The Invisible Hand: How Supernatural Explanations Fill the Gaps in Human Understanding

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In a fascinating new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers from Northwestern University explore the prevalence of supernatural explanations for various phenomena across different societies worldwide.

The team analysed ethnographic texts from 114 societies, ranging from nomadic hunter-gatherers to more complex civilizations, to understand the role of religious beliefs in explaining the world.

The findings reveal that supernatural explanations are widespread, with a staggering 96% of societies attributing infectious diseases to supernatural agents. Similarly, 92% of societies believed that natural causes of food scarcity were influenced by supernatural forces, while 90% associated natural hazards, such as earthquakes, with supernatural entities.

For instance, the Cayapa people of Ecuador attributed lightning to a sword-wielding Thunder spirit, and the Aweikoma people of Brazil believed that sickness resulted from spiritual attacks.

Surprisingly, the researchers also found supernatural explanations for social phenomena. Although less prevalent than natural phenomena, 82% of societies associated murder with supernatural causes, 67% linked warfare to supernatural factors, and 26% attributed theft to supernatural agents. For instance, the Toradja people of Indonesia used maize kernels to divine the success of theft and the likelihood of occupants being asleep.

However, the study highlights that people are more inclined to use supernatural explanations for phenomena lacking a clearly identifiable human agent. When individuals or groups cannot be held responsible, the tendency to infer the involvement of supernatural beings or forces increases.

Complex societies are more likely to resort to supernatural explanations for social phenomena than simpler societies. The researchers suggest that weaker social ties and reduced trust within larger societies may contribute to this trend, as people attribute adverse social events to witchcraft, demonic possession, or the “evil eye.”

While acknowledging limitations in the data, such as biases inherent in 18th and 19th-century Western perspectives, the researchers emphasize the need for replication studies to confirm their findings. Moreover, the study solely focuses on negative phenomena and does not explore beliefs about positive or fortunate events.

These findings resonate with contemporary society as well. The study highlights that supernatural beliefs persist today, such as the belief among modern Muslim Tunisians that the “evil eye” can cause harm or the notion held by some American Christians that the Covid-19 pandemic is divine retribution.

In conclusion, this comprehensive investigation underscores the widespread prevalence of supernatural explanations for various phenomena across diverse societies. The results support the notion that these beliefs arise from gaps in human understanding and may differ due to cultural and societal nuances.

By shedding light on the diverse interpretations of the world, this research opens doors for further exploration into the human psyche and the role of supernatural beliefs in shaping our understanding of the universe.