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Imaginary Presidents and Imaginary Gods: The Real “Empty Chair Effect”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you were to have told me just last week that one of my psychology experiments would soon be brought to life on stage by none other than Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention, all to the fêted laughter and applause of tens of millions of people who, in the true spirit of literalism for which so many of them are accustomed to thinking, would fail to see the irony of their own rapturous enjoyment of the scene before them, I’d have thought you were insane. But there it was, the old bleary-eyed star having a feverish, bizarre conversation with an empty chair beside him, a chair in which throngs of delighted viewers—viewers who happen to know a thing or two about having feverish, bizarre conversations with imaginary authority figures—were playfully led to believe sat the invisible president of our country.

The connection may not be immediately apparent to those uninitiated into my research area of the cognitive science of religion, but take my hand and allow me to walk you through this theoretical briar patch.

In an article titled “Princess Alice is Watching You: Children’s Belief in an Invisible Person Inhibits Cheating,” published last year in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, I, along with my former PhD students, Jared Piazza and Gordon Ingram, used the invisible-person-in-chair scenario to test a simple but important hypothesis: When no other actual person is around, and when we’re tempted to do something we know we shouldn’t, the illusion of a supernatural watcher should meaningfully influence our behavioral decision-making. The key to our experiment was creating a fun but competitive game in which, on the one hand, children were explicitly told that cheating was not allowed. On the other hand, however, they would find cheating very appealing if they thought they could get away with it. In other words, we created a laboratory condition that, at least in a very general sense, reflected the temptations that both children and adults face every day.

There was also an empty chair in the room, facing the child. I’ll get to that soon.

We tested 68 kids between the ages of 5 to 9 for this particular study. The basic rules of the game—a target board using Velcro balls—were straightforward enough for even the youngest children. After being told that the goal was to get the bull’s-eye and that lesser points were awarded for throws that connected to the board further away from the center, each child was given three additional rules. First, they had to throw the balls with their back to the target (looking over one’s shoulder was permitted, however). Second, they had to throw the balls using only their non-dominant hand (a wristband was placed on their right or left wrist as a reminder of which hand they could use). Finally, they had to stand at a distance of approximately 6 feet from the target. This line was marked clearly with tape on the floor and children were instructed not to cross it.

In essence, then, we created a nearly impossible task. But that didn’t dilute the children’s efforts. Only after each child displayed six successive throws without breaking any of these rules (indicating their comprehension) did we proceed. Each child was also told that they were competing against other kids, and that whoever got the highest score would win a special prize. A bit cruel, yes, but we had to create an incentive—and all children in the end got a decent consolation prize.

These foregoing rules, the basic setup, were the same for every child. But here’s the trick: each child had also been randomly assigned to one of three different conditions. For those who’d been assigned to the “no supervision” condition, the experimenter feigned having to do something and left the child alone in the room to play the game on his or her own, saying that the points would be added up when he returned. For those who’d been randomly assigned to the “adult supervision” condition, by contrast, the experimenter again left the room for the child to play on his or her own, but a second adult, friendly enough but neutral, sat in the chair and watched the child play the game without interacting. Finally, those children who’d been randomly assigned to the “invisible agent” condition were introduced to “Princess Alice.” They were told that Princess Alice was a “friendly magical princess … that could make herself invisible … and is in the room with us right now and is sitting in that chair.” Before exiting the room, the experimenter reminded this group of children that they wouldn’t be alone, but rather Princess Alice was there too and would keep them company. So in other words, this last condition was physically the exact same as the “no supervision” condition (alone in the room with an empty chair), but it included a psychological manipulation: children in this condition were told about a supernatural presence occupying the chair.

In reality, the experimenter simply went to an adjacent observation room. There, together with the child’s (usually giggling) mother or father, he recorded the child’s behavior through a hidden camera for a period of three minutes before returning.

Although we examined a host of other factors as well (including age, gender, and individual differences in children’s temperament), the most important question for us, of course, was the extent to which children would be more or less likely to cheat as the result of their being randomly assigned to one of these three different room conditions. Remember, we stacked the deck methodologically so that it was possible for any given child to cheat in one of three ways: facing the target when throwing the ball, using their dominant hand, or crossing the line to get a closer range. Any of these violations, let alone all three, would put someone at an unfair advantage over those who obediently followed the rules of the game. Every child knew this going in.

