Human beings are inclined to see spirits and supernatural beings behind random acts of nature. Because spotting people (or animals) who are actively doing things in our environment is critical to survival, we’ve evolved to be super-sensitive to any evidence of them. It’s said that we humans have a Hyperactive Agency Detector (HAD).
Now, for obvious reasons it’s frequently assumed that HAD has something to do with why so many people believe in supernatural beings. And yet what’s also clear is that we are not all endowed with equally sensitive predispositions to see magical beings at work.
Raluca Petrican, at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Canada, and Christopher Burris at St. Jerome’s University (also in Canada) set out to measure the strength of the HAD in students and other young adults, and to see how it varied with the kind of faith they had.
To test the strength of the HAD, they showed their subject faces gazing either to the left, to the right, or straight ahead. Letters appeared on the same computer screen – either in the location where the face was looking, on the opposite side. They had to press a left or right button according to where the letters appeared.
Normally, if a face is looking at the place where the letter appears, you will tend to press the button more quickly. That’s because we pick up on facial cues instinctively.
What Petrican and Burris did was to show some of the faces upside down. Most people don’t follow the gaze nearly so strongly in this circumstance. But some people do, and these people were also more likely to attribute human-like emotional states (emotions, intentions, free will) to things like cars and computers.
People who tended to score highly on these measures of HAD also tended to agree with statements like ““Learning to appreciate one’s dark or ‘sinful’ side is essential to spiritual growth”; “For me, being religious means learning to accept life as it is”
These statements are measures of ‘immanence’, or the tendency to report experiences typified by a sense of connection or oneness between self, God, and/or the physical world.
Individuals who thought of God in more distinct terms – as an agent that acts in the world but is actually distinct from it – had less active agency detection.
All of which suggests that the HAD is indeed linked to religion – but not to religion in general. Rather, people with HAD tend to adopt a particular kind of religion, and that folks without it can be equally religious.
Raluca Petrican, & Christopher T. Burris (2012). Am I the Stone? Overattribution of Agency and Religious Orientation Psychology of Religion and Spirituality DOI: 10.1037/a0027942