Religion, Evolution, and the Basis of Institutions: The Institutional Cognition Model of Religion

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DOI: 10.26613/esic.2.2.89
Few outstanding questions in the human behavioral sciences are timelier or more urgently debated than the evolutionary source of religious behaviors and beliefs. Byproduct theorists locate the origins of religion in evolved cognitive defaults and transmission biases. Others have argued that cultural evolutionary processes integrated non-adaptive cognitive byproducts into coherent networks of supernatural beliefs and ritual that encouraged in-group cooperativeness, while adaptationist models assert that the cognitive and behavioral foundations of religion have been selected for at more basic levels. Here, we survey these differing approaches, noting their respective strengths and weaknesses. We then advance a novel model that centers on the ability of language to generate alternative worlds independent of immediate empirical facts, and thus highlight the similarities between religious belief and the modes of cognition that underlie institutions in general. The institutional cognition model of religion accounts for some of the shortcomings of extant approaches and draws attention to the human ability to create non-empirical worlds; that is, worlds that are imaginary. Both religious beliefs and institutional facts—such as jurisdictional borders—are non-empirical assertions, yet they are socially accepted as truths and reified through ritual and behavior. One type of non-empirical, linguistically generated belief—supernatural agent belief—is particularly effective for stabilizing systems of arbitrary norms by rooting them in deontic rather than utilitarian reasoning. The evolutionary roots and continued persistence of religion are thus functions of the capacity for humans to generate cognitive alternatives to empirical reality, and the need to stably coordinate those alternative conceptions.
Religion, Evolution, and the Basis of Institutions: The Institutional Cognition Model of
Author(s): Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall 2018), pp. 1-20
Published by: Academic Studies Press
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Religion, Evolution, and the Basis of Institutions:
The Institutional Cognition Model of Religion
Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
Few outstanding questions in the human behavioral sciences are timelier or more urgently
debated than the evolutionary source of religious behaviors and beliefs. Byproduct theo-
rists locate the origins of religion in evolved cognitive defaults and transmission biases.
Others have argued that cultural evolutionary processes integrated non-adaptive cognitive
byproducts into coherent networks of supernatural beliefs and ritual that encouraged in-
group cooperativeness, while adaptationist models assert that the cognitive and behavioral
foundations of religion have been selected for at more basic levels. Here, we survey these
diering approaches, noting their respective strengths and weaknesses. We then advance
a novel model that centers on the ability of language to generate alternative worlds inde-
pendent of immediate empirical facts, and thus highlight the similarities between religious
belief and the modes of cognition that underlie institutions in general. e institutional
cognition model of religion accounts for some of the shortcomings of extant approaches
and draws attention to the human ability to create non-empirical worlds; that is, worlds
that are imaginary. Both religious beliefs and institutional facts—such as jurisdictional
borders—are non-empirical assertions, yet they are socially accepted as truths and rei-
ed through ritual and behavior. One type of non-empirical, linguistically generated be-
lief—supernatural agent belief—is particularly eective for stabilizing systems of arbitrary
norms by rooting them in deontic rather than utilitarian reasoning. e evolutionary roots
and continued persistence of religion are thus functions of the capacity for humans to
generate cognitive alternatives to empirical reality, and the need to stably coordinate those
alternative conceptions.
Keywords: religion, evolution, cognition, transcendental social, institutional facts, byproduct theories,
cultural evolution, supernatural beliefs, norms
ESIC 2018 DOI: 10.26613/esic/2.2.89
Religions are among the most complex, most
consequential, and least understood of all human
social phenomena. From the smallest ancestor
cults to the largest world traditions, religions
motivate powerful attachments and group alle-
giances (Ginges and Hansen 2010), shape affec-
tive commitments (Sibley and Bulbulia 2014),
and have consistently influenced the course of
human history (Bellah 2011). Religious beliefs
soothe individual fears and anxieties (Vail et al.
2010) and motivate obedience to norms (Shariff
et al. 2016), religious rituals forge social bonds
(Mogan, Fischer, and Bulbulia 2017) and sig-
nify commitments to parochial obligations
(Rappaport 1999; Sosis and Bressler 2003),
while religious identity often drives intractable
conflicts (Atran and Ginges 2012; Gómez et al.
2017) and anchors ethnic loyalties (Berns et al.
2012). Yet although religion is critically tied to
the most fundamental human social dynamics,
and despite centuries of theoretical speculation
(e.g., Hume [1779] 2007; Nietzsche [1887]
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Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
2 Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
1998; Durkheim [1912] 2008), much about
the nature of religion—including its evolution-
ary origins—remains unresolved.
Over the past 30 years, a growing research
community in the cognitive, behavioral, and
evolutionary sciences has begun to address the
origins and functions of religion as a universal
human phenomenon—one that varies radi-
cally in expression from culture to culture, but
which yet retains similar core features worthy
of, and amenable to, systematic examination
(McNamara, Sosis, and Wildman 2011). The
overall explanatory framework for these devel-
oping research programs in the sciences is an
evolutionary one, rooted in the neo-Darwinian
synthesis. Though these researchers all share a
commitment to using evolutionary insights
to explain the emergence and general features
of religion, this has not been a unified effort.
Instead, there have been three relatively distinct
evolutionary approaches to religion, each with
different assumptions, foci, and methodological
preferences (Sosis and Bulbulia 2011; Shaver
et al. 2016).
The earliest evolutionary approaches to
religion were those that treated supernatural
beliefs as emerging from cognitive modules
that solved adaptive problems in ancestral
human environments. Importantly, although
originally emerging as functional solutions to
pressing social and environmental issues, the
cognitive modules responsible for religion did
not emerge from selection for religion. Instead,
theorists in this camp contend that religion
naturally emerged as a cognitive byproduct of
the human mind. Another group of theorists
began with this byproduct approach to religion,
but extended this model to contend that some
religious beliefs that emerged over the course
of human evolution were more effective at
promoting cooperation than others, and that
those religions that more effectively cultivated
cooperative affordances came to dominate the
contemporary religious landscape. In other
words, some religions, through processes of
cultural evolutionary group selection, spread
at the expense of other, less successful religions.