So what did we find? Just as we expected, basically, and probably what you’d have as well. Those children who were randomly assigned to the “no supervision” condition were the most likely of the bunch to cheat when the experimenter exited the room. Nearly half of these kids, in fact, were so brazen in their transgressions that they simply walked right up to the wall and manually placed the ball on the target (usually just shy of the bulls-eye to cleverly simulate some relative degree of marginal error), thereby breaking all three rules at once! Those in the “invisible agent” condition, by contrast, were just as well-behaved when they thought Princess Alice was in the room as were those kids being watched by an actual, flesh and blood person sitting in the chair before them and supervising their behavior.

But there’s an important caveat, too. This rather astonishing Princess Alice effect only panned out statistically for those children who said that they believed that she was real. The more sceptical children in the “invisible agent” condition, by contrast, were just as likely to cheat when left alone as those in the “no supervision” condition. Yet even those who adamantly denied that Princess Alice was real during their initial introduction to her, when left alone in the room, seemed to display some curious signs of ambivalence about her. In fact, for those kids in the “invisible agent” condition that did cheat, the majority only did so after “disconfirming” her non-existence by running their hand across the chair. Some even “Eastwooded” her by speaking to her.

We’re all susceptible to tales of the supernatural, in other words, but genuine belief matters. For those who truly believed in this laboratory concocted spiritual entity, she was real enough in their minds, anyway, to affect their behavior in an empirically demonstrable way. As I’ve been arguing for the past several years now, from an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever if the belief itself is true or patently delusional. Natural selection isn’t a mind reader and isn’t concerned about ontological reality; rather, evolution operates on the organism’s behavioral output, and if that behavioral output consistently leads to reproductive success, then the mental processes responsible for it are going to undergo selective pressure. If our ancestors thought that they were alone and/or could get away with something, but in fact were underestimating other people’s finding out, then the illusion of a concerned “invisible agent” would have helped them to inhibit selfish, impulsive decisions that could have seriously compromised their reputations, and hence their genetic interests.

Sure, Princess Alice probably wasn’t haunting the African savannas in which our ancient relatives were having their neural systems pruned by evolutionary forces tens of thousands of years ago, but there were almost certainly other fabricated creatures just like her (e.g., the spirits of dead loved ones, supernatural deities). And incidentally, we found the same general effect in a separate study with adult participants several years earlier (Study 3). College students who were told that a ghost had recently been spotted in an empty chair in the corner of a room were less likely to cheat than other subjects at a competitive task when left alone.

Just as we implanted the thought of Princess Alice in the minds of young children in our lab, so too has the idea of every single god or spirit been transmitted from adult to child in the past. The difference, of course, is that whereas we took great care to debrief the children in our study by telling them that Princess Alice was only make-believe and part of our silly little experiment, children in the past were never debriefed about the fictitious gods that they grew up with. The original fabulists died off without telling them that it was all made up. So when these children became adults and communicated the very same stories to their own children, they did so with all the potent conviction of true believers. (For more on this, see psychologist Paul Harris’s excellent new book, Trusting What You’re Told.) Fast forward eons and gloss over infinite complexity and conceptual nuance, but the result is all the same: Today the earth brims with the descendants of those children who were never disabused of such false information.

The children in our study who believed ardently that Princess Alice sat watching them throw Velcro balls against a wall bring us back full circle to Clint Eastwood’s performance at the GOP convention last Thursday. The actor stood before an audience buzzing with religious brains just as equally convinced that Jesus knows (and cares) what they do in secret and will reward them, not with stickers and stuffed animals, but with an eternity in heaven for following his rules. And they laughed hysterically at a man having a conversation with an invisible person sitting in a chair.

