Do you ever get the feeling that events in your life have been arranged just so? Maybe it seems like your life is falling apart, but then everything comes together in the best possible way for you? Maybe someone is looking out for me, you think, punishing my transgressions and rewarding my good deeds, pushing me to fulfill my potential, or guiding me along the path I might not have known to take otherwise. This sense of inherent purpose, or teleological thinking, seems to pervade the fabric of our culture, exemplified in phrases like “it was meant to be” or “everything happens for a reason.”

A large body of research shows that people are inclined to endorse teleological explanations in a variety of different situations. People believe that a good person is more deserving of and more likely to win the lottery than a bad person, and that the good person’s deeds somehow brought about that win. Similarly, people believe that a bad person is more likely to be involved in a random car crash, and that the bad person’s misdeeds somehow resulted in the car crash (even when told that the bad deeds and car crash were not related). Even natural selection is often viewed as a guided, purposeful process, and the natural world itself is often conceived of in terms of purpose and design.

Logically, you might scoff at this belief, especially if you are an atheist. After all, if you don’t believe in any supernatural powers, who, exactly, is arranging these events for your benefit? Who is guiding evolution? However, as we know from other lines of research, implicit beliefs are not controlled by our explicit thought processes, especially when we’re under pressure or time constraints. Research on implicit biases shows that we cannot simply turn off these cognitive heuristics even if our explicit beliefs conflict with them. Researchers have shown that people who explicitly rate themselves as unprejudiced still react with automatic biases when implicitly primed with racial stereotypes. More closely related to the subject at hand, professional physical scientists show a greater tendency to endorse teleological explanations for natural phenomena when operating under cognitive constraints (though to a lesser degree than college students or members of the general community).

Along the lines of this research, I wanted to examine whether atheists were subject to an implicit bias to view their own lives teleologically. There seemed to be some support for the idea that you can’t override the implicit bias to view the world teleologically, both in the scientific literature and anecdotally. To gauge whether background levels of cultural religiosity affect this bias, participants from the UK (relatively secular) and US (relatively religious) were recruited to take part in a semi-structured interview about important life events. These two groups were further divided by belief: half the participants from each country were atheists and half were religious.

Participants from the UK and the US showed no real differences in their tendency to endorse teleological explanations for important life events. As might be expected, religious people were much more likely to endorse teleological explanations for life events. However, atheists also did so to some extent, and more than one would expect based upon their explicit beliefs. Some participants, such as this one, noted that there was some tension between their explicit and implicit beliefs, “well for example – today I got made redundant – and I found myself thinking – maybe this is meant to happen [so] I can find a better job – or move to a different country to work – something like that but in reality I don’t believe in fate – so it’s strange to find oneself thinking like that.” Intriguingly, in an unpublished follow-up study, people with social cognitive deficits (i.e., high-functioning autism) were less likely to endorse teleological explanations.

These results suggest that deficits in social cognition affect the tendency to reason teleologically, while explicit religious beliefs and differing levels of cultural religiosity do not. In order to be subject to this bias to see inherent purpose behind an event, it is necessary to first understand human minds, and from this, the implicit bias spreads to other domains, even when it is not entirely appropriate to reason about intentional causation.

Dr. Bethany Heywood is an assistant professor of psychology at Ashford University. The research described here was originally published in Religion, Brain & Behavior and is available here.

Published On: February 1, 2015

Bethany Heywood

Bethany Heywood

Dr. Bethany Heywood is an assistant professor of psychology at Ashford University. The research described here was originally published in Religion, Brain & Behavior and is available here.

One Comment

  • John Jacob Lyons says:

    Suppose I have been unsuccessful with a job application. I really wanted the job and thought I would be perfect for the position; so I’m very disappointed with the response. If I then consoled myself with the thought that ‘everything happens for a reason’, that would be a clear case of teleological thinking. However, suppose I reasoned as follows. ” I’m waiting for a response from another attractive job. Maybe that one will be successful and will turn out to be a better career move anyway” Is this teleological thinking? Of course not. In the latter case, I would merely be consoling myself with optimism; no recourse to Kismet / other magical thinking involved here.
    In the studies referred to, a response such as “Maybe it was for the best” would be ambiguous; it could be either a teleological response or merely optimistic thinking. Did the studies avoid this potential source of distortion to the study conclusions?

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