Hardwired to Venerate the Supernatural

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by Neil Godfrey

Natural intuitions feed into our social systems in strange and unexpected ways. To take just one example, our intuitions about supernatural beings are also associated with intuitions about social dominance in ways that are consistent across cultures. My colleagues and I have shown in lab experiments that when babies observe an agent capable of floating around like a ghost or a flying witch, they expect the levitator to win out in a confrontation with a rival who lacks such powers.7 To put it more pithily, we naturally look up to supernatural beings. This could help to explain not only why stories about superheroes – from Santa to Superman – are so popular with children but also why magical beings and their earthly embodiments are so often venerated in human societies.

7 Meng, Xianwei, Yo Nakawake, Kazuhide Hashiya, Emily Burdett, Jonathan Jong, and Harvey Whitehouse. “Preverbal Infants Expect Agents Exhibiting Counterintuitive Capacities to Gain Access to Contested Resources.” Scientific Reports 11, no. 1 (May 25, 2021): 10884. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89821-0.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 7). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.