The fact that Clint Eastwood’s empty wooden chair at the RNC held the missing Commander-in-Chief is poetical to me in another way as well. Much like the God of biblical lore, but without omniscient supernatural abilities, the President represents the ultimate “Big Brother” in social regulatory terms, with a panoptical view into our private lives. Here’s what I wrote in The Belief Instinct:

The philosopher Voltaire famously said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” That was sound logic at the time. But remember, Voltaire wrote this in 1768 during the French Enlightenment. Things have changed since then, to say the least. With today’s social-tracking technology (Social Security numbers, the Internet, hidden cameras, caller ID, fingerprints, voice recognition software, “lie detectors,” facial expression, DNA and handwriting analysis, to name just a few particularly effective behavior-regulating devices presently in place in the modern world), Voltaire’s declaration doesn’t really pertain anymore—at least, not for large-scale, developed nations. Who needs Voltaire’s “eye in the sky” when today we’ve got millions of virtual superhuman eyes trained on us from every possible angle, lodged discreetly in every pore of our lives? Human [brain] evolution hasn’t quite caught up with human technology, however, and the adaptive illusion of God is likely to survive so long as … our species’ cognitive blueprint [remains].

In any event, RNC shenanigans aside, I do take some comfort in knowing that another famous actor, Morgan Freeman, the very voice of God, in fact, has a lucid understanding of what goes on inside of human minds when contemplating invisible people in chairs. Click below to watch a re-enactment of the Princess Alice study, from the latest episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.

Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit or add him on Facebook ( Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. julianpenrod 6:18 pm 09/4/2012

    This may be removed because it dares to criticize a “scientist”, but why not just ask the kids if they know what “pecuniary” means and, on the basis of that, “conclude” that nobody know what it means? Or take the fact that no one there will have a record of ever meeting George Washington to “conclude” that he cannot have existed?
    Another contrived “experiment” designed and “interpreted” to “disprove” that God exists.
    The kids didn’t know that Princess Alice didn’t exist, but it kept them in check. “Therefore” all religion is false and there is no God, it’s just a way to keep people in line.

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  2. 2. EyesWideOpen 7:49 pm 09/4/2012

    Did you take into account the kids that believed Princess Alice did exist but that being invisible, she was impotent to do anything to stop them from cheating? What about the little girls that might have imagined Princess Alice smiled and gave them a knowing wink as if to convey, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell, they’ll never know you cheated”?

    The same holds true with God. Aside from the possibility that Adolph Hitler believed in God, and believed God chose him to “cleanse” the human genome of “aberrant defects” (which he defined as humans lacking blonde hair and blue eyes, blacks, Jewish, homosexuals, and a host of others), the worst crimes in human history have been committed by those who truly have god delusions. Then there is the entire spectrum of that pathology that falls outside the conventional rubric of classified psychological pathologies.

    The old cliche “honor among thieves” comes to mind when devout religious people embezzle from the mob, believing there is no honor in not stealing from crooks (provided they can pull it off without getting fitted with “concrete shoes” and dropped off a boat at night). The variant of this belief is believing that authority figures are “watching you” (i.e. through high tech surveillance) and staging behavior they want to see. Many corporate executives know it doesn’t matter if they are caught with their hand in the cookie jar if disclosure and prosecution would embarass wealthy board members, and they enjoy the adrenalin rush of seeing how much they can take before getting shown the exit. If their thievery made them rich in the process, they’ll gladly exit the executive suite when the gig is up, and head on over to the country club golf course.

    Madoff and other Wall Street criminals are the tip of the iceberg, and many believe God is laughing at the corrupt wealthy investors from whom they steal. You can’t compartmentalize an empty chair into a neat atheist argument, Mr. Bering, but I applaud the structure of your argument nonetheless.

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  3. 3. TTLG 7:50 pm 09/4/2012

    julianpenrod: if you looked back here (which I doubt) you would have noticed that your comment was not deleted. If you looked at the comments to other articles (which I also doubt), you would have seen many other (undeleted!) comments criticizing scientists and Scientific American. Nevertheless, I am sure you will continue to believe in the evil SA editor who deletes unfavorable comments.

    Possibly because that is what you would do with comments that disagree with your point of view? But not everyone is like you, are they?

