Contrary to popular belief, a reliance on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death or an illness, often increases rather than declines with age, according to a new study from The University of Texas at Austin.
Researchers at the university, led by Dr. Cristine Legare, assistant professor of psychology, reviewed more than 30 studies on how people between the ages of 5 and 75 from a variety of countries approached three major existential questions: The origin of life, illness and death.
They also conducted a study with 366 people in South Africa, where biomedical and traditional healing practices are both widely available.
As part of the study, Legare told the respondents a variety of stories about people who had AIDS. They were then asked to endorse or reject several biological and supernatural explanations for why the characters in the stories contracted the deadly virus.
The researchers found that participants of all age groups agreed with biological explanations for at least one life event.
Yet supernatural explanations, such as witchcraft, also were frequently supported among the children and universally among adults.
Among the adults, only 26 percent believed the illness could be caused by either biology or witchcraft, while 38 percent split biological and scientific explanations into one theory, such as, “Witchcraft, which is mixed with evil spirits, and unprotected sex caused AIDS.”
A majority of the people, 57 percent, combined both witchcraft and biological explanations, such as, “A witch can put an HIV-infected person in your path.”
Legare said the findings contradict the common assumption that supernatural beliefs dissipate with age and knowledge.
“The findings show supernatural explanations for topics of core concern to humans are pervasive across cultures,” Legare said. “If anything, in both industrialized and developing countries, supernatural explanations are frequently endorsed more often among adults than younger children.”
The study was published in the June issue of Child Development.