Agent detection bias

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Agent detection bias, also known as illusory agency detection, hypertrophy of social cognition or the hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), is the tendency to falsely believe that phenomena are explainable in terms of a conscious agent. Stewart Guthrie, Justin Barrett and others have argued that this bias explains the prevalence of religious belief. [1] This tendency may have evolutionary origins because the consequences of ignoring a threat is far greater than the consequences of believing in a non-existent threat. This mental process may misfire and lead people to believe in invisible divine agents.

"Like the layers of geological strata that go deep down into the earth beneath our feet, the beliefs and superstitions accumulated by humanity from its earliest infancy remain buried in all our minds [...] The single most significant of those early geological layers of the mind is the belief that everything is animate - that is, is in some sense an agent, an actor"

A. C. Grayling [2]
"Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University, was the first modern scholar to notice the importance of this tendency as an explanation for religious thought. In his book Faces in the Clouds, Guthrie presents anecdotes and experiments showing that people attribute human characteristics to a striking range of real-world entities, including bicycles, bottles, clouds, fire, leaves, rain, volcanoes, and wind. We are hypersensitive to signs of agency—so much so that we see intention where only artifice or accident exists. As Guthrie puts it, the clothes have no emperor. [3]"

Willard and Norenzayan found a no relationship between a greater tendency for anthropomorphism and religiosity. [4] They suggest that their main Christian sample is an example of a God with powers beyond human capabilities. They found weak evidence that Christianity actually inhibits anthropomorphism.

"[The findings are] less surprising when one considers that the religious conviction of most of our sample is Christian or living in a majority-Christian culture. In Christianity, and in Abrahamic religions in general, God is anthropomorphized in the important sense that God has human-like mental characteristics. God does not fit into the template of animism in the Christian tradition; he is super-human, not human-like. [4]"

Studies have found a positive relationship between anthropomorphism and paranormal belief. [5] [4]


  1. [1]
  2. A. C. Grayling, The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times, 2015
  3. [2]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Aiyana K. Willard, Ara Norenzayan, Cognitive biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in life’s purpose, Cognition, Volume 129, Issue 2, November 2013, Pages 379–391
  5. van Elk M., Paranormal believers are more prone to illusory agency detection than skeptics, Conscious Cogn. 2013 Sep;22(3):1041-6. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2013.07.004. Epub 2013 Aug 9.

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