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  4. 4. julianpenrod 9:48 pm 09/4/2012

    EyesWideOpen trundles the old idea of the worst sins to mankind were caused by religion. Most wars, from the Hundred Years War to the Thirty Years War to the Boer War to the Revolutionary War to the English Civil War to the American Civil War to the Spanish American, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf were all for big money and big business, since those were the only ones who profited from any of them.
    And the idea of Princess Alice being unable to stop them from cheating had nothing to do with whether she would report them afterward. And, if someone who disagreed with the entire premise and “conclusion” of the “study” introduced something as obtuse as Princess Alice giving them a wink and saying they could cheat all they want would be accused, by “science” devotees, of introducing an outlandishly improbably element to the discussion.
    And anyone who tries to tell you that Bernie Madoff saw himself as some kind of “underdog” finally giving “corrupt wealthy investors” their comeuppance cannot be trusted in the slightest! Many of his pigeons were described as, at best, moderate investors. If he really wanted to mete out some kind of justice, he wouldn’t have accepted their money! And, if he didn’t care, then he was the same greedy moneybags EyesWideOpen tries to say he enjoyed fleecing!
    And note TLLG trying to treat me as unreasonable because I recognize the likelihood many items will be removed. TLLG attacks me for believing in “the evil SA editor who deletes unfavorable comments”, yet TLLG admits they see only “many” undeleted comments! This may cause this to be removed, but TLLG could look to Bore Zivkovic’s warning that one of his jobs is to “protect his bloggers” from comments going on “useless tangents”. Unless Bora Zivkovic can prove he wrote the Book Of All, he cannot definitively say that any tack necessarily is “useless”! But, because I said that eye motions can’t be discounted in discerning lies simply because “that’s what they used to do and everyone back then was an idiot”, Bora Zivkovic issued me one of three strikes that would have me banned from placing comments on Scientific American. Bora Zivkovic didn’t prove my statements were wrong or illegitimate, Bora Zivkovic warned only because he didn’t like what I said.
    And note the patently unreasonable “logic” TLLG uses to cxondemn me. TLLG says they saw “many” comments undeleted, but how does TLLG know that that’s not just a fraction of many, many, many that were deleted?

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  5. 5. Percival 12:27 am 09/5/2012

    Julianpenrod, do you define “profit” solely in materialistic terms? It strikes me that the current strife in the Middle East is not about financial profit, certainly at least from the perspective of certain Islamic fundamentalist nations (and sub-national groups). The only “profit” they claim to seek is the replacement of all other religious systems with Islam. Recall how often they “trundle out” the Crusades as justification for their efforts. Please don’t claim that you believe wars are never fought over competing belief systems or ideologies; history clearly records otherwise. Are there financial components to wars? Of course there are, war is a very expensive enterprise, but control of resources is much more cheaply managed in financial “battlefields” like stock markets.

    Princess Alice’s propensity for collaboration with cheaters in not reporting them, thus avoiding the negative consequence of not getting the prize, is not only unlikely given the stereotypical positive moral and ethical qualities of princesses but is actually irrelevant; what affected the children who believed in her was gaining *her* approval or disapproval as nowhere is it said the kids were told that Alice would report infractions to the experimenter.

    The article is not about dissent being stifled; it’s about believing in things for which no evidence can be presented whether they be invisible Presidents, Princesses, or deities. I happen to disagree with the article’s premise; Eastwood’s audience is described as more or less homogenous in its belief in invisible beings, and that belief is implied to be cognitively dissonant with their knowledge that the empty chair does *not* contain the President, indicating the author’s presumption of defective mental processes in the audience’s minds. I don’t quite see the connection between the cited experiments and Eastwood’s performance; am I to conclude that the entity in the chair is presented as the moral and ethical opposite of Princess Alice?

    I am somewhat disheartened with the author’s age- and appearance-related bigotries evident in his description of Eastwood as old and bleary-eyed (the man is past eighty so I guess “old” is fair, but bleary-eyed?), and his description of Eastwood’s performance as feverish and bizarre. Perhaps the author expected a carefully rehearsed Dirty Harry script rather than the actual Clint Eastwood speaking extemporaneously? Maybe a teleprompter would have helped…

    Julianpenrod, you profess to believe that posts have been deleted, but there’s obviously no way to obtain evidence supporting that belief. Do you not see why others here have difficulty with that concept? If not, why do you bother posting in, or reading, the *Scientific* American websites?

