Would You Put Your Hand In The Haunted Box?

Scott Atran, an anthropologist with a research interest in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, is a byproduct theorist. As Robin Marantz Henig notes, he sometimes presents his students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” The point of the demonstration is that even students who say they are nonbelievers act as if they believe in something. When he tells them to put their pencil in the box, the nonbelievers do so without hesitation. When he tells them to put their driver’s license in, most do, but only after significant hesitation. When he tells them to put their hands in, few comply. Atran wonders, “If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?” Here, I think, is an unintended but compelling example of the difference between a cognitive and a psychodynamic explanation of human behavior. The cognitive explanation will focus naturally on cognitive mechanisms — in this case the unacknowledged, irrational, and vestigial, magical thinking of professed skeptics. But it will focus on primarily one thing — the hidden defect in the supposedly well-functioning, adult, cognitive apparatus. By contrast, a psychodynamic explanation will try to incorporate as many of the relevant dimensions of the human equation, particularly the dynamic unconscious, as it can. These might include, in addition to the cognitive, the emotional, the interpersonal, the irrational, the defensive, the characterological, and the aggressive components in a dynamic interactive pattern meant to be a signature of the individual subject’s distinctive personality. Thus, from a psychodynamic perspective, there could be reasons other than or in addition to cognitive ones for why a presumably rational, adult skeptic might hesitate to put something valuable in the haunted box. First note, that Atran “pretended” that the box was an African relic, thereby admitting a critical deception was a precondition of the success of the experiment. But perhaps this deception was read on some subliminal level by certain perceptive students. If this was some kind of a psychological hoax, if something was up, it is understandable that someone might show, not so much hesitation, as mistrust. Someone might refrain from putting in their hands, not because they feared supernatural vengeance, but because they didn’t want to be tricked by a psychologist. Perhaps they were afraid of being mildly shocked, or surprised by something that felt like a creepy dead thing, but was really, say, a ragdoll? Maybe, the point of the test was to determine just how mindless and gullible they were and, no matter what they did, they feared, not retribution, but social embarrassment? Just imagine for a moment you were to participate in Atran’s experiment. He shows you a box, tells you it is an African relic, and says, “If you have negative sentiments toward religion, the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” He then instructs you to put in, respectively, your pencil, your wallet, your hands. What would you think? Would you trust him? What is so rational about taking the word of someone who says that to you and then actually doing what he says? It is perhaps more rational, to be immediately on one’s guard, to suspect a trick, to incrementally fall prey to a (normal) paranoid frame of mind. Maybe Atran, however, does know what he is talking about, and knows, for example, that reputable African villages have really testified to the damage that has accrued to certain irreligious people who have profanely touched the box. Maybe Atran does not believe this himself, but wants to see if you do. But what if certain people really have been hurt, not because of a curse, but because of an undetected toxic chemical inside the box? Or what if you could not care less about any of the above, but you do care about coming across as insensitively irreligious and you do not want to put your wallet or your hands in the box for the same reason you do not want your family to know that it has been many years since you last went to church?

To make the point even clearer, and to take this out of the laboratory of the research psychologist and into the realm of everyday life, imagine the following. You are about to buy a watch, a birthday present, say, for your father and, while wrapping your gift, the sales clerk laughing a little self-consciously and perhaps guiltily, says, “It’s strange, but the last two people I sold this watch to, died of heart attacks a few weeks later.” And almost immediately, recognizing and trying to undo his monumental gaffe, adds, “Of course, that had nothing to do with this. It’s a fine watch.”

Now, what would you do? Under such a circumstance, is it really more rational to go ahead and buy the watch from this particular sales person? A cognitive scientist such as Atran seems to think so. He makes the assumption that a person acting rationally will always refrain from doing anything that might be included under the tainted umbrella of superstitious thinking. But that can be a blinkered viewpoint. There could be valid, common-sensical reasons for shying away from violating a religious taboo. Such as for example the pragmatic desire to save energy. For, anyway you put it, it is a creepy thing to tell a person out of the blue that there’s a curse or a series of unexplained deaths attached to what looks like a harmless, everyday object. That’s hard to ignore no matter how unsuperstitious you are. It is natural to want to think about it. Just how did this supposed curse or jinx come about? Is there a simple, understandable explanation? Since you are not a cognitive scientist investigating the roots of irrational beliefs, you are not interested — when all you want to do is to buy a watch or participate in an interesting, but presumably trivial psychological experiment — in being lured into a weird sounding chain of events. What rational reason would an ordinary person have for doing that?

