This week’s studies: Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts and Modes of Religiosity

 book open pages library books knowledge reading, by ksheltonTo keep myself accountable, I’m posting my weekly readings.  The deal is: at least one study or chapter a day, no excuses.

This will also double as a nice record of book and article references, and a trail for those interested in the topics of Evolutionary Religious Studies, Cognitive Science of Religion, and Culture and Cognition.

This week’s studies


M. A. Upal (2007) What is More Memorable Counterintuitive Concepts Interpreted Metaphorically or Literally?, in Proceedings of the 29th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, pages 1581-1586, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

– Unfortunately, this is a terrible study terribly written.  It gives only the barest description of the experiments, with almost no methodological precautions at all, and mixes up the labels “literal” and “metaphorical” at least once (on Study 1) or possibly throughout the whole article (if Study 1 is actually correct and Study 2 is mistakenly labeled).  It also seems to confuse domain-level counterintuitiveness based on evolved cognition with cultural counterintuitiveness based on learning.  On all accounts, this article gets an F.


Whitehouse, H.  (2009).  “Graeco-Roman Religions and the Cognitive Science of Religion.”  In: Martin, H. L. and Panayotis, P., eds., Imagistic Traditions in the Graeco-Roman World: A Cognitive Modeling of History of Religious Research: Acts of the Panel held during the XIX Congress of the International Association of History of Religions, Tokyo, Japan, March 2005, Thessaloniki: Vanias Editions.

– Whitehouse introduces the volume with a discussion emphasizing two main points: 1) the variation in religion can only be explained against a backdrop of universality in relation, to which end he connect his modes of religiosity theory with other cognitive theories such as that of counterintuitive concepts; and 2) Greco-Religion seems an anomaly insofar as it never developed a widely-shared doctrine.  The latter anomaly is not very clearly articulated or resolved.  Personally, I remain quite skeptical of Whitehouse’s imagistic/doctrinal ritual concepts, as a binary scheme seems far too course-grained and there seems too much room for bias in attributing a ritual as either one or the other.  Furthermore, Whitehouse is not at all reticent to classify a whole religion as either “doctrinal” or “imagistic”, even though these concepts supposedly apply to rituals, and nearly all religions employ some measure of both.


Gragg, D. L.  (2004).  “Old and New Roman Religion: A Cognitive Account.”  In: Whitehouse, H. and Martin, L. H., eds., Theorizing Religions Past: Archaeology, History, and Cognition, Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

– Finds Roman religion doesn’t fit into either the doctrinal or imagistic modes.  Emphasizes the durability and stability of traditional Roman religion, simultaneous with the attraction to imagistic mystery cults that attracted some but not all Romans.


Atkinson, Q. D., and Whitehouse, H.  (2011).  “The Cultural Morphospace of Ritual Form: Examining Modes of Religiosity Cross-culturally.”  Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, pp. 50–62.

– Uses a huge database to sample 654 rituals from diverse cultures across the world, in order to test the modes of religiosity theory.  The results come out in the predicted direction, with low-frequency rituals correlating with high arousal levels and high-frequency with low-arousal.  But comparison of euphoric and dysphoric arousal levels throws a monkey wrench in the works.  Only dysphoric arousal correlates (negatively) with frequency.  Euphoric arousal levels remain fairly similar across ritual functions, including doctrinal rituals.  Strangely, Whitehouse doesn’t see this as a problem, but just assumes dysphoric rituals are the thing to focus on.  On the contrary, I would argue the results could be explained much more simply by appealing to the nature of dysphoric rituals: you simply can’t have high-frequency dysphoric rituals – the body and mind can’t bear it.  It seems to me that the whole theory needs to be rethought now that euphoric arousal level has been shown irrelevant to imagistic/doctrinal modes.


Upal, M. A.  (2005).  “Role of Context in Memorability of Intuitive and Counterintuitive Concepts.”  In: Proceedings of the 27th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (2005), pp. 2224-2229
– A frustrating study.  An intriguing idea, but I can’t see how the numbers come out the way Upal says they do.  He says results are significant and robust, but it looks to me like most results are either p = greater than .05 or else they are just barely significant.  Further, there is no indication here that Upal appreciates the fact that the counterintuitiveness theorized by Boyer and Barrett refers to domain-level counterintuitiveness based on evolved cognitive architecture.  Instead, Upal seems to interpret it as counterintuitiveness based on prior cultural expectations.


Mithen, S.  (2010)  “The domestication of water: water management in the ancient world and its prehistoric origins in the Jordan Valley.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 368 (1931). pp. 5249-5274.
– argues that it was domestication of water, not agriculture, that led to urban civilization, because earlier agricultural efforts without water domestication proved unsustainable.


Hirschfeld, L. A.  “The acquisition of social categories based on domain-specific competence or on knowledge transfer.”  In: Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A., eds.  Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and CultureCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

– While this article looked promising, effectively asking whether perceptions of race are intuitive or learned, there was very little in it I proved able to understand.  I’ll have to come back to it again at some later date when my background knowledge is more filled in.


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