A disastrous event may even enhance one’s belief in a master planner. Kurt Gray of the University of Maryland and Daniel Wegner of Harvard have proposed a dyadic template for morality: if there’s a recipient of help or harm, we assume there is someone doing the helping or harming—creating a dyad of do-ee and do-er. They argue that we make liberal use of the template: if there’s no obvious responsible party, we find a scapegoat. And what happens if no acceptable scapegoats are in sight? We credit a supernatural one.
Gray and Wegner presented subjects who believed in a higher power with one of four stories. In all four versions, a family is picnicking in a valley when the water level rises. In half the stories, lunch is ruined by the flood, and in the other half lunch is really ruined because everyone drowns. Also, in half the stories a dam worker is said to have caused the flood, and in half of them the cause of the flood is unknown. Subjects then rated how much the story’s outcome was part of God’s plan. God drew much more blame when people died and no one was clearly responsible than in the other three scenarios. The tragedy needed an explanation, and human intervention wasn’t an option.
We’ve seen similar stories in the news. Both Christian and Muslim leaders claimed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people in Indonesia was punishment from God. After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, Mayor Ray Nagin said God was “mad at America” for the Iraq war, while a Christian group noted a resemblance between a satellite image of the storm and an ultrasound image of a fetus, suggesting that Katrina came to avenge the “ten child-murder-by-abortion centers” in Louisiana. Glenn Beck called the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in early 2011 a “message” to humanity. And of course Noah would have something to say on the matter of floods. It’s no coincidence the legal term for an unpreventable natural disaster is an “act of God.”
We might even give more credit to a higher power for bad stuff than for good stuff. Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon has found a negative agency bias—a tendency to attribute negative events more than positive events to agents. In one of his studies, subjects played a game of chance where an impartial other player could secretly intervene on some rounds of the game. Subjects were most likely to suspect the other player had stepped in when they lost money, particularly when they lost big.
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