Finally, a third, albeit smaller, group of scholars,
focused more on ritual than on belief, hypothe-
sized that the core features of religions—in and
of themselves—may be biologically adaptive,
insofar as they provide reliable mechanisms for
the communication of in-group commitments.
Here we detail each of these approaches, and
their major strengths and weaknesses.
One of the most consequential and long-
standing debates within the evolutionary sci-
ences of religion pits adaptationist models
against byproduct models for the evolution
of religious capacities. This debate has often
proved unproductive, however, and as a result
several thinkers have recently called for a move
beyond simplistic adaptationist-versus -byproduct
discourse (Purzycki et al. 2014; Shaver et al.
2016; Sterelny 2017). Thus, after our initial
review, we describe a model for the evolution-
ary origins of religious phenomena that extends
current theories by accounting for the social
and apparently functional aspects of religions,
as well as for beliefs in supernatural agents (e.g.,
gods and spirits) as expected individual-level
ancillaries to the social and cognitive processes
that produce human institutions. In particular,
these processes center on the ability to maintain
different mental representations at the same
time (Taves 2015) and to conform behavior to
representations that are socially generated rather
than empirical in nature. This model helps to
account for the cognitive underpinnings of the
complex imaginal content of religions, a topic
that evolutionary approaches to religion have
often overlooked (Bloch 2008).
As a contemporary research program, the cog-
nitive byproduct account for the evolution of
religion emerged from the work of scholars
such as Stewart Guthrie (1995) and Pascal
Boyer (2001; Boyer and Liénard 2006), among
others (Lawson and McCauley 1993; Atran
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ESIC | Vol. 2 | No. 2 | Fall 2018 3
2002; Barrett 2004; Whitehouse 2004). These
thinkers drew on theories of cognitive modular-
ity (Fodor 1983), and later the assumptions of
evolutionary psychology (Barkow et al. 1995;
see Sosis, 2017) to posit that the apparent ubiq-
uity of religious belief is due to a native “fit”
between certain innate features of the human
mind and the most successful supernatural
concepts. Guthrie’s work, itself informed by
the work of the anthropologists Robin Horton
(1967) and E. B. Tylor (1870), suggests that
religious beliefs are the result of the over-appli-
cation of innate, evolved teleological intuitions
and perceptual biases to the nonhuman world,
and the consequent imputation of person-like
traits to natural phenomena. In short, “religion
is anthropomorphism” (1995, 178). Guthrie’s
theory, like all byproduct theories, focuses on
the ways that proto-religious and supernatural
concepts spontaneously emerge from normal
human cognitive processes that evolved to solve
ancestral problems unrelated to religion.
Expanding on this line of reasoning, Justin
Barrett (2000) posited a “hyperactive agency
detection device,” or HADD, as an explana-
tion for the origins of religious beliefs. The
HADD is a cognitive module which evolved to
scan the environment for signs of agency, such
as twigs breaking in nearby woods, in order to
alert an individual to opportunity or danger.
Because fellow agents are key sources of both
danger and of aid, they are profoundly relevant
for fitness, and, as such, our brains evolved to
be hypersensitive to cues of agency. As a result,
the default calibration of the human mind pro-
duces more false positive alarms than false neg-
atives. In other words, it is better to wrongly
impute, say, an imaginary tiger in the nearby
bushes than to fail to identify a real one (e.g.,
McCauley and Lawson 2002). Equipped with
the HADD, the reasoning goes, human minds
can scarcely avoid coming up with supernatural
agent beliefs, since they are incessantly scaring
up thoughts of invisible agents. Much subse-
quent work in the cognitive science of religion
has built on Guthrie’s and Barrett’s ideas about
the cognitive naturalness and spontaneity of
supernatural agent beliefs (Atran 2002; Atran
and Henrich 2011; McCauley 2013).
By contrast, Boyer’s (1994; 2001) work
emphasizes the epidemiology of religious ideas,
or how and why they spread through, and attain
fixity within, populations. Drawing on the ‘epi-
demiology of representations’ approach of Dan
Sperber (1985; 1996), Boyer posits that some
ideas, particularly those that are “minimally
counterintuitive” (MCI) violations of folk epis-
temologies, are cognitively appealing, and thus
are more likely to spread. Similar to the work
of Guthrie and Barrett, the folk intuitions that
make some ideas more appealing than others did
not evolve to produce religious representations.
Instead, folk intuitions evolved to make adaptive
inferences about the physical and social world.
Unlike Guthrie’s and Barrett’s theories, however,
the MCI theory is not principally a theory of
the emergence of religious beliefs, but rather an
attempt to explain their remarkable diffusion and
persistence across populations as a function of the
“susceptibility” of human minds to counterintui-
tive representations.
Although they build on distinct theoreti-
cal underpinnings and have different explan-
atory aims, the HADD and MCI theories
have become conceptually integrated in much
research in the cognitive science of religion.
Broadly, this research program conjectures
that hyperactive agency detection and mini-
mal counterintuitiveness, along with cognitive
biases toward teleological thinking (Kelemen
2004), anthropomorphic thought (Barrett and
Keil 1996), and mind-body dualism (Bloom
2005) as well as theory of mind capabilities
(Premack and Woodruff 1978) all contribute
to the human tendency for religious cogni-
tion (Atran, 2002; Atran and Henrich, 2011;
Barrett and Lanman 2008). However, empirical
evidence in support of byproduct hypotheses
is often mixed and difficult to interpret (e.g.,
Purzycki and Willard 2016). Boyer and Ramble
(2001) and Barrett and Nyhof (2001) found
that research subjects were better able to recall
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Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
4 Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
content from stories that contained domain-
level intuitive violations than those that did not.
Other research has extended these findings to
real-world cultural items, finding (for instance)
that popular folktales better fit the MCI pro-
file than obscure folktales (Norenzayan et al.
2006). Yet some predictions of MCI theory
have been less well supported. For example,
MCI concepts were found to require more
processing time to understand than non-MCI
concepts, but this difference in processing time
did not account for differential recall of MCIs
(Harmon-Vukić et al. 2012). Meanwhile, the-
oretical work has not satisfactorily established
how counterintuitive concepts should be parsed
from counter- schematic concepts (concepts
that violate cultural semantic schemas that are
not rooted in evolved intuitions) (Purzycki and
Willard 2016). MCI theory, moreover, does
not adequately specify why specifically religious
or supernatural concepts should be selectively
transmitted and retained over, say, memorable
jokes or stories (Purzycki 2010; Willard 2017).
