Hyper Agency Detection (HAD) as Building Block of Religious Cognition – A Humorous Introduction

13 November 2013 by Michael Blume, posted in Arts & Symbols, Evolutionary Studies

Among the many things Charles Darwin got right about evolution, his definitions and theses concerning the evolution of religious beliefs and behaviors deserve special attention. For example, the learned theologian observed his dog growling at moving objects, assuming possible "agency" as a possible building block of early religious cognition.

Contemporary psychologists agree. There is a overdetection of agency, frequently called Hyper-Agency Detection (HAD) in animal and human cognition. And this is not very surprising from an evolutionary perspective: It is far better for survival and reproduction to repeatedly assume agency when there is none as to assume there is none when there is. In terms of evolutionary theory, agency is more "relevant" to detect.

A great one-minute cartoon from Birdbox Studio is emphasizing the very point (enjoy! :-) ):

And as our mammalian and hominid ancestors evolved in a thickly social environment, it was not enough to (hyper-)detect agency but also to form rapid assumptions about others inclinations - that is: to form intuitive TOMs (theories of mind).

If you manage not to perceive and feel anything spontaneously while looking at the next picture (which I am using regularly in lecturing and teaching), then, and only then would I concede that you did not inherit any cognitions as a "homo religiosus". :-)

4 Responses to “Hyper Agency Detection (HAD) as Building Block of Religious Cognition – A Humorous Introduction”

  1. J. A. LeFevre Reply | Permalink

    While I agree with your observations in this post I suggest the whole fuss about HAD and religion is just silly. This revolves around D. S. Wilson’s discussions of proximate vs. ultimate causes. I believe there are three genes in humans that independently control skin pigmentation. They serve as proximate causes for dark or shades of skin color. The ultimate cause is the destructive power of sunlight on skin. Without sufficient pigment, humans with insufficient clothing in equatorial latitudes are less likely to reproduce or even survive. Humans with HAD have been around for millions of years, gods do not appear to have been introduced/worshiped until about 9,000 to 15,000 years ago. The ultimate cause for gods being the larger human communities made possible, in part, by the Neolithic revolution joined with organized religion. If not for HAD, an alternate proximate cause for gods would have been utilized, just as different individuals rely on different genes for skin pigmentation.

  2. Michael Blume Reply | Permalink


    I think the problem is that you seem to link HAD to the recent rise of "Gods". In fact, that's not what evolutionary studies of religion are saying. As far back as to Darwin himself, evolutionists pointed out that the first superempirical agents believed to exist and to observe probably have been "simple" spirits and ghosts, probably of deceased ancestors (and God is called a "Father" to this day!). Respective archaeological indicators of burials and ancestor worship point to at least 100.000 years of development, maybe much more. The emergence of more abstract god-concepts started with these evolved cognitions and traditions only after the sharp increase of population density.
    Although I do appreciate D.S. Wilsons contributions, empirical psychology has proceeded for a long time, with Ara Norenzayan's "Big Gods" (2013) forming the current benchmark of debate.

    I think you would enjoy the read and would be interested to hear your opinion about it!

  3. J. Alan Le Fevre Reply | Permalink

    There is no ‘problem’, just a different focus. We are all (from Dr. Charles D. on down) linking HAD to all manner of superempirical agents (even among dogs!). My focus on gods was for convenience of discussion as they are the more obvious and significant outgrowth of this process. As I have stated many times on your blogs, the ‘current benchmark of debate’ is, in my opinion, focused on the trivial. It makes no difference, I suggest, where God or gods ‘come from’, It maters what we do with them. Again, while I agree with most of Ara Norenzayan’s points, I think he is missing the more foundational phenomenon that makes religion fundamental to human community. He has a lot of supporting points, but he is still missing the big picture. I will expand this thought as a comment to your article at the link provided. And thanks for the blog – I really enjoy it!

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