Ara Norenzayan


Relevant Degree Programs


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - April 2022)
The cognitive foundations and prosocial consequences of belief in karma and gods (2021)

People worldwide believe that supernatural forces monitor and respond to human moral action, and determine who experiences good fortune and who suffers and struggles in life. This dissertation examines the psychological diversity of these by beliefs, by investigating beliefs about karma (morally-determined causality) and gods (powerful supernatural agents). Chapter 1 introduces these beliefs as psychological constructs, situated within cultural evolution theories of religion that have proposed that belief in morally-concerned supernatural entities facilitates large-scale cooperation among strangers. Chapter 2 investigates the cognitive foundations of these beliefs, by using path models to show how individual differences in karma and God beliefs can be predicted by a combination of (a) cognitive predispositions that are cross-culturally widespread but variable across individuals and (b) social learning that is highly variable across different cultural contexts. I then show how beliefs about karma and God are associated with social judgments and moral behavior. Chapter 3 asks whether belief in karma can affect social judgments, by moderating the association between moral character inferences and forecasts about the future, consistent with the explicitly endorsed belief in karmic causality through which bad things are more likely to happen to bad people. Chapter 4 describes how believers mentally represent karma and God’s moral concerns—according to both open-ended free list questions and closed-ended psychological questionnaires. I examine how these supernatural beliefs partially reflect individuals’ secular moral values and partially reflects the unique relationships that believers have with different supernatural entities. Chapter 5 provides experimental studies that investigate whether reminders of these morally laden supernatural beliefs cause decreased selfishness among believers, compares the prosocial effects of karma and God, and tests several boundary conditions of these effects. Throughout this research, I present high-powered, pre-registered studies conducted with religiously-diverse samples from North America and Asia, to compare the psychology of karma beliefs in cultural contexts with a long history of karmic theology and in cultural contexts where karmic beliefs are present but less ubiquitous and exist outside of mainstream (Christian) religious doctrines. Finally, I conclude by discussing implications, remaining questions, and possibilities for future research that extends these findings.

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Reasoning about the supernatural: a cross-cultural examination of how and when intuitions shape belief (2019)

The cognitive sciences of religion have theorized that supernatural agent beliefs are shaped by intuitively-supported psychological processes (e.g., teleological thinking, and mentalizing). And, evidence is accumulating that individual differences in reliance on these intuitions is positively related to religious beliefs and that, on the other hand, broad tendencies for questioning them are negatively related to belief. In this dissertation, I build on this literature by providing first tests of several longstanding and some novel theoretical accounts of (1) when and in what ways broad tendencies for questioning intuitions come to predict belief and (2) when and in what ways mentalizing becomes implicated in beliefs. In Chapter 2 (N = 5284 students, Americans and Indians), I examine how and when tendencies for questioning intuitions (i.e., analytical thinking) is associated with belief by testing three theoretical accounts of this relationship. In Chapter 3 (3 studies; N = 2191 students, Christian and Hindu Americans, Indians), I examine how and when intuitions for reasoning about mental states (i.e., mentalizing) come to support belief in god by testing a different set of three theoretical accounts against the evidence. In Chapter 4 (N = 2027 from 14 societies), I examine predictions generated in Chapter 3 regarding the prevalence and correlates of mentalized deity concepts in a sample that spans diverse scales of societal complexity, market integration, and religious traditions. Results demonstrate that deities are increasingly mentalized the more they are moralized (i.e., attributed with moral knowledge and capacities to punish). Throughout, this work demonstrates the necessity of taking theory-testing in the cognitive sciences of religion across cultures and religious traditions. Methodologically, this work takes an individual difference approach and employs high-powered samples. When suitable, statistical mediation analyses are conducted to test the processes by which intuitions relate to belief. Broadly, results are discussed in terms of their contributions to the refining existing accounts of how and when intuitions come to be implicated in religious beliefs across cultures.

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Morality when the mind is opaque : Intent vs. outcome across the lifespan in Yasawa, Fiji (2016)