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  6. 6. julianpenrod 1:16 am 09/5/2012

    If wars were fought only over beliefs, there would be everything from constant back alley assaults to house burnings to tribal exterminations to warfare. Business projects tend to be timed and run out when their goal is achieved and coinditions change or loss starts to accumulate beyond a limit. That is how wars act. Percival can claim that wars are started by religion, but that is as illegitimate as TTLG “concluding” that most comments placed by me were not removed, never having seen all the others! Where is Percival’s “proof” that big money figures didn’t instigate the wars, even those “about religion”? Hitler is depicted earlier in a comment as being chosen by God to remove inferior races. He managed to get himself jailed, too, apparently working on his own recognizance. He was evidently inducted, possibly without his knowledge, to act as a figurehead for an unprecedentedly massive, audacious plan to use engineered political instability and war as a gigantic money making machine. Frankly, to think Hitler was necessarily ever anything other than a dupe is to ignore facts. Maybe that was depicted as having a religious bent, but it was a profit machine from the start.
    And, frankly, and this has caused comments elsewhere to be removed, it looks very much as if even Islamic leaders are part of a huge conspiracy to create a non existent “war on ‘terrorism’”. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have replied instantanoeusly when he was deliberately misinterpreted in the speech that Israel wouild remove itself from history’s pages. But he didn’t! He let it go three weeks, while the mistranslation circulated everywhere! He was under instructions from the New World Order. The entire “war on ‘terror’” may have some who believe it is religion based, but, in the end, it seems intended only to make the obscenely rich obscenely richer.
    And to say it was not at least implied that Princess Alice would report the children can be unwise in the estreme. What about the case of the children who were described as obviously monitored? Were they looking for that monitors approval or were they afraid they would be reported on? The suggestion is that being reported and losing out on the prize in the end is the threat!
    And note how desperately Percival grasps at straws to suggest that I am being unreasonable talking about comments being removed. “You profess to believe that posts have been deleted, but there’s oibviously no way to obtain evidence supporting that belief”, Percival claims. What about those websites that actually say that a comment has been removed? What about looking to the point in time where your comment was posted and finding the one posted before and one posted after, but not yours? And there are the announcements, on some websites, informing me that I am banned from placing comments there. I have been keeping a photographic record of placing comments and their absence when they are removed. Shills have challenged me before. Apparently, they will say anything to cast doubt on me, even to saying that there is no way to see that a comment has been removed.

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  7. 7. sunspot 2:16 pm 09/5/2012

    @julianpenrod. In your first post above, you said: “This may be removed because it dares to criticize a “scientist”, … Another contrived “experiment”, …”. I decided to test your theory, so I posted a slightly different criticism. Instead of calling this experiment contrived, I called it pseudoscience, and equated the author’s interpretation of his results with the confirmation bias of creation scientists. Since my post WAS removed, this little test seems to have defined certain removal criteria. When you criticize a SciAm blog post, you cannot use the same words that Michael Shermer or John Horgan use when they criticize experiments in their blogs and SciAm columns. For example, my comment equated Bering’s experiment to Sam Harris’ contrived experiments on Free Will, which Horgan freely trashed in his blog post on April 9, 2012. So this contrived test proves that the words “pseudoscience” and “confirmation bias” may be reserved for regular columnists. But then this current comment may also be removed without explanation as well. So how are commenters to know what arbitrary rules are imposed on our comments? So much for Bering’s imaginary god; there really are blog gods who watch us and they WILL arbitrarily impose punishment for infractions of their arbitrary rules!

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  8. 8. ggorelik 9:19 pm 09/5/2012

    Most interesting question is who were those “original fabulists [who] died off without [debriefing their children] that [all their fictitious gods or just one God were] made up”? Why those fabulists, or just one – the very first – fabulist, did this strange invention? Did they care about evolution? And wasn’t there some evolutionary meaning of their “delusional” inventiveness?
    History of science can give a hint. There were so many “fictitious” invisible things invented by some original scientific fabulists, e.g. apeiron, atoms, ether, gravity, … the Higgs Boson, superstrings, … . Some of these invisible things lived in science for a long while before they were rejected. Others were successfully transformed in new invisible things. And thanks to such audacious inventiveness the scientific progress was possible.
    So why don’t we trust such a human ability to invent/discover invisible things?
    Human culture is built upon such invisible and “fictitious” things like human rights, freedom, justice and so on. And without these invisible things humans would be animals, wouldn’t they?

