority like parents and presidents.  If the agents are absent or illusory, those behaviors and laws could take on a proto-religious significance for lack of direct feedback or operant shaping, especially if observant behaviors are still reinforced less directly by satisfaction of needs for control or affiliation, or by the approval of lesser superiors like older siblings or local authorities.

If greater empathy or emotional intelligence give individuals more opportunities to learn (and overlearn) from each other, then perhaps entire cultures could be shaped to serve society’s best guesses about what its highest authority figure desires.  To apply the prospect of overlearning via empathy to theistic cognition in general, I see god(s) in this role of highest ingroup authority.  If gods serve to explain uncontrollable events, it is probably natural to assume they are more knowledgeable and powerful than us.  Other characteristics like authoritarian submission or just world belief could incline people to identify with such a knowledgeable power – essentially applying theory of mind to the natural universe.  If by identifying with such an ultimate power, one could convince others of some borrowed knowledge or power, then one could attract subordinates, creating a social hierarchy while posing as a mere middleman.

Social networks have mediated the parasocial power of distant, famous leaders throughout human history, which includes many cases of deified monarchs.  Maybe this is not too short a span to have evolutionary implications, such that real lords have sensitized us (culturally, if not biologically) to their ability to project power and command servitude without personal presence.  Regardless of the origins of our personalities and social mechanisms, authority structures in modern society may take advantage of empathy, authoritarianism, and just world belief.  If so, religious authority structures are surely no exception.  Empathy might mediate reciprocal effects between gender and religiousness, and for that matter, authoritarian submission could mediate bonds between religiousness and conservatism, which relates to authoritarianism and just world belief.

These mechanisms may explain benevolent and parental aspects of traditional god images.  Since parents are the original objects of social learning and authoritarian submission, parental schemata might accommodate god(s) by emphasizing power and absence.  Other characteristics might carry over from parental schemata, such as nurturant intent and various anthropomorphisms.  The moniker “our heavenly father” makes this blending of schemata explicit, as does belief that god(s) could beget human children (e.g., Jesus, ancestors of monarchs).  Furthermore, referring to god(s) as “lord” may reinforce the general anthropomorphization of god(s) and the believability of monarchs’ hereditary divinity claims.  It would be difficult to discern whether the popularization of religion has anthropomorphized god images over time or whether god images began as anthropomorphic and helped to popularize religion.  Again, regardless of origins, reciprocal causation is plausible in modernity.

In light of the many predispositions that might influence perceptions of god(s), it seems strange to argue, as some cognitive scientists of religion (CSR) have, that a sensus divinitatis could offer any positive information about the existence of god(s).  Did a god create us, and especially our social superiors, in “his” image, along with the impulses to detect him?  Or did people create god(s) in the images of themselves, their parents, and their ingroup leaders, using no more than the same cognitive architecture that has served many essential, secular purposes throughout humanity’s existence?

As I’m sure has been said before, identifying the cognitive architecture that explains perceptions of birds doesn’t independently provide any more proof than disproof of birds’ existence.  Supportive evidence is needed, and gods would require a lot more scaffolding to support.  Granted, prominent CSR theories may refer to a more vague higher power than most religions – this resembles ietsism (Dutch for “somethingism”) more than it resembles the Abrahamic faiths that contextualize most of CSR – but frankly, I suspect this is a compromise with the heterogeneity of god representations across world religions, which is difficult for even Eurocentrists to overlook.  If it is important to also acknowledge the possibility of independent evidence that would support the existence of god(s), or to acknowledge that all empirical evidence as we know it is mediated by human perception, then arguably it is important to revisit epistemology in general.  In my opinion, this overextends the scope of manageably focused, productive conversation, as does bringing the matter of god’s actual non/existence into the discussion of any psychological predisposition toward theism.  These related topics all warrant independent study.

That being said, another point raised in the podcast deserves at least tangential recognition.  The involvement of the temporal lobe in religious/spiritual cognition is fascinating, because the temporal lobe plays integrative roles for the semantic interpretation of sights, words, and feelings.  This overlap of structures and functions would seem to suit the confabulation of complex constructs in general.  In particular, the temporoparietal junction (TPJ as Galen refers to it) serves several functions relevant to theism, including moral judgment, agency detection, differentiation of others from the self, and out-of-body experiences (the last probably being more a matter of dysfunction).  While hardly disproving the existence of god(s), the capacity of these brain structures to intuitively overdetect moral authorities that transcend the self and corporeality itself certainly calls these popular god concepts into question.  In other words, regardless of the non/existence of god(s), it seems quite plausible that we have made several assumptions about the nature of god(s) that suit our neurological inclinations.

Finally, and further beyond the scope of evidence, I had a small difference of interpretation regarding artificially induced involuntary movement and the overattribution of control to oneself.  Without knowing the data independently of Galen’s description, I can only say that his description seems to suit the counterargument: that people have some capacity to underdetect external agents, even as they might override routine self-control.  If personal control is antithetical to divine control, it seems worth acknowledging in fairness if these experiments would suggest that the illusion of self-control could obscure external control.  Yet by the same token, one might need to reconsider infamous legal defenses like “the devil made me do it”.  The overattribution of self-control would also support biological reductionist arguments against free will, which is another important component of many popular religious belief systems.  It could be quite a conundrum if the same brain mechanism held contradictory implications for the potential validity of a religion (i.e., if the sensus divinitatis exists, but free will doesn’t, or vice versa, given religious claims that both exist), but this would be a theological conundrum, and probably not much of a problem for psychology.

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