More on the Psychology of Anti-Evolutionism: Need For Closure, Fear, and Disgust

By Chris Mooney | June 9, 2011 9:58 am

Jamie Vernon did a great post here earlier, showing some of the psychological research that supports the view that direct confrontation of anti-evolutionists, and especially criticism of their religious beliefs, probably won’t work most of the time and may even backfire.

In particular, Jamie cited a study in which supporting “intelligent design” was linked to the fear of death–thus, accepting ID may be part of a psychologically satisfying “terror management” strategy. Here is the abstract:

The present research examined the psychological motives underlying widespread support for intelligent design theory (IDT), a purportedly scientific theory that lacks any scientific evidence; and antagonism toward evolutionary theory (ET), a theory supported by a large body of scientific evidence. We tested whether these attitudes are influenced by IDT’s provision of an explanation of life’s origins that better addresses existential concerns than ET. In four studies, existential threat (induced via reminders of participants’ own mortality) increased acceptance of IDT and/or rejection of ET, regardless of participants’ religion, religiosity, educational background, or preexisting attitude toward evolution. Effects were reversed by teaching participants that naturalism can be a source of existential meaning (Study 4), and among natural-science students for whom ET may already provide existential meaning (Study 5). These reversals suggest that the effect of heightened mortality awareness on attitudes toward ET and IDT is due to a desire to find greater meaning and purpose in science when existential threats are activated.

Recently I came across another psychology study which reinforces some of this, from 2008. Kilian James Garvey of the University of New England studied anti-evolutionists, and found not only that they were more highly religious and more likely to believe in God (no shocker) but also that they had a higher “need for closure,” and reacted more strongly on affective (or emotional) measures of fear and disgust. Abstract:

Numerous polls conducted in the United States on the subject of the diversity of life on earth show an approximate 50/50 split between belief in biological evolution and belief in biblical creationism. Hypotheses generated to explain this have focused primarily on cognitive and cultural characteristics of individuals who reject Darwinian evolutionary theory. To date the consideration of affective characteristics has been lacking. In this exploratory study, the cultural measures of church attendance and belief in God, the cognitive measure of Need for Cognitive Closure and the affective measures of fear and disgust all correlate with denial of evolutionary
theories. Limits and implications of exploring the affective motivations of cognitions will be discussed.

Need for closure is particularly interesting–this is about craving certain and fixed answers and being uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, no matter the issue. It is no big leap to see how anti-evolutionist religious beliefs provide certainty. Anti-evolutionists who have achieved “closure” are thus probably very fixed in their views and highly dismissive of threats to them.

It is hard not to speculate about what is lying at the roots of all this. We have highlighted published psychology research suggesting that anti-evolutionists are more likely to be religious and high on need for closure, as well as sensitive to fear and “existential threat.” It all seems related…


Comments (24)

Links to this Post

  1. Things Worth Reading | A Theory of Mind | June 11, 2011
  1. TaVo

    Well its why they believe in god in the first place. Once you get past all the religious mumbo-jumbo, its the fact that they want somebody to love them even when they don’t love themselves. Like you said its not hard to see why they are how they are, so why throw money at silly studies like this? The real problem is how are we going to get out of this mind numbing choke hold that the major religions have over the soft, uneducated minds of this country? It can’t be stressed enough that we are soon not going to be advancing at all, but degressing back to the stone age where priests are sacrificing virgins to to make the solar eclipse go away.

  2. Archfiend

    One of the fundamental purposes of religion has always been to provide a satisfying answer to mortality. So this is no surprise. How does science cope with people who have a psychological need to believe they are going to live forever?

  3. Al Cibiades

    It’s NOT immortality or love – it’s the need for BLACK&WHITE simple, concrete answers of certainty. Science is often NOT clear-cut; there are tests/causalities and probabilities; when answers are found they usually require more than 5 words to describe. Many people, while otherwise intelligent, cannot deal with ambiguity and probabilities.

  4. TaVo seems right on to me…keep in mind that this all has gone political now. Hell, as a Scientist now I have to not only vote independent but have to defend my views to many religious fanatics more and more these days….I heard a politician say on the news the other day: “It’s not like there is unemployed rocket scientists out there these days.” What an Idiot! I beg to differ, and offer myself as evidence. More like there is no mililary rocket scientist unemployed these days…

  5. Christopher Roy

    @ Archfiend
    Religions attempt to satisfy all unexplainable(during that time period) phenomena.
    Gods were the catch all to the unexplainable or unknown. But yes mortality is one of them.

    I think you answered your own question. A valid reason to pay for these studies is to figure out how to change the minds of the narrow minded. Without understanding why they believe, what they believe, in the first place will enable us to understanding how, later on.