Empirical support for the HADD hypothe-
sis and its relatives also suffers from ambiguity. It
is relatively clear that cognitive biases have some
positive relationship to religious belief, but the
nature of that relationship is open to interpreta-
tion. Human minds do indeed exhibit cognitive
biases toward promiscuous teleology, intuitive
mind–body dualism, and the over-imputation
of intentional agency (Barrett 2000; Kelemen
2004; Banerjee and Bloom 2014), and studies
have found that variation in these biases pre-
dicts religious belief (Willard and Norenzayan
2013). However, one recent large study of reli-
gious believers and atheists in Eastern Europe
reported that individual-level variances in cog-
nitive biases were much less important for pre-
dicting belief in God than external cultural and
socialization factors (Willard and Cingl 2017).
Another body of empirical findings widely
cited in support of byproduct hypotheses builds
on dual-process models of cognition (e.g.,
Evans 2010; Kahneman 2013) to demonstrate
that people with more intuitive cognitive styles
are more likely to be religious, and to believe in
supernatural beings, than those with more ana-
lytic styles (Shenhav, Rand, and Greene 2012;
Pennycook et al. 2016). Theorists have cited
these findings to support the contention that
religious belief emerges naturally from intuitive
cognitive defaults and biases, and only recedes
when analytic or reflective cognition effort-
fully challenges those biases (McCauley 2013;
Willard and Norenzayan 2013). However, this
relationship may be confounded by other asso-
ciations, such as that between analytical think-
ing and individualism. Religious believers tend
to have more interest in social relationships than
atheists do (Bainbridge 2005; Caldwell-Harris
2012), and sociality and collectivism are posi-
tively correlated with holistic and non-analytical
cognition (Talhelm et al. 2014). Dual-process
findings therefore may offer only qualified sup-
port for byproduct theories of religion.
Another approach to the scientific study of
religion builds on modular byproduct theories,
but augments them using cultural evolution-
ary theory (Atran and Henrich 2011; Gervais
et al. 2011; Norenzayan et al. 2016). Cultural
evolutionary theorists generally concur with
byproduct theorists that religious beliefs and
institutions are based on cognitive hardware
whose original adaptive function was not related
to religion. Yet a cultural evolutionary approach
to religion helps, in part, to solve the “Mickey
Mouse problem.” The cartoon character Mickey
Mouse precisely matches the characteristics
expected for an intuitively appealing religious
belief under byproduct models: Mickey is an
agent with intentions, yet he violates some basic
intuitive ontological categories. But we do not
worship Mickey Mouse as a god, and indeed we
do not “believe” in him at all (Henrich 2009;
Gervais et al. 2011). Similarly, the so-called
Zeus problem” highlights the fact that many
deities match the intuitive cognitive profiles
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ESIC | Vol. 2 | No. 2 | Fall 2018 5
of successful gods, yet most people worship
only one or a few gods (Gervais and Henrich
2010). Cultural evolutionary theories address
these problems by positing that cognitive “fit”
is necessary but not sufficient for the transmis-
sion and retention of supernatural concepts,
and that context biases instead are required to
facilitate the preferential transmission of par-
ticular religious concepts over others (Henrich
2009). These postulates dovetail with certain
cognitively oriented solutions to the same prob-
lems, such as Atran’s (2002) argument that inte-
grating cognitive theories with “commitment”
theories of religion (see below) could account
for motivational factors that might discriminate
between mere fantasy or imagination and genu-
inely held religious belief.
Context biases are evolved cognitive pre-
dispositions to preferentially learn from some
people or contexts rather than others (Boyd
and Richerson 1988). For example, Henrich
and Gil-White (2001) suggested that humans
are evolutionarily predisposed to attend to
and learn from high-prestige others, such as
respected elders. Thus, religious beliefs espoused
by high-prestige exemplars should spread and
evoke more commitment than beliefs espoused
by others. In general, cognitive byproduct the-
ories of religion rely heavily on content biases
to argue that some ideas enjoy a transmission
advantage because they better fit the human
mind’s innate architecture, while cultural evo-
lutionary theories of religion assert that many
ideas and practices are transmitted primarily
because of the prestige, presumed competence,
or in-group membership of the people doing
the transmitting (Norenzayan et al. 2016). In
principle, context biases thus enable cultural
evolutionary models to take account of wide-
spread cultural variation in religious forms and
Cultural evolutionary models additionally
posit that some form of selection pressure oper-
ates on religious groups, such that those with
configurations of beliefs and practices that suc-
cessfully sustain cooperation and communal
norms in their host populations are more likely
to survive over the long term (Atran and Henrich
2011; Norenzayan et al. 2016). Over the course
of millennia, the cognitively natural byproducts
that give rise to religious concepts have thus been
yoked into service in a variety of ways to facilitate
ever-greater levels of cooperation within groups,
leading to the efflorescence of world religions
whose morally concerned, punishing deities
encourage (and enforce) prosocial norms and
in-group altruism (Norenzayan 2013; Purzycki
et al. 2016). Evidence for this hypothesis is
found in a growing body of studies that docu-
ment a positive (if not unambiguous) correlation
between the size and complexity of societies, the
presence of morally concerned, punitive deities,
and disinterested prosocial economic coopera-
tion (Johnson 2005; Botero et al. 2014; Watts et
al. 2015; Purzycki et al. 2016).
