Monday, October 22, 2012

Teleological Thinking May Be Hard Wired in Our Brains.

Chris Mooney, one of my favorite science writers, provides a summary of a new research result in an article in Psychology Today. He writes about an experiment in which four groups of subjects were asked to judge false statements of the form:
"Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe," and "Germs mutate in order to become drug resistant."
Endorsing such a statement implies that the person making the judgement is assuming conscious purpose where no such purpose exists. Clearly trees are not producing oxigen with the intent of helping animals to breath, nor are germs deliberating and deciding to mutate for a purpose of their progeny surviving antibiotic use by their hosts. The fallacy here is assuming teleology -- assuming design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions -- in non-reasoning entities.

All four groups sometimes responded indicated the false assumption of teleology. People trained in science and the humanities made fewer teleological assumptions than did college undergraduates (College in the graph above) or college graduates without post graduate degrees (Community). The interpretation is that the advanced training enables those with graduate degrees to make better decisions about intentionality.

When required to respond quickly the probability of erroneous answers increased in all groups. The interpretation is that the brain's initial response to such suggestions is to assume intentionality, but that people who have learned to avoid that assumption can with time make more rational judgments. Lacking time, they are more likely to produce the teleological response.

This is of course a warning to us all not to assume too much. I myself tend to conclude that when things go wrong, the problem is more often one of incompetence or bad luck, rather than malice. This is still another example that we often think with our brain, not necessarily with our conscious (rational) mind.

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