The ability to infer the presence and contents of other minds is one of the most powerful cognitive tools humans use to navigate our social worlds. Culture is an essential part of these social worlds. But how do mind and culture influence each other? Does culture merely shape the social situations that people navigate in the course of daily life, or does culture fundamentally alter the way that we perceive each other as we move through these social worlds? This dissertation examines how culture shapes mind through the specific example of people living in Yasawa, Fiji. Yasawan culture includes social norms that prohibit discussing others’ actions in terms of mental states – part of a wider phenomenon known as Opacity of Mind, documented in small-scale Indigenous societies and especially prevalent around the Pacific. This culturally-transmitted approach to thinking about minds offers an interesting contrast to the North American focus on minds and internal dispositions as the source of all behaviour. Across five studies, the research presented in this dissertation documents cross-cultural differences in how adults think about beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and social situations. This research also examines how underlying differences in everyday thinking about minds can be applied to social situations, resulting in different emphases on intent or outcome in moral judgments. These differences in intent vs. outcome focus are further shown to be more influenced by culture later in life; children in both cultures show similar degrees of intent focus while North American adults show greater intent focus and Yasawan adults show lower intent focus. This suggests that mental state inference and intentionality reasoning may be a part of core human cognition that is modulated by cultural influences – both increasing and decreasing mentalizing focus – into adulthood. More importantly, this work demonstrates the need to take cultural differences documented outside of urban laboratory research as a serious part of the research process. Cultural differences in adult psychological processing should not be considered as variation around an ideal prototype (conveniently documented in Western samples), but as reactions to specific socio-ecological pressures and historical influences that shape individuals into enculturated beings.

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The Basis of Belief: The Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Supernatural Belief (2015)

In this dissertation I explore the relative roles of cognition and culture play as the foundations of religious and supernatural belief. On the cognitive side, theories of religion have postulated several cognitive biases that predispose human minds towards supernatural belief. However, to this date, very little empirical evidence exists to show how these hypotheses preform in predicting actual religious beliefs. I explore these biases and how they interrelate to support supernatural beliefs using individual difference measures across several large samples from Canada, the US, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. On the cultural side, I look at how different theories of secularization and the CREDs theory of cultural learning support supernatural belief and religious practice. I compare these effects of culture to the effects of cognition and find that cognitive biases support supernatural belief generally, but these effects are stronger for paranormal beliefs than religious ones and are almost non-existence for religious practice. Religious belief and practice are largely supported by social and cultural factors. Finally, I compare religious and non-religious participants to spiritual but not religious (SBNR) participants to further break down the differences between religious and non-religious supernatural beliefs and religious practice. I find that the SBNR are more like the religious than the non-religious but can still be identified as a unique group in terms of cognition and culture.

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Watchful gods, watchful governments, and the peculiar psychological properties of anti-atheist prejudice (2012)

Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world). An evolutionary approach to prejudice, combined with a cultural evolutionary model of religion’s effects on cooperation, suggest that anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust. Consistent with this theoretical framework, a broad sample of American adults revealed that distrust characterized anti-atheist prejudice, but not antigay prejudice (Chapter 2). Furthermore, a description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists, but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or gays (Chapter 3). Results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them (Chapter 3). In sum, atheists have long been distrusted, in part because they do not believe that a watchful, judging god monitors their behavior. However, in many parts of the world, secular institutions such as police, judges, and courts are also potent sources of social monitoring that encourage prosocial behavior. Reminders of such secular authority could therefore reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Participants who watched a video about police effectiveness or were subtly primed with secular authority concepts expressed less distrust of atheists than did participants who watched a control video or were not primed, respectively (Chapter 4). Furthermore, political intolerance of atheists is reduced in countries with effective secular rule of law (Chapter 5). These studies are among the first to systematically explore the social psychological underpinnings of anti-atheist prejudice, and converge to indicate the centrality of distrust in this phenomenon.

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The irrepressible communicative power of pride (2010)

How do we decide who merits social status? According to evolutionary theories of emotion, the nonverbal expressions of pride and shame play a key role in this process, functioning as automatically perceived status signals. In this view, observers cannot avoid making status inferences on the basis of these expressions, even when contradictory contextual information about the expresser’s status is available. In twelve studies, my colleagues and I tested whether the nonverbal expression of pride sends a functional, automatically perceived signal about a social group member’s increased social status and whether implicit and explicit status judgments and corresponding decisions are influenced by this signal even contradicted by the context or situation. Results indicate that emotion expressions powerfully influence both implicit and explicit status judgments, at times neutralizing or even overriding situational knowledge, and this holds for implicit and explicit judgments of a target’s status, as well as more behavioural status-based decisions (i.e., whether to hire a target). These findings demonstrate the irrepressible communicative power of emotion displays, and the specifically, the pride expression’s function to uniquely communicate the high status of those who show it. Moreover, they indicate that status judgments can be informed as much(and often more) by automatic responses to nonverbal expressions of emotion as by rational, contextually bound knowledge. Discussion focuses on the implications of these findings for functional theories of emotion expressions.