The cognitive scientist, in order to study a single cognitive function, will throw out all the other interfering variables. It is the standard practice of the experimental psychologist who begins by reducing the unmanageable complexity of life in order to better understand it. Afterwards, when insight has hopefully been gained, the new knowledge is brought back and added to the previous picture and it is presumed that our understanding has been thereby enriched. But as we have shown, something funny happens along the way to the artificially reduced, experimental model in its return trip back to the original, full-blown, life-style context from which it has been extracted. The cognitive scientist, bewitched by the purity of thought derived from his toy model universe, forgets to put back all the variables he has originally removed.

By contrast, the psychodynamic approach aspires to put in as much of the significant human equation — often overlooked by the cognitivist whose principal area of interest is the computer-simulating or computer-like functions of the human mind — as he or she can. The clinical setting used by the psychodynamic psychotherapist will accordingly be deliberately arranged so as to elicit the full subjectivity of the patient, the rich spectrum of whatever he or she has experienced in the past (and if this happens to include having just participated in a psychological experiment, it will focus intensely on all the ways in which the experimenter, experiment and subject were dynamically, consciously and unconsciously perceived and intertwined.

Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist, is another leading byproduct theorist closer to our theme. Religious beliefs, he says, are “minimally counterintuitive.” They are but not so weird that you reject out of hand. “A tree that talks is minimally counterintuitive, and you might believe it as a supernatural agent. A tree that talks and flies and time travels is maximally counterintuitive and you are more likely to reject it.” It is immediately apparent that a God who has a human personality but who is infinitely more intelligent than you, or a God who decides to visit the earth in the shape of a man, is minimally counterintuitive.

And here we have a wonderfully simple cognitive explanation for why it is so nearly impossible to conceive of a complex relationship with God. An in-depth relationship with a real God, and all that it would entail, is a maximally counterintuitive idea. But a God who is ever vigilant, protective and watches over us, who can evoke and magically gratify the deepest wishes of our infancy and childhood, especially when we are most in need, is a very different story. It is a belief system with a narrative arc as hard to resist as it is easy to understand.

In a recent book, Primates and Philosophers, the renowned primatologist Frans de Waal argues that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes. Currently the director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, he has spent years observing nonhuman primates. He is convinced that, “Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are.” The roots of empathy can clearly be seen in certain behaviors of chimpanzees, such as mutual grooming. He has seen, for example, on occasion, an adult chimpanzee helping a frightened young chimp down from a tree. Rescue-minded chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Rhesus monkeys, who can get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, will sometimes starve themselves for days.

Looking back, we can easily imagine Darwin cheering on the researches of evolutionary biologists like Frans de Waal. As Janet Brown so brilliantly shows in her book, Darwin’s Origin of Species, the founder of evolutionary biology anticipated many of the questions and conflicts facing evolutionists today. She is right to point out that contemporary intelligent design (ID) theorists are at bottom a modern variant of William Paley’s classic watchmaker argument, the argument that The Origin of Species effectively demolished. From that standpoint, the biochemist Michael Bethe’s claim that the design of the protein is too complicated to have arisen by natural selection without the help of an intelligent designer is little better than disguised creation science. It’s no more probable, for example, than the young earth creationist’s claim that all the fossils ever found were laid down at the time of Noah’s flood. (Only creationists, she points out, insist on taking everything in the Bible to be literally true.)

One of the greatest of living Darwin scholars, Janet Brown, shows how deeply colored by emotion every competing (so-called scientific) theory of evolution since Darwin has been. Darwin himself, as is well known, was tormented by fears that he would be ostracized by his fellow Victorians. That was hardly the case, but it is a sobering thought. If even the greatest evolutionist was so susceptible to being influenced by his emotions on the key issues, we can imagine how difficult the analogous conflict is for the ordinary person.

The psychodynamic perspective on the roots of religious belief does not contradict the cognitive, neurobiological or evolutionary viewpoint. It merely adds the much neglected basic emotions. It incorporates, in a way that cognitive science and evolutionary psychology do not, the dynamic unconscious. In addition to the researcher’s laboratory, the field biologist’s free-roaming animals, it brings in the clinician’s office. Most significantly, it strives to capture the unpredictable complexity of a lived life. It does not try, as does the cognitivist, to assemble a whole person essentially from the problem-solving functions of the brain. It does not try to leapfrog from the evolutionary traits we share with our non-human primate cousins straight to the fuzzy beginnings of an emergent human self. Instead, it embraces a more holistic, hierarchical and layered picture of a dynamically interacting, often conflicted, never simply mechanistic, and always unique person.

Gerald Alper, Author of,

God & Therapy,

What We Believe When No One is Watching

(The above article is an Excerpt from my book God and Therapy)

Author. Psychotherapist. Writing about psychology for all to read. I also interview scientists.