One well-known example of a selective pro-
cess postulated to have culture-level effects is
the use of ritual to influence observers’ recep-
tivity to religious claims. Ritual behaviors may
function as “credibility-enhancing displays
(CREDs), leveraging social learning and con-
text biases to increase the perceived plausibil-
ity of otherwise empirically unprovable claims
(Henrich 2009; Lanman and Buhrmester
2017). For instance, parents who pray before
meals and attend church are indicating that
they take belief in God seriously enough for that
belief to influence their behavior. The CREDs
hypothesis predicts that children of such par-
ents will be more inclined to take belief in God
seriously themselves, compared with children
whose parents, although claiming to believe, do
not perform any actions that would be expected
if those beliefs were genuine. This argument
accords with discussions within the sociology of
religion regarding the ways in which religious
traditions deploy ritual performance to sup-
port the perceived plausibility of their claims
(see, e.g., Berger 1969). In line with Henrich’s
assertion, research has found that exposure to
CREDs is a much stronger predictor of religious
beliefs than cognitive biases alone (Lanman and
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Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
6 Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
Buhrmester 2017; Maij et al. 2017; Willard and
Cingl 2017), although this effect may be driven
in particular by early-life exposure to CREDs
(Turpin, Andersen, and Lanman 2018). At the
level of groups, though, such findings may con-
ceal a tautology, since they essentially demon-
strate that cultural differences produce cultural
differences (see Bidney 1944).
Explicit group selection models (e.g., E. O.
Wilson 2013) are another, bolder, and more
controversial step beyond cultural evolutionary
models (although in actual practice the cat-
egory distinction between them is not always
sharp). David Sloan Wilson, the best-known
proponent of group selection (or “multilevel
selection”; see Sober and Wilson 1999) as an
explanation for the evolution of religion, has
argued (2002) that religion is the product of
evolutionary selection between groups, and that
religious beliefs and behaviors have gradually
developed as tools for uniting human groups
and increasing their social coherence, cooper-
ativeness, and reproductive success. Similarly,
Martin Nowak has used mathematical model-
ing to support group selection scenarios for the
evolution of cooperative institutions in human
society, including religion (Nowak and Coakley
2013). Group selection is a controversial con-
cept in evolutionary biology (Nowak, Tarnita,
and Wilson 2010; Abbot et al. 2011), and space
limitations prevent us from seriously examin-
ing the debates surrounding it here. However,
group selection models have played an import-
ant role in recent evolutionary discourse on the
origins and functions of religion (Haidt 2012),
and, as described above, cultural evolutionary
models themselves often rely heavily on group
selection dynamics (Davis 2015).
According to both byproduct and most cul-
tural evolutionary theories, religious beliefs and
behaviors are fundamentally grounded in cog-
nitive capacities that evolved under selection
pressures unrelated to religion. They are thus not
adaptations in their own right, although cultural
evolution theorists posit that they have become
enmeshed in social institutions and selection
dynamics at the cultural level. A third research
strand, however, argues that at least some reli-
gious phenomena have likely resulted from
adaptations in their own right or that, over the
course of human evolutionary history, religious
traits have stabilized into a functional complex
(D. S. Wilson 2002; Alcorta and Sosis 2005;
Bulbulia 2008; Sanderson 2008; Sosis 2009;
Purzycki and Sosis 2010). The adaptationist pro-
gram in the evolutionary study of religion largely
focuses on the benefits and costs of interpersonal
or in-group cooperation and coordination, such
as stabilizing group commitments and norms
(Irons 2001; Sosis and Bressler 2003). It may
appear odd prima facie to look for adaptation-
ist explanations for a phenomenon that seems
so manifestly wasteful—after all, the immense
amounts of time, energy, and resources humans
invest into religious institutions and ceremonies
do not directly produce food or build shelter. If
anything, then, religious behaviors would seem
to decrease fitness! But adaptationists argue that
there are good reasons, both logical and empiri-
cal, to believe that these costs are precisely what
makes religion functional.
Costly signaling theory offers one frame-
work for understanding this relationship (Irons
2001; Sosis 2005). In biology, costly signaling
theories address the problem of how commu-
nicative signals, such as signals of cooperative
intent between animals, can be trustworthy
even when there is strategic incentive for decep-
tion (Grafen 1990; Zahavi and Zahavi 1999).
Strategic “costs”—also known as “handicaps”—
are thought to make sending the signal more
difficult for lower-quality signalers, reducing
their incentive to attempt deceptive signaling
and ensuring that the signal remains generally
reliable. Importantly, in the animal world com-
municative signals often take the form of ritu-
alized behavioral patterns (Maynard Smith and
Harper 2004). In the context of religion, costly
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Religion, Evolution, and the Basis of Institutions: The Institutional Cognition Model of Religion
ESIC | Vol. 2 | No. 2 | Fall 2018 7
signaling theorists posit that cultural and reli-
gious rituals serve a similar function, by raising
the cost of belonging to the religious community
to the point that only the truly committed—
that is, those who genuinely accept the super-
natural and ethical propositions that define the
community—find it worthwhile to participate
in them (Sosis 2003). Costly religious rituals
and requirements thereby ensure a high inter-
nal level of cohesion and commitment within
religious social networks, and are able to pro-
vide benefits, such as shared resources or practi-
cal information, to their members (Iannaccone
1994). As such, costly signaling is construed
as a solution to the “free-rider problem” that
plagues many collective action efforts, by filter-
ing out potential members who might attempt
to piggyback on the community’s resources
without contributing in return.
Empirical tests of the costly signaling theory
of religion have largely produced supportive
findings. For example, in a well-known retro-
spective study of nineteenth-century American
communes, Sosis and Bressler (2003) found
that religious communes with more ritual costs
lasted significantly longer than those with fewer
costs, and religious communes of all kinds out-
lived their secular counterparts. Studies of con-
temporary denominations have corroborated
these results, finding that stricter, more costly
religious communities fare better demograph-
ically than less-strict communities (Olson and
Perl 2001; Scheitle and Fincke 2008). One
of us (Wood) has recently found that growth
among American Protestant denominations
over three decades was significantly predicted
by the prevalence of ritual practices, such as
prayer and scripture study, among congregants
(Wood et al., under review). Costly religious
signaling also correlates with relevant outcomes
at the individual level. In rural India, villagers
who participate intensively in religious rituals
are seen as more trustworthy and committed
across a variety of social domains (Power 2017).
In another well-known study, higher levels of
experienced pain subsequently predicted more
generosity among Mauritians participating
in an extreme ritual (Xygalatas et al. 2013).
