Looking Over Your Shoulder from Beyond the Grave

Ghost Plushies by Katspurl on Flickr

Recently, a friend suggested I make up my own version of a WWJD sticker — one that said “What Would Jesse Think?” See, both of my academic advisors have been named Jesse, and, being an insecure person, I am constantly worried about what my advisor will think of my work. Fortunately, for me, these thoughts are productive: They drive me to do work that I hope would please my advisor, even when I know that I am alone and my advisor has no idea what I am doing!

Anxiety about being watched by invisible agents (an agent is anything that has intentions, desires, or goals) appears to be a powerful motivator for other people, too, and the agents who we think are watching us don’t need to be human or even real for the effect to work. This effect has been proposed as one of the bases of belief in the supernatural: If people think they’re being watched by God, a spirit, or a ghost, they will be less likely to behave badly. Jesse Bering, Katrina McLeod, and Todd Shackelford (2005) tested this idea in the laboratory through a clever experiment.

Participants in this study had to complete a very difficult spatial intelligence test. The problems involved mentally rotating or manipulating a complex image. You can try out a similar kind of test here (just say “no thanks” when asked to register).

Due to a bug in the test software, answers to some of the problems would appear on the screen before the problem itself. Participants had to press a key to dismiss the answer before the question would be shown. Since the images were complex, seeing the answers only briefly wouldn’t help very much with getting the question right.

Before they began the test, one third of the participants read a memorial page dedicated to the memory of a graduate student who had recently passed away. Another third of the participants read this message and were told that the student’s ghost had recently been seen in the testing room. The last group of participants, the control group, neither read the memorial page nor heard about the ghost.

The software “glitch,” of course was intentional. By measuring how long much time participants spent studying the answers, the researchers were able to get a measure of how much they intended to cheat on the test.

Participants in the control group and in the memorial-only group didn’t differ in how much they cheated. Participants in the ghost condition, however, cheated less than participants in the control group. (They also cheated less than participants in the memorial condition but not significantly so.)

This suggests that it isn’t just thinking about death or dead people that reduced cheating (since the memorial and control conditions were not significantly different). Instead, it’s our capacity to think about how a supernatural agent (in this case, a ghost, but it could be God or any other supernatural agent) would judge our actions that made the participants in the ghost condition behave well. (This capacity, by the way, is called “theory of mind” and hence the name of this blog.)

Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t need a ghost story to remind me to think about how someone will judge what I am doing. All I need is a WWJT sticker in my office.


Bering, J. M., McLeod, K., & Shackelford, T. K. (2005). Reasoning about dead agents reveals possible adaptive trends. Human Nature, 16, 360-381. DOI: 10.1007/s12110-005-1015-2

I had another post planned for today (also on the theme of being watched by supernatural agents), but decided to write this one in honor of my M.A. advisor’s announcement of a career change. Jesse Bering, this study’s first author, announced he is stepping down from his post at Queen’s University Belfast to pursue his writing career full-time. Bering has been an important figure in what’s become known as the cognitive science of religion (an interdisciplinary approach to understanding religion in human thought and behavior). And he has as much to offer science as a writer as he’s given so far as a researcher. You can (and I encourage you to) read his writing at his Scientific American blog, at Slate, and in his book The Belief Instinct. Like his research, Bering’s writing is clever, engaging, and fun, and through it, he brings public attention to some of the most interesting findings in the behavioral and cognitive sciences. I hope one day to be one quarter the researcher or writer that Bering is.



8 Comments to “Looking Over Your Shoulder from Beyond the Grave”

  1. Interesting news about Jesse Bering, which I think makes a great deal of sense. We need more academics who can reach much bigger audiences than their peers.

    As for these surveillance types of experiments, I have long been keen on trying to determine when in human history (or under what circumstances), surveillance would have been a motivator. My general sense is that pre-Neolithic peoples (i.e., hunter-gatherers) generally don’t have “god” concepts, and while they do believe in what might be called spirits (or “ghosts”), they generally did not feel these were watching them. They engaged with spirits in dreams, and through intoxicants are activities that induced altered states of consciousness.

    If this is the case (I am open to contrary evidence), the surveillance of invisible agents would not have played a major role in “religious evolution” around the time of the Neolithic transition, perhaps 10,000 years ago.

  2. Cris, good points. I remain neutral about the evolution of religious cognition precisely because I just don’t know enough to come to a conclusion. Obviously, Bering advocates a position that it is adaptive and was favored by evolution.

    What would qualify as evidence that Neolithic people did feel watched by spirits?

  3. Greek playwrights favored the idea of gods overlooking the affairs of man third to sixth c. BCE, suggesting that the iron age form of their religion had that at least. Bronze age Sumerian and Egyptian myths suggest divine oversight as well. Sacrifices and offerings (easier to find an alter in pre-historic conditions than a myth) could be something different – ‘buying favor’ rather than answering to (potential) judgment.

    • Those are interesting and relevant examples. I think I would like to, perhaps next week, devote a series of posts to laboratory studies on the induction of prosociality/cooperation through priming. It’s a fascinating subject and one of the most widely studied by psychologists within the cognitive science of religion. Still, I agree with Cris that evidence from about 10,000 years ago (or perhaps a bit earlier) is crucial to advancing an evolutionary claim for belief in supernatural agency.

  4. What we do know from the neolithic is the development of ‘visible’ agents. With cities (Catal Huyuk on) we find priests – full-time religious professionals, rather than ad-hoc shaman. In historic times, priests reminded the populous of invisible agents (along with ‘legitimizing the king’)

    • I am not familiar with Catal Huyuk (and I freely admit that origins of religion is an area in which my knowledge is shamefully weak). Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ve found the book Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study that looks like a good read. Any other suggestions for reading on it?

  5. Here is a story picked up by National Geographic (It was not their original story – and you can find more references as well with google)
    This is one case of a ‘temple complex’ discovered without a city – quite unusual.
    I also recommend Jared Diamond, Guns Germs and Steel. This is a diversion, but evolution does not occur in a vacuum – human society advanced from tribal (villages of up to hundreds) to city-states with thousands as religion advanced from shaman to priests and temples (organized religion). No city has been found without a class of priests. I suspect they were necessary for ‘conflict resolution’ as well as collecting the taxes complex societies require to pay for ‘management’.

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