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inentionality bias

Intentionality bias refers to the tendency to see intentions in the movements of both animate and inanimate objects. This bias serves us well in most interactions with purposive agents, such as other humans, but even then we often see intentionality or purposiveness where there is none. A bar patron holding his fourth or fifth Johnnie Walker Black bumps into us as we're about to have our first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale of the evening and he spills his drink on our briefcase. We're sure he did it on purpose, though it may well have been an accident. The fellow holding the Johnnie Walker, on the other hand, is sure you bumped into him on purpose and wants to punch you in the face unless you buy him another drink.*

In ambiguous situations, some people might view an act as unintentional, while others see it as intentional. Your sister helps clear the dishes after dinner and drops a cherished serving dish you brought back from a foreign country, shattering it into a dozen shards. Everyone else accepts her apology for the accident. You're sure she did it on purpose to get back at you for some slight she may have felt during the course of the mealtime conversation. Maybe you even go so far as to believe there are no accidents or coincidences. Everything that happens, happens for a reason.

Most adults with a modicum of knowledge about the natural world see thunderstorms, earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions in mechanistic terms. We see plagues and epidemics as due to causes that can be explained without any reference to purpose or intention. We don't think intentional agents bring about such events except, perhaps, as instrumental causes. We may have learned on our own or been taught in high school or college that our ancestors perceived the natural world as full of "spirits" or invisible intentional agents. What we may not have learned or been taught is that as children we saw the natural world the same way our ancestors did: full of the effects of intentions and purposes.

It seems likely that intentionality bias is the result of evolutionary processes, which is a bit ironic when you think about it. We evolved mechanistically to believe in a purposive universe. Several studies on intentionality bias in children indicate that a natural way of perceiving and making sense out of the natural world is to see intentional agents behind the movements of many things that knowledgeable adults attribute solely to mechanistic forces. The tendency of early humans and modern children to see intentional agents behind mechanistic processes may be an expression of an essential adaptation for our species. The inability to perceive the intentions of predators or others in the tribe would be a major hindrance to survival, not to mention that such blindness to what others are thinking would all but prevent productive and beneficial interaction within the troop or tribe.

Intentionality bias is stronger in some people than in others. Combined with the human need for significance and meaning, we have at one extreme people who see everything as purposive. Nothing happens by random accident. Even accidents have a meaning. An invisible supreme being watches over everything that happens and doesn't let anything happen except according to plan. At the other extreme from those who think somebody's in control of everything are those who see no need for gods, spirits, or any other invisible intentional agents to explain anything about the natural world. Even intentional and purposive acts are determined by mechanistic causes. The teleological view of the universe comes naturally to us; the mechanistic view is unnatural and only became widely accepted with the rise of modern science.* Still, even though the mechanistic view is widely accepted these days, the teleological view remains our default and we must consciously suppress the urge to think anthropomorphically.

The advantages of intentionality bias to social beings are many. Cooperative collective action may be fine for ants and termites functioning mechanistically and without conscious regard for the intentions of their comrades in building or carrying supplies. But the scope of their actions is severely limited by the inability to perceive purposiveness in each other's behaviors. Instinctive reactions to others, unaided by a natural tendency to perceive their intentions, would have kept our species from evolving into the creatures that built pyramids, aqueducts, skyscrapers, and cathedrals. The inability to determine whether another animal's intentions are benign or malevolent would be a great disadvantage to any mammal.

The tendency to infer intentionality from the behavior of others has been the subject of much study. There have been several experiments with children and adults that have shown that both have little difficulty in seeing the movement of computer generated colored shapes as intentional. Intuitively, an adult might see one triangle as "chasing" a circle, but on reflection most adults recognize that chasing requires intentionality and triangles aren't intentional agents. Intuitively, one might perceive invisible agents guiding natural processes or watching over what happens to you, but on reflection adults should recognize the implausibility of these agents actually existing.

Some people find it difficult or impossible to see intentionality in others. They can't "read the minds" of others. There has been some research that suggests a deficit in intentionality bias is related to autism and Asperger syndrome. There is some evidence that people with autism or Asperger syndrome have a higher rate of agnosticism and atheism than do "neurotypicals," which would be predicted if intentionality bias were related to belief in such things as creation of the universe by an intentional agent.

See also attribution biases and proportionality bias.

further reading

Kelemen, Deborah. Joshua Rottman and Rebecca Seston. 2012. Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as a Cognitive Default. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Vol. 142, No. 4, 1074 –1083.

Kelemen, Deborah. 2011. Teleological minds: How natural intuitions about agency and purpose influence learning about evolution. (Book chapter to appear in: Rosengren, K. and E. M. Evans Evolution challenges: Integrating research and practice in teaching and learning about evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kelemen, D. & Rosset, E. 2009. The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults. Cognition, 111, 138–143.

Kelemen, D. 2004. Are children “intuitive theists”?: Reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychological Science, 15, 295–301.

Will Religion Ever Disappear? by Rachel Nuwer - BBC

We are "instinctually primed to see life forces – a phenomenon called hypersensitive agency detection – everywhere we go, regardless of whether they’re there or not. Millennia ago, that tendency probably helped us avoid concealed danger, such as lions crouched in the grass or venomous snakes concealed in the bush. But it also made us vulnerable to inferring the existence of invisible agents – whether they took the form of a benevolent god watching over us, an unappeased ancestor punishing us with a drought or a monster lurking in the shadows."

People with Asperger’s less likely to see purpose behind the events in their lives by Karen Schrock, Scientific American

Why Are High-Functioning Autistics More Likely to Be Atheists or Agnostics? by Catherine Caldwell-Harris, professor of psychology at Boston University


Last updated 04-Jan-2016

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