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« More on (non)relationship between disgust & perceived risks of vaccines & GM foods | Main | On the rationality of (dis)belief in evolution -- new paper »

More on the rationality of (dis)belief in evolution

Yesterday I posted a new paper coauthored by me and by Keith Stanovich of the University of Toronto. The paper presented data showing that public controversy in the U.S. over the reality of human evolution is best accounted for by a theory of expressive rationality.  Today I’ll say a bit about what that that claim means.

The idea that expressive rationality explains controversy over evolution is an alternative to another position, which sees the controversy as originating in bounded rationality.

All manner of cognitive miscue, it’s now clear, is rooted in the tendency of people to rely overmuch on heuristic information processing, which is rapid, intuitive, and affect driven (Kahneman & Frederick 2005).  

What we call the bounded rationality theory of disbelief”—or BRD—seeks to assimilate rejection of the theory of human evolution to this species of reasoning.  Because our life is filled with functional systems designed to operate that way by human beings, we naturally intuit, the argument goes, that all functional “objects in the world, including living things,” must have been “intentionally designed by some external agent” (Gervais 2015, p. 313).

It’s hard for people to resist that intuition—in the same way that’s it’s hard for them to stifle the expectation that tails is “due” after three consecutive tosses of heads (the “gambler’s fallacy”) or to suppress the conviction that the outcome of a battle was foreordained once they know its outcome (“hindsight bias”). 

Only those who are proficient in checking intuition with conscious, effortful information processing are likely to be able to overcome it.

Well, this is a plausible enough conjecture.  Indeed, BRD proponents have supported it with evidence—namely, data showing a positive correlation between belief in evolution and scores on the Cognitive Reflection Test (Frederick 2005), a critical reasoning assessment that measures the disposition of individuals to interrogate intuitions in light of available data.

But this evidence doesn’t in fact rule out an alternative hypothesis, which we call the “expressive rationality theory of disbelief” or “ERD.”

ERD assimilates conflicts over evolution to cultural conflicts over empirical issues such as the reality of climate change, the safety of nuclear power, and the impact of gun control.

Positions on these issues have become suffused with antagonistic social meanings, turning them into badges of membership in and loyalty to competing groups.  Under such circumstances, we should expect individuals not only to form beliefs that protect their standing within their groups but also to use all the cognitive resources at their disposal, including their capacity for conscious effortful information processing, to do so.

And that’s what we do see on issues like climate change, nuclear power, and guns, where higher CRT scores are associated with even greater cultural polarization (Kahan 2015).

ERD predicts that that’s what we should see on beliefs on evolution, too.  Positions on evolution, like positions on climate change, nuclear power, guns, etc., signify what sort of person one is and whose side one is on in incessant cultural status competition, this one between people who vary in their level of religiosity. Accordingly, the individuals who are most proficient in critical reasoning—the ones who score highest on the Cognitive Reflection Test—should be the most polarized on religious grounds over the reality of climate change.

That’s the test that needs to be applied, then, to figure out if public controversy on evolution, like ones on these other issues, are an expression of individuals’ stake in forming identity-expressive outlooks or instead a consequence of their overreliance on heuristic information processing.

BRD needn’t be seen as implying the silly claim that “culture doesn’t matter” on beliefs on evolution.  But if it’s true that “individuals who are better able to analytically control their thoughts are more likely to eventually endorse evolution’s role in the diversity of life and the origin of our species” (Gervais 2015, p. 321), then relatively religious individuals who score high on the CRT should be less inclined to believe in religious than those who score low on that assessment

click on me for a realllll good time!If, in contrast, individuals are using all the cognitive resources at their disposal to form identity-congruent beliefs on evolution, those highest in CRT should be the most divided on the reality of human evolution.

That’s what we found in our empirical tests.

These tests included both a re-analysis of the data that BRD proponents had relied on and an analysis of and data from an independent nationally representative sample. 

In both sets of analysis, higher CRT scores did not uniformly predict greater belief in evolution. Rather they did so only conditional on holding a relatively secular or nonreligious cultural style.  For individuals who were more religious, in contrast, CRT scores were associated with either no change or even a slight intensification (in the national sample) of resistance to belief in evolution.

As a result polarization intensified in keeping with CRT scores.

In the paper, we relate these findings to the inherent complexity of rationality, which seeks not only to maximize accuracy of beliefs but also the compatibility of them with people’s self-conceptions, a matter Keith has written extensively about (e.g., Stanovich 2004, 2013).

I’ll say more about that “tomorrow.”


Frederick, S. Cognitive Reflection and Decision Making. Journal of Economic Perspectives 19, 25-42 (2005).

Gervais, W. Override the Controversy: Analytic Thinking Predicts Endorsement of Evolution, Cognition 142, 312-321 (2015).

Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem, Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015).

Kahneman, D. & Frederick, S. A model of heuristic judgment. in The Cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning (ed. K.J.H.R.G. Morrison) 267-293 (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Stanovich, K.E. The Robot's Rebellion : Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004).

Stanovich, K.E. Why Humans Are (Sometimes) Less Rational Than Other Animals: Cognitive Complexity and the Axioms of Rational Choice, Thinking & Reasoning 19, 1-26 (2013).

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