Disaster in Japan and the science of belief

Last week, I spoke with research psychologist Jesse Bering for Bloggingheads Science Saturday—a weekly feature that records interesting conversations between science bloggers. Unsurprisingly, the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan were on both our minds. But I think you'll find Jesse's take on this stuff particularly interesting. He studies the human tendency to believe in the supernatural, and he had a lot of thought-provoking things to say about that instinct, how it affects even unbelievers during disaster situations, and why belief was useful to our ancestors, but isn't necessarily something that we need today.

If you've been following my posts about the nuclear crisis here on BoingBoing, you'll have probably heard most of what I talked about in the video already. To watch Bering's section, jump ahead in the video to the 21-minute mark.


  1. The SA article says very little about “how it affects even unbelievers during disaster situations”.

  2. Tendency and instinct are so far from the same thing, switching between them like that is only confusing.

  3. …belief was useful to our ancestors, but isn’t necessarily something that we need today

    Good on him for finally resolving that pesky question of death and the afterlife! Let’s hope he shares his findings with the world so we can all do away with religion once and for all.

  4. Very interesting… the theory that a secular mind might replace supernatural explanations or belief instinct with conspiracy theories is really fascinating to me. Not something that had ever occurred to me.

    Would love to hear more from a psychologist’s POV on how we perceive risk, how we internalize and evaluate it, learn from it, and our diverse reactions to both the real and imagined, let alone how we even make that determination between what is real and what is imagined. As was alluded to in the interview, the reactions to some of the recent posts about radiation is of particular interest as its a largely intangible force (with respect to being seen… the Holy Ghost of nuclear power as it were) that has the ability to straddle the line between being a very real potential threat laced with sometimes overstated or imagined implications. As we move from faith in divinity to faith in sciences that may be outside of the scope of the majorities’ ability to comprehend and thus potentially both fear and awe inspiring, understanding how we process risk is incredibly interesting. Especially as one who is definitely in the camp that places enormous stock and faith in science.

  5. Conspiracy theories are not (only) a matter of belief… They exist because they are somewhat plausible.
    We have plenty of evidence of how cruel, money driven and overall egoistic our leaders and people with influence can be.
    So, if someone has the power, technology and capital to do something, why couldn’t they?
    Of course there are many, MANY, conspiracy theories that are wrong. But to put them all in one bag and compare it to religion is an overstatement.
    We are seeing it happen right now… all over again… Lybia = Iraq.

  6. How on earth does someone get an IRB to agree that a researcher could lie to a group of children about whether “Princess Alice”, a supernatural intelligence, exists and generates physical signs to influence a kid’s choices? Those kids may now be screwed up for life. Both rationalists and people who believe in a god should be up in arms.

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