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  9. 9. CherryBombSim 7:20 pm 09/6/2012

    It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that believing someone else when they lie to you is adaptive behavior. The kids who did not believe in Princess Alice did in fact get higher scores than the ones who did, and would have got better prizes if you had not been lying about that, too. The real evolutionary advantage here goes to the kid who is wily enough to get all the OTHER kids to believe in it, surrounding himself with law-abiding altruists. You do go on in your article to point out that people do not make up invisible watchers by themselves, they are convinced of it by someone else.

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  10. 10. sunspot 7:53 pm 09/6/2012

    I have waited for a really qualified neuroscientist, one who understands natural paranoia, (it’s not paranoia if they really are watching you.) to comment on this article, but apparently they find this study trivial. So consider that these children merely behave as if you are watching them. Are they smart kids? Then they naturally suspect that someone is always watching… and they are right! You are watching, and they know it! Unless you think that they are stupid children, and that they believe everything you tell them, in which case, either you purposely selected less intelligent kids for the experiment, or else you are incredibly naive and have little understanding of real, intelligent kids. In either case, the study really is trivial, so I don’t expect many comments from qualified neuroscientists here.

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  11. 11. blindboy 10:13 pm 09/6/2012

    So Jesse what about investigating the influence of “forgiveness” on behaviour. Consider the possibility that a religious system with a formal system of forgiveness might actually encourage bad behaviour amongst those with best access…..such as their clergy. Until then I’m with William S. Burroughs “never do business with a religious sob they’ll screw you every time.”

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  12. 12. cccampbell38 11:12 am 09/8/2012

    Why do some people believe that an “invisible Princess Alice” is actually sitting in that chair?

    Why do people believe in “superior beings” that create and operate the world?

    Two reasons: it helps to answer questions fo which we have no other answer and it provides a way for us to attempt to manipulate nature by asking such a being to intervene on our behalf.

    At some time in the development of our species our distant ancestors began to ask “why? and “how?” and, having some concept of cause and effect, began attempting to control events. The simple and logical way to do this, as there was no other way at the time, was to create mythical beings who were the manipulators who created and ran the world.

    That answered why and how. We could also implore these imaginary beings to make things go the way that we wanted. That’s the origin of religious ceremony, sacrifice, and prayer. These actions may not have worked above a random chance level but even that limited amount of positive reinforcement is more than enough to firmly implant the behavior in humans. (see Skinner

    At the time such a belief system probably helped engender cohesiveness in groups and provided an evolutionary advantage.

    This pattern of belief and behavior has lasted for what, at the very least 50,000 years? Probably a lot longer. It’s pretty well ingrained.

    Then, very recently, along comes another method of explaining how the world (and now the universe) works and for manipulating nature: science.

    Science claims to deal in “fact”; proof through observation and testing of ideas.

    Religion is based upon “belief”; no proof is required, just faith.

    These two systems have been contending with each other for about 500 years now. I tend to think that the “belief system” is still dominate in the world, certainly it seems to be extremely popular in the USA.

    And these competing ideas extend, naturally, into politics. Many of us “believe” in a given political philosophy or another because of our faith that it is correct. Others demand proof that one is superior to another.

    Somehow I doubt that,in the end, fact, logic, and reason will prevail.

    Too many of us firmly believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that Princes Alice is really sitting in that chair.

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  13. 13. marclevesque 11:06 am 09/10/2012

    We are social animals, we need to care what others, whether we see them or not, do, think, and know.

    “The findings suggest that children’s belief in a watchful invisible person tends to deter cheating.”

    Rewrite: The findings suggest that within our cultural frame work the degree to which children believe an onlooker is present tends to correlate with the degree to which they are willing to cheat while performing a virtually impossible task for a prize of their choice (a toy, a diary, or art supplies).

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  14. 14. Diogenes11 7:20 pm 09/10/2012

    An intriguing reference to the African savannah by the author.
    In any other mammalian context, including our nearest relatives the chimps, how would an adult male react to a group of vulnerable juveniles?

    Yep, eaten ‘em or had sex with ‘em. Possibly both. At the very least, physically attacked any who misbehaved in his territory.

    Perhaps Policewoman Alice is always sitting invisibly in the laboratory?

    If a researcher is hungry or horny, what restrains his mammalian instincts – an invisible authority figure, an inner voice of conscience, or some other invisible force? Rationality will not suffice, as reason tells you there is a tasty child and a nearby microwave oven…(unless you reason that the invisible authority figure is real, and will lock you up for murder!)