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A sense of obligation : culture and the subjective experience of meeting expectations (2009)

How do we feel about our obligations? And are there cultural differences in our sense of obligation? In this dissertation, I examine the question of the degree to which we believe we “own” our obligations to help others—if, while being motivated by a sense of duty, we also feel motivated by our own desires and sense of choice. In contrast to Confucian “virtue ethics,” which promote feeling unity between one’s desires and social obligations, the autonomy-seeking philosophies of the post-enlightenment West may have inadvertently encouraged a disassociation of duties from self-endorsement. In four studies, I examine cultural differences in the degree to which we feel congruency between our sense of obligation to help others and our sense of agency about helping. Comparing participants from East Asian and Western European cultural backgrounds, I find that a) East Asians are more likely than Westerners to feel a sense of congruency between agentic and obligated motivations to help others; b) these cultural differences are partially mediated by positive attitudes towards hierarchy and filial values; and c) East Asians are more likely to have positive emotional associations with both obligated and agentic motivations to help others. The studies suggest that East Asians, in comparison to Westerners, are more likely to feel that their obligations are self endorsed and involve a positive emotional experience. Implications for theories of motivation, in particular Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), are discussed.

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Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2021)
Ecospirituality: content, correlates and moral concern for nature (2021)

We are in the midst of a global ecological crisis. There is a strong argument that the current cultural view of nature as an instrumental resource is failing us, and we must learn from other cultural and religious conceptions of the human-nature relationship. Ecospirituality is the notion that nature–or humanity’s relationship with nature–has spiritual significance. In 6 samples recruited from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada (Total N = 7213), we investigated three basic questions concerning ecospirituality: (1) what is ecospirituality, (2) who is ecospiritual, and (3) does it matter for the protection of nature? We designed and validated a 12-item measure of ecospirituality and employed self-report measures and moral trade-off scenarios to address these questions. Ecospirituality was negatively correlated with viewing nature as an instrumental and utilizable resource. Items on the Ecospirituality Scale were widely endorsed, and the scale was largely uncorrelated with political orientation and other demographic variables. Ecospirituality predicted how people made decisions in environmentally relevant domains, tending to treat nature as a sacred value. This tendency was expressed in multiple ways: placing a greater importance on deontological principles to inform environmental decisions, explicitly refusing to engage in trade-offs between nature and economic gain, and unconditionally voting for the Green Party. Ecospirituality is a novel topic in psychology and may be important in explaining why some people are willing to make the sacrifices required to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

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From Keeping Together in Time, to Keeping Together in Mind: Behavioral Synchrony and Theory of Mind (2015)

Human cultural practices are, and have always been, profoundly ritualistic. Yet, only recently has the study of ritual practices gained favor in the psychological sciences. Specifically, there is great intrigue in exploring why certain ritual forms consistently emerge across cultural and historical boundaries as they often exert potent effects on human sociality, cooperation, and cohesion. For instance, culturally evolved collective rituals often involve some form of synchronized behavior. However, little is known about specific social cognitive effects of synchrony – the act of keeping together in time with others. Here, I hypothesized that synchronizing with others engages, and fosters, our everyday cognitive processes for reasoning about other minds – our theory of mind. To test this hypothesis, I first demonstrated that participation in a synchronous ritualized task in the lab produced increases on a measure of theory of mind. In a second study, I replicated this effect and demonstrated that it could not be accounted for by general increases in sociality. In a third experiment, I tested the hypothesis that synchrony would foster ability as well as tendencies towards mental state reasoning. The results of which suggest that synchronizing with others produces a willingness to take on others’ perspectives, but not necessarily greater ability to actually do so. Results are discussed in terms of how turning to culturally evolved practices, such as ritual, can greatly contribute to our understanding of human psychological processes.

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Memory and Belief for Religious Content (2011)

Past research on the evolutionary origins of religion has looked at content biases as a way to explain the spread of religions in human cultures. Specifically, the memory bias found with minimally counter intuitive (MCI) content has been theorized to be the source of the spread and diversity of religion around the world. This research has paid little attention to how people come to believe in these concepts, and if this is due to a memory bias alone. A debate exists within the literature questioning if content bias is enough to establish belief in religious concepts, or if some other mechanism is required. The following research looks at this question of if the transmission of belief can be driven by a minimally counterintuitive content, or if a separate mechanism is required to make the step from memorability to belief. If minimally counterintuitive content violates our expectations of the world, it should show less belief than intuitive content because of this violation. In the following set of studies participants were presented with different types of MCI and intuitive content and then were asked to recall, and state their belief in, this content. In all of the studies, participants believed in MCI content less. The previously found memory bias was only replicated in one of the three studies. Participants were also given an individual difference measure of anthropomorphism as a way of measuring their propensity to apply MCI concepts to the everyday world. This was done to look at the hypothesis that as these beliefs become common, the preserved unusualness of the minimally counterintuitive violation, and subsequently the memory bias, should decrease. Supporting this, a negative relationship was found between memory for MCI content and the tendency to anthropomorphize. People who regularly anthropomorphize show less of a memory effect than those that do not. Together, these findings suggest that belief is not tied to the content biases and that as people come to see these concepts as a normal part of the world, the memory effects are decreased.

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