  6. Terry Emberson

    @1, 2, 3;
    The fundamental purposes have of religion is not to make death okay, or to help people who don’t love themselves. Once you get off of the high horse of down the nose judgment, you might see that. The role of religion was to explain the universe. If you believe in religion, it doesn’t make to self-hating. It makes you religious. If you fear death, it doesn’t drive you to religion, it drives you to ANY way to ameliorate the fear, like waiting for the “singularity”. Religious people are not lesser and frankly I REALLY REALLY REALLY don’t want anyone YOU believe in getting their hands on the soft, uneducated minds of this country.

    I like to read other peoples opinions, but when they are this condescending, it makes me feel sick.

  7. JimF

    > How does science cope with people who have a psychological need
    > to believe they are going to live forever?

    By holding out the hope that they might “live long enough to
    live forever” (a la Ray Kurzweil), or be able to freeze themselves
    and then be revived and rejuvenated by “nanobots”,
    or be loved and taken care of by a “friendly” superintelligent
    artificial intelligence come the “technological Singularity”?

    If you can call **that** science. ;->

  8. Clara

    Though I am an atheist and believe (though that’s the wrong word for something scientific) in evolution–I grew up in a family with some of the folks who behave like the creationists when their beliefs are challenged. I think folks who push evolution the way that Dawkins and other atheists do cause further damage. Yes, some people who believe in a god will just outright refuse to accept that there are other things going on. But evolution is about science and god is about the unknown–the fact that the two issues keep getting tangled up is problematic at best and damaging at worst.

  9. Dave

    If it is a psychological need how come it seems to affect Europeans less than Americans? Surely our brains are the same?

  10. Jeff

    @Dave: I’d like to offer a simple answer based on my personal observations and evaluations.

    Europeans are more educated and more social than Americans. Europeans display observable actions that clearly demonstrate deep respect for others. In fact, every non-American individual I have EVER met values social interactions and collaboration in far more observable ways. What I observe about Americans however is that we are trained to drag/smear/kick the other guy down so we appear/feel better about ourselves. We are trained this way in our families. We are trained this way in our schools. We are trained this way every day in corporate life. Education here is elitist, where in other countries it is a right. When I’ve visited other countries, they HATE to see Americans coming because they have experienced our demanding, entitled, uneducated, immature attitudes so many times that they are now AFRAID to have to deal with us.

    My opinions on this matter arise from having witnessed these dichotomies repeatedly.

  11. Chris Mooney

    @9 & 10
    Great questions/conversation.

    The basic answer is that ideologies can satisfy psychological needs, but psychological needs are free of ideological content. So the way they get satisfied in different cultures will vary.

  12. Johan Fruh

    I’m not sure that it affects europeans that much less then americans.
    Personally I’m “european”, and I’ve seen my share of denialism.

    I’m under the impression that in america, it has a bit to do with the fact that there are only two political parties, and so this sort of behaviour concentrates into one of the parties, and makes a lot of noise.
    In europe, there are lots of political parties, many conservative with each their own agena… so all the behaviour linked to denialism is rather diluted between parties, and more important political topics are on the forefront… usually…

  13. Jeff

    @Chris: Absolutely! You’re quite a bit more eloquent and brief than I am. 🙂

    To restate a little (and yes, still my own personal opinions), Americans have a large social/spiritual void that isn’t satisfied by their interactions with other Americans. Other cultures, however, value that interpersonal interaction so much more that the same social/spiritual void doesn’t seem to drive their actions.

    Where that void does exist, however, in either American or other cultures, religion is one thing that is there to quickly try to fill it.

  14. Chris Mooney

    Plus I bet if you look at the decline of traditional religion in Europe, you will find the void has been filled by “spirituality”….

  15. steven thrasher

    @tavo I think for starters, you shouldn’t declare those of faith are uneducated or weak minded. Some of the most religious people I know of were also some of the brightest and knowlegeable (and stubborn, but not soft). Also, I wouldn’t characterize the need being based in them not loving themselves, but desperation. When you lose a child, or are faced with insurmountable challenges, or a lack of justice, or other things that we experience through the human condition, there are very few answers as easy as a belief in god. In fact, many debates with such people seem to incude their declaration of the NEED for a god. In any case, I think until there is a satisfactory response to that need, religion will continue to be a need, regardless of scientific evidence or not.

  16. This study might be useful for climate change framing. Realists can offer closure in the sense of a reasonably comprehensive explanation of what’s happening and what can be done to fix it. Denialists have a “who knows” answer to why things are warming, unless they go even further off the deep end with temperature measuring denial or other idiotic theories that pose different problems to denialist political agendas.

