Under Pressure, Scientists Turn Out To Have Child-Like Beliefs

An absolutely fascinating study, reported on Christian Jarrett’s Research Digest blog:

“Young children are inclined to see purpose in the natural world. Ask them why we have rivers, and they’ll likely tell you that we have rivers so that boats can travel on them (an example of a ‘teleological explanation’). Cute, but maybe not that surprising.

Well, consider this—a new study with 80 physical scientists finds that they too have a latent tendency to endorse similar teleological explanations for why nature is the way it is. Oh yes, they label those explanations as false most of the time, but put them under time pressure, and their child-like beliefs shine through.

Deborah Kelemen and her colleagues presented 80 scientists (including physicists, chemists and geographers) with 100 one-sentence statements and their task was to say if each one was true or false. Among the items were teleological statements about nature, such as ‘Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe.’ Crucially, half the scientists had to answer under time pressure—just over 3 seconds for each statement—while the others had as long as they liked. There were also control groups of college students and the general public.

Overall, the scientists endorsed fewer of the teleological statements than the control groups (22 per cent vs. 50 per cent approx). No surprise there, given that mainstream science rejects the idea that inanimate objects have purpose, or that there is purposeful design in the natural world. But look at what happened under time pressure. When they were rushed, the scientists endorsed 29 per cent of teleological statements compared with 15 per cent endorsed by the un-rushed scientists. This is consistent with the idea that a tendency to endorse teleological beliefs lingers in the scientists’ minds. This unscientific thinking is usually suppressed, but time pressure undermines that conscious suppression.

The scientists’ greater inclination to endorse teleological explanation under time pressure wasn’t a non-specific effect of being rushed. Time pressure barely affected their judgments about other erroneous statements (i.e. simple false facts).

‘A broad teleological tendency therefore appears to be a robust, resilient, and developmentally enduring feature of the human mind,’ the researchers concluded, ‘that arises early in life and gets masked rather than replaced, even in those whose scientific expertise and explicit metaphysical commitments seem most likely to counteract it.’” (Read more here.)

I’ve written here about brain-scan studies that suggest we never really replace these naive or “folk” theories—we just get better at suppressing them.

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