Thoughts of death increase the appeal of Intelligent Design

Why do so many people, including many science teachers, continue to find value and appeal in Intelligent Design (ID) – the pseudoscientific account of life’s origins that mainstream science has rejected? Part of the answer, according to a new study by psychologists, is that ID offers relief from existential angst, even among those who aren’t religious.

Across four studies, hundreds of participants – including psychology students, a diverse sample of US adults, and natural science students – either imagined their own death or a visit to the dentist (used as a control condition), and then read either a short description of ID or of evolutionary theory. They then rated the value and evidence for the theory they’d read about.

For psychology students, being reminded of their own death led them to rate ID more positively, but had no effect on their view of evolutionary theory. For the diverse sample of adults, thoughts of death increased the appeal of ID and led them to derogate evolutionary theory. For natural science students, the opposite pattern was observed – thoughts of death accentuated their support for evolutionary theory and led them to derogate ID.

What’s going on here? For psych students, thoughts of death weren’t enough for them to disregard evolutionary theory, which their training tells them is over-whelmingly supported by scientific evidence. However, it appears to have made ID more attractive to them, perhaps because the notion of an intelligent designer provides an easy antidote to nihilistic thoughts.

For the diverse adult sample, thoughts of death were enough to turn people against evolutionary theory, with its mechanistic account of life, and to turn them on to ID, with its appealing idea of a superior intelligence. These effects held regardless of the participants’ religious status or educational background.

Finally, for the natural science students, for whom evolutionary theory is a vital part of their identity and world-view, thoughts of death actually led them to subscribe more strongly to this theory, presumably because they were able to find solace in its elegant explanatory power and vision. This fits with Terror Management Theory and its findings, which show that people respond to the fear of death by entrenching their cultural world view.

Further support for the idea that evolutionary theory has the potential to be a source of existential comfort came from a fifth study, in which psych students additionally read a poetic account by Carl Sagan of science, and the meaning it gives to life. Reading Sagan’s account led these psych students to respond to thoughts of death just like natural science students, by subscribing more strongly to evolutionary theory and derogating ID.

‘No previous study has examined whether psychological motives influence the ongoing debate between proponents of Intelligent Design Theory and Evolutionary Theory – a debate of great importance to the future of science and science education,’ Jessica Tracy and her colleagues concluded. ‘The present research suggests that attitudes toward scientific (or seemingly scientific) views and ideologies can be partly shaped by unconscious psychological motives to maintain security and ward off existential angst through the cultivation of meaning and purpose.’

ResearchBlogging.orgTracy, J., Hart, J., and Martens, J. (2011). Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution. PLoS ONE, 6 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017349

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.