Similarly, costly ritual practices in Brazilian
Candomblé are associated with higher levels of
generosity and cooperation between individuals
(Soler 2012). Yet despite apparently supportive
empirical evidence, costly signaling models of
religion suffer from some conceptual problems.
For example, signaling theorists expect that the
return on the production of signals is increased
fitness (e.g., Irons, 2001). However, fitness is
notoriously difficult to assess, since it must be
calculated over an individual’s lifetime (Laland
and Brown 2002). Moreover, it is not always
clear how best to measure costs in human cul-
tural contexts, in particular since costly sig-
naling theorists tend to rely on subjective or
perceived estimates of ritual’s costs and benefits
(Murray and Moore 2009).
While commitment costs and rituals are
important for understanding religion under
an adaptationist framework, supernatural
beliefs are also thought to be a central feature
of religions. Importantly, supernatural beliefs
motivate participation in rituals and rational-
ize social norms (Purzycki and Sosis 2010).
Indeed, communes in the nineteenth century
that lacked religious beliefs were equally likely
to fail regardless of their costliness (Sosis and
Bressler 2003). This observation offers an
important point of contact between costly sig-
naling theory and the CREDs hypothesis, since
both propose that “actions speak louder than
words,” yet entail the existence of some under-
lying commitment worth signaling or partaking
in ritual for.
Adaptationist approaches, in general, place a
greater focus on phenotypes than on the under-
lying cognitive and genetic processes that moti-
vate behavioral expressions. There are, however,
notable exceptions. For example, working
within a costly signaling framework, Bulbulia
has argued that ritual behavior ratifies beliefs in
supernatural agents which in and of themselves
cannot evolve without reliable mechanisms for
the communication of these beliefs (i.e., ritual
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Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
8 Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
behavior) (Bulbulia 2004a; 2004b). Conversely,
Johnson and Bering (2006) have argued that
the cross-cultural prevalence of a fear of super-
natural punishment is an adaptation that
enabled the inhibition of self-interested behav-
ior, and hence the avoidance of punishment by
fellow group members. In ancestral environ-
ments, in other words, those individuals who
feared supernatural punishment were better
able to cultivate the benefits of cooperation
with other group members, and so a propensity
to believe in supernatural punishment spread
throughout human populations.
Finally, others who employ an adaptation-
ist approach have focused on how religion
may support reproductive success directly. For
example, some have argued that the advertise-
ment of religious traits to potential mates com-
municates preferences for stable monogamous
pair bonds and high-fertility mating strategies
(Slone 2006; Blume 2010; Bulbulia et al. 2015;
Shaver 2017). Still others have focused on how
religion and rituals can be used by men to avoid
cuckoldry and increase paternity certainty, at
the expense of female interests (Strassmann
1992; 1996; Boster et al. 1998; Strassmann et
al. 2012). Regardless of the particular fitness
problems they address, adaptationist models
each face the key challenge of identifying the
actual phenotypes, or clusters of phenotypes,
resulting from selection pressures that consti-
tute “religion” (Powell and Clarke 2008). This
is no simple matter, however, since there is no
agreement on a definition of religion (Smith
1992; Asad 1993).
The three approaches surveyed thus far account
for many of religion’s salient features, but they
leave key questions unresolved. If belief in gods
and spirits is a spontaneous product of natural
human cognition—whether byproduct or func-
tional adaptation—why do religions so often
require their adherents to ritually demonstrate
their beliefs? That is, why are religious beliefs
so apparently dependent on, and sanctioned
by, cultural norms (Geertz 1973)? Moreover,
if unfalsifiable supernatural beliefs motivate
and stabilize ritual participation, why do those
beliefs consistently converge on supernatu-
ral agent concepts—in other words, why does
agent cognition specifically seem to recur as a
central feature of ritual, when other unfalsifi-
able claims might just as easily motivate ritual
performance and group commitments?
In our view, the fact that religious beliefs
and practices are nearly always the targets of
normative social pressure suggests that spon-
taneous mental processes may not be the first
place to look for the modular origins of reli-
gion. Rather, the cognitive processes that
undergird religious beliefs and behaviors may
be similar to those that support norms, rules,
and conventional behavior—in other words,
those that make institutions possible (Searle
1995). These processes specifically include
what Taves (2015) has called “pretense,” or the
ability to entertain distinct—even opposing—
cognitive representations simultaneously. For
example, the scenery does not change when we
drive across Massachusetts into Vermont, yet
we “know” they are different states. Likewise,
a believer may mentally represent a spiritual
presence during prayer, although her physi-
cal surroundings do not change (Schjødt et
al. 2009). In other words, religious beliefs
are examples of what philosopher John Searle
(1995) calls “institutional facts”—propositions
that people treat as true, but which derive from
shared social agreements. Institutional facts are
contrasted with “brute facts,” which do not
depend on shared human agreements (such as
the existence of clouds or rocks, which would
exist whether or not humans were around to
observe them).
Importantly, institutional facts such as invis-
ible states or invisible spirits are deeply shaped
by cultural authorities, which instruct people
in the “correct” way to imagine them, and are
thus inherently normative. This observation
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Religion, Evolution, and the Basis of Institutions: The Institutional Cognition Model of Religion
ESIC | Vol. 2 | No. 2 | Fall 2018 9
parallels Van Leeuwen’s (2014) insight that
religious beliefs are cognitively different from
other types of belief in that they are suscepti-
ble to special authority, govern behavior only in
limited domains, and constitute social identity,
among other features. The belief that gravity
pulls objects toward the earth, for example,
could not be constitutive of any social iden-
tity, because it holds true everywhere across the
planet; only unfalsifiable or difficult-to-verify
beliefs are capable of serving as group iden-
tity markers (Simler and Hanson 2017). Such
arguments correspond with Horton’s (1967)
observation that traditional religious beliefs are
remarkably insulated from counter-evidence,
despite resting on the same cognitive founda-
tions as other beliefs. However, the construal of
religious beliefs as “cognitive pretense” diverges
from evolutionary byproduct accounts pre-
cisely in locating the primary origin of religious
beliefs not in immediate, first-order perceptions
or biased intuitions, but rather in second-order
representations that are overlaid on top of per-
ceptual data.
