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…
Links to this Post
- Things Worth Reading | A Theory of Mind | June 11, 2011