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Fear of death increases belief in Intelligent Design, resistance to evolution

31 March 2011

This was originally written as a news brief for How On Earth, the radio show I’m interning with. Then I realized that the press release was “embargoed” until the day after our broadcast, so I had to find a different topic (you can listen to that show here; my item is first up after the intro). But I still wanted to get the word out about this study, so I’ve expanded my initial draft a bit:

Do you ever wonder why some people believe in unscientific ideas like “Intelligent Design”, rather than robust scientific theories like evolution?

It could be that they are afraid of dying.

That’s the result of a psychology experiment from the University of British Columbia, and Union College in Schenectady, NY.

Hamlet contemplates the skull of "Poor Yorick" (courtesy Flickr user martin_hartland)

Participants in the experimental group were asked to imagine their own death and write about their thoughts and feelings. A control group was asked to imagine and write about toothaches. Then, both groups read writing samples from Michael Behe, a supporter of Intelligent Design, and Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. Neither passage mentioned belief or religion, but simply presented evidence for the author’s arguments.People who had thought about dying were more likely to agree with Behe, the Intelligent Design advocate, and reject evolution. According to the researchers, this effect was seen “regardless of participants’ religion, religiosity, educational background, or preexisting attitude toward evolution.”

Another version of the experiment added a third writing sample, from cosmologist Carl Sagan, describing how scientific naturalism can provide a sense of meaning in our lives and in the world. After reading all three passages, people who had been reminded of their own mortality were more likely to reject Intelligent Design and agree with Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist.


(Don't Fear) The LEGO Reaper (courtesy Flickr user tim_norris)

From these results it appears that, when faced with existential questions, people seek meaning and purpose in life. The study’s authors say that evolution and naturalism can provide that reassurance—if people are taught to see that naturalism can be highly meaningful. But taken at face value, Intelligent Design seems to appeal more strongly to that need than the naturalistic theories of science.

The authors conclude that rallying general support for scientific ideas may require more than appeals to the head:

In addition to providing a psychological explanation for the popularity of IDT [Intelligent Design Theory] and antipathy toward ET [Evolutionary Theory], the present findings challenge the conventional assumption that attitudes toward such scientifically framed theories are determined solely by factors such as logic, educational background, and ideology….

In other words, the emotions that are triggered by existential concepts like death and mortality seem to play a big role in an individual’s acceptance of scientific reasoning. If scientists want to increase public acceptance of evolution, they may have to do a better job of appealing to people’s hearts.

This study was published March 30th in the journal PLoS ONE.

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