The supposition that religious beliefs
emerge from the same cognitive processes that
generate institutional facts helps make sense
of the well-documented association between
religiousness and cultural conservatism, since
conservatism emphasizes adherence to norms
and obedience to cultural authority (McClosky
1958; Unger 2007; Haidt 2012; Sibley and
Bulbulia 2014). Obeying institutional norms
and participating in ritual both have affinities
with pretense, or acting out “the way things
ought to be in conscious tension to the way
things are” (Smith 1992, 109; see also Rakoczy
2008). The fact that both religiousness and
conservatism emphasize behavioral standards
embedded in abstract templates implies that,
when it comes to institutional facts and religious
concepts alike, ritual comes before belief (Sosis
2003; Bellah 2011). For example, rather than
experiencing spontaneous religious intuitions,
charismatic Christians of some denominations
consciously “work” to generate experiences of
God by setting aside time to imagine convers-
ing with him, as directed by spiritual advisers
and church leaders (Luhrmann 2012).
We propose, then, that the evolution of reli-
gion is best addressed from the standpoint
that religious cognitions and behaviors are not
qualitatively different from those that underlie
other human institutions. Indeed, religion and
the other institutions that form “culture” may
be simply different instances of the same basic
social-cognitive kind (Luckmann 1967; Bloch
2008). All institutions, including religions,
depend on cognitive representations of norms
and roles that are not based in immediate
empirical facts (Searle 1995). In short, all insti-
tutions rely on pretense. Meanwhile, pretense,
in the sense meant by Taves (2015), is funda-
mentally linguistic. The capacity of symbolic
language to generate abstract ideas via the novel
recombination of perceptual experience and
other cognitive content underlies our capacity
to imagine alternative realities and to share
them with one another (Dor 2015). Moreover,
unlike nonlinguistic communication, such as
ritualized animal signals, language also enables
the representation of past and future states,
which by definition are not immediately pres-
ent (Bellah 2011). Hence, language makes pos-
sible conceptual abstractions such as “the tribe
existed before me and will exist after I am gone”
or “the ancestors exist even if I cant see them.”
Human social life therefore depends on condi-
tioned imagination in a way that could not be
true of any animal, no matter how complex,
that lacked symbolic language (Bloch 2008).
Moreover, as indicated above, institutional
facts are also fundamentally deontic. This means
their existence depends on norms and sanc-
tioned behaviors (Searle 1995). In turn, deontic
norms fundamentally require the representa-
tion of possible worlds and so depend on imag-
inative acts (Jensen 2013). Massachusetts and
Vermont only exist because millions of people
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Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
10 Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
behave as if they existed—filing the correct tax
forms, observing different laws on each side of
the border, etc. These behaviors are normative,
or obligatory. Importantly, because language
enables people to mentally represent such
norms in abstraction from any concrete sur-
roundings, the norms that define institutional
facts generally persist for longer than the indi-
vidual people who enter and exit the institutions
(Bloch 2008). Thus, both Massachusetts and
Vermont have “outlived” generations of par-
ticular inhabitants, continuing to persist insti-
tutionally despite the change in the makeup of
their populations.
Although he does not use Searle’s termi-
nology, Maurice Bloch (2008; 2016) deploys a
similar line of reasoning to argue for the cog-
nitive continuity of religion with other human
institutions. Like other institutional facts,
religious propositions depend on the pretense
of alternate realities that are not reducible to
immediate, physical affordances, but which
instead exist in an abstract mental space he
terms the “transcendental social.” By “tran-
scendental,” Bloch simply means dependent on
mental representations that are reproduced and
maintained by social transmission and are thus
more stable than physical realities. The ability
to imagine transcendental social roles is why
people in small-scale societies may, for exam-
ple, treat an elder with respect and deference
even though he is senile—namely, in certain
contexts the role is more important than the
physical person (Bloch 2008). Bloch contrasts
the transcendental social with the “transactional
social,” or relationships that are based on brute
facts such as relative strength. Chimpanzees
have only transactional social structures, since
status in their hierarchies generally boils down
to who would be likely to win a confrontation.
Lacking language, chimpanzees cannot imag-
ine differentiated, long-lasting social roles with
finely graded conceptual distinctions.
Bloch asserts, then, that the capacity to
imagine transcendental social relations enables
the remarkable differentiation and complex
internal structuring of human societies along
lines that have no physical basis, such as moi-
eties or fictive kin groups. This observation
is relevant because recent cognitive and evo-
lutionary approaches to religion have tended
to overlook the importance of differentiated
social structure for understanding religion’s
functions (Smaldino 2014). Moreover, it does
not take very many steps beyond “moiety” to
arrive at phenomena that seem distinctly reli-
gious, since the maintenance and legitimization
of subgroups such as moieties depends on cul-
tural ritual (White 1981). Unlike animal rit-
ualization, human ritual includes symbolic or
representational content and thus can refer to
constructs or ideals that are not immediately
present or visible, such as moieties or other roles
or groups (Rappaport 1999).
Let us now extend our argument to provide a
more detailed picture of the emergence of the
supernatural in human evolution. Along with
Bloch, we suggest that gods, spirits, and tran-
scendental social roles all comprise institutional
facts, and are all of a single cognitive kind. Once
humans started using language and ritual to
generate “imagined communities” (Anderson
1991) such as extended clans or moieties, ances-
tors and the yet-to-be-born logically emerged
as equally eligible for membership in those
groups, since they were no more invisible than,
say, distant clansmen living across the moun-
tains. That is, individual mental representations
of the social group came to include its past and
future inhabitants, neither of whom are imme-
diately visible. Something very similar, Bloch
argues, was true of gods and spirits, which were,
and are, simply additional transcendental social
Thus, when humans became able to imagi-
natively construct invisible group identities and
roles and to allow the dead to inhabit them, a
cognitive dam burst. Suddenly, no logical barrier
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Religion, Evolution, and the Basis of Institutions: The Institutional Cognition Model of Religion
ESIC | Vol. 2 | No. 2 | Fall 2018 11
stood against extending group membership and
role privileges to beings who not only no longer
existed physically, but in fact had never physically
existed. Reciprocally, the effusion of ascribed invis-
ible roles—husband, wife, moiety member, elder,
initiate—made it logically possible to imagine and
then treat seriously novel institutional roles that
could not, at least normally, be inhabited by living
persons. That is, the extension of transcendental
sociality beyond that which was currently embod-
ied, combined with the generation of imagined
beings who nonetheless possessed social status
and group identity, led inexorably to the disso-
lution of any barriers against social identities that
in principle lacked the possibility (or at least neces-
sity) of being embodied. This process of cognitive
slippage and expansion implies, as Bloch argues,
that “the transcendental social and phenomena
that we have ethnocentrically called religion are
part and parcel of a single unity” (2008, 2057; see
also Sosis and Kiper 2014).