    This study, in which none of the subjects was raped, murdered, or even smacked for being naughty; simply shows to me how influential Princess Alice is in the author’s life, some invisible force with dire consequences for following our mammalian instincts. He probably even obtained parental consent and University ethics committee approval for his experiment – what invisible power gives one being the right to consent to human experiments on someone else? He would no doubt tell us that he obeyed the ethical constraints of his research approval, even when the ethics committee members were not present in the room.

    As for the reference to Mr Eastwood’s performance, I watched the video.
    I did not see a gunslinging cowboy or cop, I saw an actor, a jazz-loving aesthete. He was acting.
    The audience comprised “viewers who happen to know a thing or two about having feverish, bizarre conversations with imaginary authority figures” indeed. To me they looked just like those I have seen in the Lincoln Centre, watching Hamlet talk to his dead father on Elsinore’s battlements. They looked like people who would understand a man standing on a bare stage, proclaiming “This is the forest of Arden”, and know he is not deluded, hallucinating trees. People who might cry when Meryl Streep’s baby is killed by a dingo or a Nazi, but be pleased to see her on the red carpet with one of her husbands, like Tommy Lee Jones, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill, or boyfriends like Robert Redford.

    It’s hard work being a modern mammal, but perhaps Dr Bering should be grateful that we are all imbued with our own Princess Alice. Having just returned from safari in Africa, I’m glad I live with mammals whose primal urges are restrained!

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  15. 15. mggordon 5:12 pm 09/11/2012

    I had begun to despair that any reader would simply comment on the article.

    Thank you, Diogenes11, for noticing that the entire study itself operates under the same phenomenon being studied!

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

    Who is watching the watchers?

    No punishment is defined for cheating, other than to fail to obtain the reward. A “watcher” therefore knows that the cheating took place and can terminate the reward.

    MIT (I think) did an experiment that relates to this on “natural believers” versus “natural non-believers”. The natural believers believe what they are told, then as time permits, discard ideas that clearly have no value. The non-believers require proof in advance.

    The evolutionary benefits of each ought to be obvious. The natural believers are quick to learn from the discoveries and mistakes of others, but are susceptible to fraud. The natural non-believers are relatively immune to fraud but are very slow to learn and usually have to discover things for themselves.

    These readers seem to pride themselves on their skepticism, not realizing it correlates to slowness of learning as it takes a very long time for you to accept a statement and use it as a stepping-stone for the next advancement.

    In the context of religion, which this study is clearly aimed at debunking or at least explaining, I sense a certain hubris in readers and sometimes scientists committing what to me is a logical error in their inductive logic — they presume in advance the outcome they seek to prove.

    One thing ought to be made clear. The creator explains well the created thing, maybe a ceramic pot; but the ceramic pot is not equipped to explain or prove its creator to other ceramic pots. It can only conduct experiments to show that some ceramic pots believe in an invisible potter, while other ceramic pots do not, and because of it, behave in antisocial ways.

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  16. 16. mggordon 5:25 pm 09/11/2012

    A followup on my comment on natural believers:

    The experiment involves giving volunteers some made-up nonsensical words without definitions. The testing room is then disrupted such that volunteer’s attentions are divered to the disruption.

    Later, these same volunteers are shown a list of words, some that were part of the test and some that are dictionary words, and asked to identify “real words” versus made-up words.

    The non-believers (skeptics), were more correct in the result because they had not incorporated the made-up words into permanent memory. But the natural believers had been disrupted at the moment they would normally have discarded the made-up words as meaningless, which if I remember right usually takes place a few seconds after encountering it. These words thus progressed to permanent memory, although without a definition. But they were mentally marked as “real”.

    The application to this in marketing is obvious — you sell something hard and you don’t let your audience think about it for the first few minutes of the presentation. Hammer away and some of it will go into permanent storage. Don’t let a person linger on a “doubt.”

    On the other hand, natural believers (such as myself) DO spend quite a lot of time reviewing past memories and beliefs in a continuing process of casting out bad ones.

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  17. 17. mggordon 8:38 pm 09/11/2012

    Full disclosure: To me these arguments seem silly. Of course there’s a God. Exactly what that means to you is very likely different than what it means to me; but to assert that there is none is to take a leap of faith far greater than mine. I know with certainty that there is. Do please entertain me by trying to persuade otherwise.