  17. TTT

    @10: Europe hosts as much denialism as any other region. They may not be as prone to creationism, but instead they panic over GMOs while at the same time denying the existence of violent radical Islamism in their societies. Their anti-American bigotry you describe (which I have personally experienced, and so too have many of my friends) is the moral equivalent of racism and gaybashing. They all look the same with a snarl on their face.

    You cannot change human nature. Look hard enough at any society and you’ll find the crazy and the hate.

  18. You say “It is hard not to speculate about what is lying at the roots of all this. We have highlighted published psychology research suggesting that anti-evolutionists are more likely to be religious and high on need for closure, as well as sensitive to fear and “existential threat.” It all seems related…”

    Is speculation scientific?

  19. Chris Mooney

    @16 I don’t see it that way. My theory now with climate and “need for closure” is that ClimateGate was seized on as a way to shut down the minds of those who don’t want to consider anything else and want to dismiss the whole issue. One key aspect of need for closure is “seizing” on some bit of helpful information that gives you closure and then “freezing” and not considering anything else.

  20. #19: I agree that denialists want closure and seize on whatever scrap like climategate and vast conspiracies that they can get, but I think there are problems for the denialist closure arguments to be convincing.

    We can provide a better story to someone who wants closure, because our theory explains the evidence, while they have no theory, or they have conspiracies, or they have mysterious 1500 year sun cycle coincidences.

  21. Chris Mooney

    It doesn’t work that way. If you want closure you don’t want a “better” or more accurate story, you want a story that doesn’t have any uncertainty or ambiguity.

  22. 1. On evolution/creationism, I agree that closure favors denial for those who believe in the inerrant Bible. Evolution isn’t compatible with the Bible being literally true.

    2. Climate theory doesn’t have the same trouble with Christianity. A few climate denialists have tried to use Christian determinist arguments, but they’re pretty weak even from that perspective.

    3. On climate, if you accept that temps are warming, as many denialists (and more important, the fence sitters) do, then you have uncertainty and ambiguity. What explains the increase?

    4. Climate realists have a theory that eliminates ambiguity – it’s warming because we’re messing up and warming the planet. This theory, btw, is compatible with a Christian frame of humans as immoral screwups who do a bad job as stewards of God’s creation.

    5. Denialists who accept warming don’t really have an explanation – they have to rely on coincidence. It’s just coincidence, they say, that we happen to be in a time when temps are rising as part of a natural cycle. It’s just coincidence that Tyndall, Fourier, and Arrhenius more or less predicted what would happen long before it became politicized. It’s just coincidence that Hansen said in 1988 that temps would keep rising, and they’ve risen at the rate he predicted.

    6. Some denialists resort to lies to deny their need to argue based on coincidences, but that opens them up to vulnerability when trying to persuade fence-sitters.

    7. If denialists fall in the set that deny warming at all, then they have another group of coincidences that they have to explain away.

    8. I agree that some with a strong need for closure and who have already strongly settled on a denialist frame will be very difficult to bring around, but it’s not the committed denialists that we’re concerned about.

    9. People who haven’t yet thought much about climate issues are the target. Some of them will have strong need for closure. We have a better story for them by pointing out the other side’s reliance on coincidences.

    10. I can be proven wrong. I don’t know this psychological field. If it’s shown that people with a strong need for closure are also strongly tolerant of explanation via coincidence, then I’m wrong.

    11. I suspect the opposite is true, that many people are intolerant of explanation through coincidence. It’s kind of an intuitive Occam’s Razor – it’s not science, but it’s not wrong, either. We should use it more – we have an explanation, denialists have coincidences. We have a solution, denialists want to sit there. Who do you trust?

  23. lou

    Some correlation may be found between those who do not accept evolution and those who cannot fathom the idea that they themselves may not exist some day. They are in god’s hands and god will care for them forever just like the earth is in god’s hands and would not allow man to destroy it. Creationism and warming denial go hand in hand. Thus lies the danger in the failure of our educational system in imparting a basic understanding of how the real world works. We are all locked into some mental and cultural prisons of our own choosing and family/cultural reinforcement. For many, perhaps most, there are no keys to easy entry or release.

    And I might add that few people have a firm grasp of evolution itself. Even among evolution believers I would venture that many do not get the concept that evolution is not advancing toward some “end”, like man. This is where the real rub lies between the true creationists and the true evolutionists. Psychologically, many people just cannot accept as individuals and as humanity that they are not special and subject to divine interventions and exemptions from the will of randomness and chaos or the impacts of their own demands on the physical world.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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