The evolutionary emergence of supernatu-
ral agents may thus be best explained by our
propensity for using language and ritual to
generate institutional facts and social roles that
are separable from concrete persons: simply put,
supernatural agents are sub-personal institutional
“roles” that do not require embodiment. That
some supernatural roles can be embodied, for
example during possession trance in Haitian
Vodou or Korean shamanism (Bourguignon
1976; Harvey 1979), or incarnated, such as
with Jesus in Christianity or Vishnu’s vari-
ous avatars in Hinduism, is not a refutation
of this claim. Namely, we argue only that the
social-cognitive etiology of beliefs in gods and
spirits emerges from the separability of role
concepts and actual persons, such that social
roles can be entertained and recognized even if
they typically do not or never have incumbents.
Yet why would these non-embodied roles
receive the special (and costly) ritual treatment
they do, and why do they become so centrally
located in people’s mental schemata of the social
environment? That is, what distinguishes gods
from other kinds of institutional facts? First,
following previous writers (Rappaport 1999;
McCauley and Lawson 2002), we suggest that
the unfalsifiable nature of supernatural roles is
precisely what earns their central position in
humans’ cognitive schemata. Specifically, ritual
that is directed toward beings that are both
(1) unfalsifiable and (2) sacred is ideally suited
to stabilizing contingent and contextually rel-
ative social norms, because it displaces the
most central obligations in the moral matrix
onto positions that depend wholly on insti-
tutional conventions for their existence, and
which therefore cannot be subjected to utili-
tarian treatment (Rappaport 1999). A person
who takes her ritual obligations seriously, then,
tautologically demonstrates acceptance of the
norms that define her social group (Rappaport
1999; Morgan, Wood, and Caldwell-Harris
Second, because gods and spirits are repre-
sented as intentional agents, they are cognitively
suited to serve as targets of normative obliga-
tions. Yet because these agents, lacking embod-
iment, cannot provide the same actual strategic
benefits to interactants that embodied persons
can, the various obligations that people owe
to them tend to slip out of the reach of utili-
tarian cost-benefit calculations. The resulting
sanctification of core social obligations renders
the entire moral system more stable (Rappaport
1999; Purzycki and Sosis 2013). In other words,
non-embodied transcendental social roles—gods
and spirits—serve an anchoring function in
the cognitive representation of moral schemata.
Moreover, because they have no concrete refer-
ents, gods and spirits cannot empirically threaten
institutional norms in the way that real people
do when they conspicuously fail to live up to
normative standards (Bloch 2008). We suggest,
then, that the non-embodied nature of gods and
other wholly transcendental entities serves to
inculcate a general deontological stance toward
the social obligations that characterize a social
group. Importantly, we do not mean to imply
that people do not treat gods in a transactional
manner, since exchanging favors is a common
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Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
12 Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
feature of interactions with gods. Rather, we
are arguing that, in comparison to relations
between people, relations with gods and spirits
simply tend to emphasize the deontological ele-
ment above the transactional element. It follows,
then, that gods and sacred spirits specifically
tend to drift toward the conceptual center of
any transcendental social scheme. While other
unfalsifiable beliefs may serve as group iden-
tity markers or play an important role in ritual
performance (Purzycki and Sosis 2010), only
agent-like transcendental roles can motivate a
deontological stance toward social obligations.
It is in this capacity that supernatural concepts
are distinct from other kinds of institutional or
socially constructed facts, although all institu-
tional facts share the same cognitive scaffolding.
What evidence exists in favor of the institu-
tional cognition model of religion? As discussed
above, the fact that ideological conservatism,
conventionality, and religiosity are highly sta-
tistically correlated constitutes credible prima
facie evidence for the posited model. Religious
commitments, moral conventions, and secu-
lar cultural authorities or identities all share a
common root: they are socially constructed insti-
tutions, dependent on contingent agreements,
not brute facts, for their functioning. It may
be, then, that some cognitive profiles are simply
more conducive to dealing in institutional facts
than others. Cultural liberalism and irreligios-
ity, by contrast, are both associated with one
another and with individualism and analytical
thought (Bainbridge 2005; Caldwell-Harris
2012). It stands to reason that individualis-
tic, analytical minds may be corrosive to truth
claims that depend, by definition, on cultural
agreement and authoritative social norms.
What analytically minded individualists want is
truth claims that can be verified without refer-
encing the social manifold—that is, they want
brute facts.
Thus, the institutional cognition model of
religion makes sense of the ways in which reli-
gious beliefs do not seem to be commensurable
with other kinds of belief (Van Leeuwen 2014).
Specifically, religious beliefs depend substantially
on special authority and are typically not vulner-
able, or even subjected, to the same empirical or
skeptical treatment as other, more prosaic beliefs
(McPhetres and Zuckerman 2017). It is as if
religious claims were “insulated” from count-
er-evidence—and indeed, they are (Horton
1967). All institutional facts depend on a certain
base level of a priori credulity. If everyone denied
that Vermont really exists, it would indeed stop
existing. The same does not hold true of grav-
ity. Institutional facts, then, fundamentally need
insulation from excessive analytical reflection
and so depend on normative coercion to sur-
vive. This dependence also explains why expo-
sure to CREDs accounts for far more variation
in religiousness than do individual differences
in cognitive biases (Willard and Cingl 2017).
Religious beliefs are second-order products of
institutional cognition that depend on special
authority to index social norms, and so they
cannot be usefully analyzed in isolation from
socialization or ritual performance.
