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Journal Article

Supernatural explanations across 114 societies are more common for natural than social phenomena


Watts,  Joseph
Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Jackson, J. C., Wilbanks, D., Bastian, B., Watts, J., DiMaggio, N., & Gray, K. (2023). Supernatural explanations across 114 societies are more common for natural than social phenomena. Nature Human Behaviour, 2023: s41562-023-01558-0. doi:10.1038/s41562-023-01558-0.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0009-5D31-8
Supernatural beliefs are common in every human society, and people frequently invoke the supernatural to explain natural (e.g., storms, disease outbreaks) and social (e.g., murder, warfare) events. However, evolutionary and psychological theories of religion raise competing hypotheses about whether supernatural explanations should more commonly focus on natural or social phenomena. Here we test these hypotheses with a global analysis of supernatural explanations in 109 geographically and culturally diverse societies. We find that supernatural explanations are more prevalent for natural phenomena than for social phenomena, an effect that generalizes across regions and subsistence styles and cannot be reduced to the frequency of natural vs. social phenomena or common cultural ancestry. We also find that supernatural explanations of social phenomena only occur in societies that also have supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. This evidence is consistent with theories that ground the origin of supernatural belief in a human tendency to perceive intent and agency in nature.