Elisa Järnefelt
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Scientific article in Religion, Brain & Behavior

This study was a direct continuation to my PhD research and its follow-up studies that were conducted in the US and Finland. These studies found that non-religious adults have an automatic tendency to construe natural phenomena as intentionally created, although on a reflective level of reasoning they might have disagreed with this kind of idea. This aligns with the theoretical idea that, apart from their religious identity – as a tool-designing and -manipulating species – humans have a tendency to approach their environment spontaneously in reference to tool design. From early on, people tend to understand their environment as made to serve some beneficial purpose, although in reality things in nature do not originate in reference to anyone’s intentions or purpose.

Although being cross-culturally tested, all this previous research was conducted in the Western countries that also had Christian or Abrahamic roots and, in the US in particular, an existing creationist cultural discourse. In order to discuss people’s cognitive tendencies in general, it was essential to reach beyond these types of Western cultural contexts and explore whether an assumption of intentional origins extended to a non-Western culture without an Abrahamic cultural tradition and associated design discourse. Therefore, the focus of this follow-up study was to explore whether adults in China display similar intentional design bias as already identified in the US and Finland. 

Similarly to the earlier studies, participants performed a speeded judgment task in which they evaluated whether depicted items were intentionally created or not. The results in this task revealed that the Chinese adults favored a design-based construal of natural phenomena under processing constraints (i.e., when having to make their decision by relying on their instant gut feeling). 

For this study, we also created a novel culturally sensitive survey to more fully document supernatural beliefs and practices in the Chinese cultural context. This means that instead of just asking commonly used Western and Christocentric survey questions, such as “How religious are you?” or “Do you believe in God?” we designed survey items that aligned with Chinese cultural beliefs. This survey confirmed participants’ primarily atheistic self-identification while also revealing various supernatural practices and animistic beliefs. Aspects of these folk beliefs positively predicted design intuitions about nature. 

Together these results demonstrate that intuitions about intentional origins are present independent of any Abrahamic God belief or Western cultural discourse (e.g., creationism). They provide first evidence of a potentially universal intentional design bias in adults. They also point to the need for more nuanced, culturally sensitive, survey approaches to explicit supernatural belief and practice.

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Elisa Järnefelt, Liqi Zhu, Caitlin F. Canfield, Marian Chen & Deborah Kelemen (2018): Reasoning about nature’s agency and design in the cultural context of China, Religion, Brain & Behavior, DOI: 10.1080/2153599X.2018.1449137