Over the past three decades, cognitive and
evolutionary approaches have made enormous
strides in charting the origins of religious phe-
nomena. Byproduct theories have shed light
on the relationship between religious beliefs
and cognitive tendencies such as anthropomor-
phic biases, while cultural evolutionary models
helped reconcile massive cultural variations in
religious beliefs and rituals with their apparent
convergent functionality. Meanwhile, adapta-
tionist accounts make sense of seeming para-
doxes in religious behavior and belief, such as
the apparent wastefulness of costly rituals and
unfalsifiable beliefs. Yet cognitive byproduct
and cultural evolutionary theories only par-
tially explain why religious beliefs—suppos-
edly emerging from and transmitted via innate
cognitive predispositions—require such high
levels of normative cultural enforcement to be
sustained. Adaptationist theories, by contrast,
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ESIC | Vol. 2 | No. 2 | Fall 2018 13
have not successfully articulated why supernat-
ural agent concepts specifically—as opposed to
supernatural concepts in general (e.g., Purzycki
and Sosis 2010)—attain the centrality they do
in cultural systems, or—in the case of supernat-
ural punishment hypotheses (Johnson 2016)—
have tended to oversimplify the functions of
supernatural agents. Here, we have attempted to
augment these accounts of the cognitive founda-
tions of religious phenomena by focusing atten-
tion on the role of human language in enabling
the generation and transmission of institutional
concepts whose truth conditions are not met by
sheer physical facts. In doing so, we highlight
the continuity between religions and other
forms of institutional life.
Following Maurice Bloch, we argue that
there is no strict category distinction between
the cognitive processes that enable the repre-
sentation of extra-empirical or institutional
propositions (“This is the state border”) and
those that enable representations of religious
propositions (“God is three in one”). Both
are grounded in the capacity of language to
recombine perceptual experience and con-
ceptual content in novel forms that are not
constrained by, or reducible to, immediate
physical facts, as well as to serve as a medium
that reliably conveys these novel representa-
tions between people. By describing religious
beliefs as emerging from complex social cog-
nition rather than directly from intra-individ-
ual cognitive processes, this account diverges
from theories that describe religious beliefs
as emerging from intuitive defaults. Yet, by
locating the roots of religious concepts in the
species-general capacity for language and “pre-
tense,” we also affirm that religion is, indeed,
“natural” (McCauley 2013).
Of course, the capacity for institutional cog-
nition allows humans to generate many kinds
of concepts: jurisdictional borders, money, rules
of dynastic succession. Why, then, are gods
and spirits so common across cultures? More
specifically, why are gods and spirits so often
implicated in cultural rituals? We believe that
previous attempts to directly address this ques-
tion using cognitive frameworks (e.g., McCauley
and Lawson 2002) have overemphasized the role
of explanatory motives and causal inference in
driving supernatural agent beliefs. Rather, gods
populate rituals because such contexts are funda-
mentally evocative of social roles and norms, and
only agents can be the targets of these deontic
attributes. As discussed above, then, imaginative
representations of anthropomorphic gods and
spirits are uniquely well suited to stabilizing sys-
tems of extra-empirical social roles and norms,
because only agents who cannot actually provide
their interaction partners with tangible benefits
can enforce the deontic principles irrespective
of those partners’ utilitarian motivations. As a
result, imaginative repertoires invariably tend to
gravitate toward shared representations of per-
son-like agents with whom interactants can only
have deontic relations.
Thus, our evolved cognitive architecture
does indeed constrain religious cognition to
conform to intuitive anthropomorphic expecta-
tions, as byproduct theorists have often argued,
but that architecture does not directly lead to
religious cognitions spontaneously or directly in
a first-order sense. Religious beliefs and prac-
tices are also largely functional, as adaptationists
claim, in the sense that they anchor and stabi-
lize systems of empirically unprovable norms
and culturally variable institutions that enable
complex coordination within human groups.
Indeed, as Sosis and Kiper (2014) emphasize,
in human evolutionary history norms and reli-
gious institutions probably emerged interde-
pendently. However, the characteristic features
of religious cognition are not necessarily direct
evolutionary adaptations, but rather logically
natural, even mechanically necessary, responses
to specific strategic pressures of using language
to generate culturally variable institutional facts
based on deontic norms.
The institutional cognition model of reli-
gion therefore does not repudiate previous
evolutionary and cognitive frameworks for
studying religion. Instead, it reconciles them
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Connor Wood and John H. Shaver
14 Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
while offering novel insights, including clearer
understanding of the relationship between reli-
giosity and conservatism and better purchase
on the role of religion in maintaining differen-
tiated social structures, such as moieties, gender
roles, and legitimate versus illegitimate author-
ities. The proposed model therefore offers
strong continuity with previous theories while
addressing several of their problematic features,
and moving beyond the byproduct-adapta-
tionist dichotomy. The institutional cognition
model of the evolution of religion may thus
benefit future research by providing a cognitive
framework for investigating phenomena—such
as fictive group structuring and imaginal pre-
tense—that are often considered highly relevant
for religion, but which have previously typically
been the province of sociologists or social theo-
rists rather than cognitive scientists. Religion is
a vital dimension of human affairs, but its expla-
nation is neither quite as simple nor as complex
as we have supposed. Rather than being either a
mere spandrel or a dedicated functional adapta-
tion—religion is, in different contexts, both—it
is also what naturally emerges when intelligent,
highly social animals evolve the remarkable
capacity for symbolic thinking and cultural
transmission, and therefore gain the ability to
generate alternative worlds that must be coordi-
nated between individuals.
This project emerged out of a presentation
delivered at a conference in Santa Ana Pueblo,
New Mexico, on the evolution of religion, in
November 2017. The authors wish to thank Jay
Feierman for spearheading the organization of
that conference. We acknowledge a great debt
to Roy D’Andrade for introducing us (through
his mentorship of Shaver) to Searle’s work.
During the preparation of this paper, Wood
was primarily supported by a grant from the
John Templeton Foundation (grant #61035).
The authors also wish to acknowledge partial
support from the University of Otago (grant
#114172.01.S.CA DRG17) and the Society for
Personality and Social Psychology.
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