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  18. 18. mggordon 8:55 pm 09/11/2012

    There is always a watcher: Self. Your self-esteem regulates your behavior when and if you consider self honorable and wish to continue to consider self honorable.
    My belief in God probably regulates my activity, but not by a lot.
    My belief in my friends has had a much greater impact on regulating my behavior. I suspect it is mutual; their expectation of my regard helps them regulate their behavior.
    My belief in not being caught has little power perhaps because my father was very adept at catching me. But even as a teenager I put myself on report for starting a small wildfire when it would have been easy to keep silent about it. This was before I had any connection to any God.
    In other words, I suspect with some people honor comes naturally and everything else is the consequence. It may well be that honorable children feel more free to accept Princess Alice.

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  19. 19. Falcon13 2:00 pm 09/12/2012

    I t is my belief, adopted from the original “Hamlet’s Mill, an Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time,” by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Deschend, that the “original fabulists” were our VERY ancient ancestors, simply trying to figure out how the universe’s cause and effect mechanism works, by taking clues from the “signs” in the night sky, in effect making things up for themselves ,and their children.
    Prof. de Santillana was (?) Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, at M.I.T., and I am assuming that he had a good understanding of that which he put forth.

    There is a quote, from Charles Darwin, that seems appropriate in the context of the article: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

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  20. 20. artichoke 12:53 pm 09/29/2012

    As I read the article you make two assertions:

    (1) The children in the “imaginary watcher” group behaved just as the children who had a physical adult in the room watching them.

    (2) The children who believed that the imaginary watcher was real acted more like the children who had a physical adult in the room with them, than the children who did not think that the imaginary watcher was real.

    I am confused (or the description is internally inconsistent) because I think they only way both statements could be true is for there to be no children with the “imaginary watcher” who doubted that the imaginary watcher was really there, making the second assertion trivial.

    Otherwise, assertion 1, describing all the children with the imaginary watcher, would apply to an average behavior of those children who believed the watcher really existed and those who didn’t. But by assertion 2, the children who believed the watcher was real acted like those with the physical adult in the room, and those who didn’t believe it was real acted more like they were totally unobserved. The average of those behaviors should not be the same as that of just those who believed the watcher was real.

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  21. 21. dlamblin 1:44 am 08/4/2013

    I was similarly confused as artichoke about the described behaviors as the groups and the description of the differences internal to the alice group. Can that be cleared up in comments or further updates/edits?

    Commentators that are trying to argue that this experiment is not a valid proof of there being no God seem to miss that no argument is necessary. The experiment starts with the presupposition, followed by a question it wishes to answer that I’d state as: If God(s) isn’t/aren’t real, why is there a wide-spread belief in such, wouldn’t it be harmful to be operating under a false understanding of reality? With the hypothetical being, perhaps it is actually beneficial because people believing as such have less expectation of being able to “get away with” behaviors that are tempting but have negative repercussions when they are made known, lowering risk taking that is poorly judged by individuals.

    Then there’s described an experiment that shows a belief in an invisible observer inhibits children’s behaviors that they are tempted to take but would have negative consequences (no prize for you, possibly a scolding).

    Sure, there’s some problems here were, we don’t know how true this stays with adults, but it’d be hard to experiment on adults in this way because you can’t just spend 15 minutes to convince any of them there’s an invisible observer there. It also doesn’t back up the case that individuals are better off having these temptations curbed by a false belief because they misjudge their chances of discovery, yet it partially assumes it and demonstrates that there could be a learned/evolved remedy. Finally it does not establish that a belief in God is mistaken; again that’s an assumption and it’s paralleled in the study by something that can know enough to get you in trouble but which is not real, yet a belief in it being so alters behaviors.

    After laying out all this information about the study, the frame of the post is basically saying that people who are perfectly capable of knowing that something they’re seeing isn’t real, and enjoying that fact (basically every human who listens to stories, sees movies or plays) seem to consistently fail to extend this view to consider their belief in God. I think it’s basically beside the point of both the study and the circumstances to think that questioning this presumably long held conviction would come up from seeing cases where other beliefs are clearly false. So basically, no, I don’t see the irony.

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