Cognitive Bias towards Design: Atheists Are Not Immune (SS#15)

“How can you not believe in creation?” a creationist might ask. “Just look at the stars and birds and fish. Evidence of creation is all around us.” Statements such as these have been repeatedly debunked, yet they persist as if they are naturally ingrained in human cognition. But perhaps creationists can be forgiven for this cognitive bias because, as a recent study suggests, even atheists — when pressured to make split second decisions whether or not a phenomenon is natural or manmade — see design in places where it doesn’t exist.

In the July 2015 edition of Cognition, researchers Elisa Järnefelt (et al) published an article titled “The divided mind of a disbeliever: Intuitive beliefs about nature as purposefully created among different groups of non-religious adults.” In it they conduct three photograph-based studies to examine “the roles of cognition and culture in adults’ recurrent and persistent tendency to view living and non-living natural phenomena as intentionally created” (p. 83).


Study 1

In the first study researchers examined both religious and non-religious North American participants. When shown pictures of natural phenomena, religious participants were more likely to attribute natural phenomena with purposeful design than non-religious participants; however, when non-religious participants were pressured to answer whether or not a natural phenomenon was purposefully designed within a certain amount of time (the “speeded task”), the non-religious increasingly noticed design where there was none. In other words, when you throw reason out the window, you’re more likely to make faulty assumptions.

Study 2

The researchers then duplicated study 1, this time using only North American atheists. The results were as expected. Atheists were more likely to incorrectly attribute natural phenomena to design when their decisions were constrained by time.

The researchers add (p. 80):

[I]nterestingly, even though North American atheist participants in Study 2 showed significantly lower creation endorsement than North American non-religious participants in Study 1, they still demonstrated a tendency to increasingly default to a view of both living and non-living nature as purposefully created when forced to rely on automatic reasoning processes.

Study 3

Finally, the researchers duplicated studies 1 and 2 using only Finnish atheists. It should be noted that Finland is considerably less religious than North America. Study 3, therefore, acts as a control group (p. 74). The results of study 3 are consistent with both previous studies. Finnish atheists are more likely to make faulty assumptions about agency when unable to use reason.


The results of these studies support the researchers’ dual process hypothesis. In other words, our ability to differentiate between natural and designed phenomena can occur as the result of either conscious or unconscious processes. When time is of the essence, we — even atheists — are more likely to assume intentional agency when there is no intentional agency. That is (p. 73),

[G]iven the existence of reliably early-developing cognitive abilities and tendencies to reason about intentional agents and purposefully designed objects, all individuals continue to possess heightened implicit receptivity to religious ideas throughout life…

Atheism, in this sense, is the product of an ability to overcome natural cognitive biases that assume supernatural agencies are behind natural phenomena. But at a primal level, this is rather difficult. The researchers put it bluntly when they say, “regardless of their explicit, reflective disavowal of belief in supernatural agents, at a non-reflective level of processing, people enduringly remain ‘intuitive theists’” (p. 73) [emphasis mine]. This is not a cheap shot at atheists; rather, this statement is somewhat necessary to make sense of the findings. It doesn’t mean atheists don’t exist; rather, it means atheists are capable of making faulty assumptions about design when their unconscious mind is forced to make decisions absent their conscious rational mind. It also doesn’t mean that deep down atheists believe in god; rather, it means humans beings generally will assume god exists until their rational brain kicks in (of course, even then most people still believe in god). Besides, even if the study were saying that atheists believe in god, the authors are quick to point out the following question: What god? (p. 84):

[T]he current results show that the increased tendency to see creation in nature is not simply reduced to Abrahamic god beliefs.

They expand on this (p. 84):

The current results therefore also serve as a reminder that supernatural reasoning encompasses far more than Abrahamic god belief; explicit references to culturally recognized supernatural agents, such as ‘‘God’’ or ‘‘gods’’, (e.g., Haught, 2003; Norenzayan & Gervais, 2013), are not enough to reliably capture the range of supernatural conceptions people possess (also Boyer, 2002 [2001]; Lanman, 2012; Wildman, Sosis, & McNamara, 2012).

If my discussion feels like it’s taking the defensive, this is intentional. The results of this study are surprising and help us explain cognitive biases that might have helped us survive the prehistoric earth, but I fear that some people might take this study, bastardize its findings, and use it to support creationism or their own religious views (for example, Psalm 14). This would be profoundly intellectually dishonest. And I hope if you catch someone using this study in dishonest ways, you’ll call them out on it.

Finally, while this study is interesting, in hindsight its findings are not as surprising as they were when I initially read the article. To assume intentional design when there is none was probably a very important survival mechanism thousands of years ago. It probably goes hand-in-hand with the assumption of the malicious agent when there is none (see type 1 and type 2 errors). That is, to assume agency — even when there is none — alters our behaviors, making us more likely to be cautious. Those humans with better abilities to assume agency, therefore, were more likely to survive to reproductive age to pass these traits onto their children. Theism, in this sense, is natural. It helped shape the cognition of human beings as we have it today. Belief in god is one aspect of this ability. But even without god, atheists are still able to make faulty assumptions about design.

This post is part of my Science Sunday series.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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4 Responses to Cognitive Bias towards Design: Atheists Are Not Immune (SS#15)

  1. How many of the non theist participants has science based knowledge of the subject matter and still showed the bias?

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      I’m not entirely sure. The authors note in study 1 on page 74 that “Most participants had at least some college education (88%).” This doesn’t tell us their college majors. Furthermore it doesn’t break down to show percentages of educated theists and educated non-theists. Of note, however, in study 2 — where all participants were North American atheists — the authors tell us “Most participants had at least some college education (96%)” (p. 79). Study 3, which looked at Finnish atheists, boasts higher education rates: “All participants were native Finnish speakers and had at least some college education” (p. 81).

      I think we can reasonably assume that many had scientific backgrounds and still made the error.

      This study looked at atheists abilities to make split second decisions looking at photographs of natural phenomena. Per the methods on p. 74, participants were to decide whether ANY agent — divine or human — played a role in something. It’s a little more complicated than asking if god designed an elephant.

  2. mtiffany8523 says:

    I would like to hear more about what was in the pictures.

    • Rayan Zehn says:

      For example, in test 1, Control trials were conducted with images such as “balloon, cello, scissors” (yes answers) and geometrical shapes (no answers), which came with the following instructions ‘‘When you see a geometrical shape, always press NO.’’ This protected the study from people trying to skew the results. For example, a participant who answered yes or no to all questions was eliminated. For the test trials, “40 photographs of living and non- living natural phenomena (e.g. giraffe, maple tree, tiger’s paw, mountain, stalagmite, hurricane). All pictures of liv- ing things depicted adult or full-grown organisms.” See page 74. This method comes from

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