Contrary to common wisdom, older people are more likely than adolescents to turn to supernatural explanations for difficult events in their lives, from aging to dying. That is among the key findings in an international study from scholars at four major universities.
The finding suggests that science has not supplanted religion, and the two coexist for billions of people around the world because while science can explain many things, it "really isn't very good" at supplying answers to some of life's most difficult questions, said psychologist Cristine H. Legare of the University of Texas, Austin, in a telephone interview.
Chief among those questions may be simply this: Why me?
Legare, lead author of a study published in the current issue of Child Development, went to South Africa, where she had conducted earlier research on the AIDS epidemic, to see if people there still turn to witchcraft to explain the disease that has devastated much of that country. The answer, quite clearly, is yes, especially among older adults.
It's not just because of ignorance, she said. The people there are very much aware of the biomedical basis for AIDS, but with more than 40 percent of the people in some areas of South Africa infected with the disease, a clinical explanation is an incomplete answer.
"What became clear is people had different kinds of explanations to explain different aspects of the disease," she concluded, based on interviews with 366 participants who live in some of the hardest-hit areas. "Unprotected sex is seen as a reason for contracting the virus, but that doesn't explain the larger question of why me, and not somebody else. People would often give a supernatural explanation, including witchcraft."
People often said they got the disease because a witch put the wrong person in their path, or wanted to inflict punishment. Whatever the witch's motivation, it was someone else's fault, not the victim's.
The participants in the study were read a series of statements and asked to reject or endorse medical or supernatural (witchcraft) explanations for the disease.
The participants, whether young or old, clearly understood the medical explanation for how AIDS is transmitted, but children from 5 to 15 years old cited witchcraft as part of the explanation only about half the time. In contrast, all the adults thought witchcraft played a role.
"Importantly, bewitchment explanations were not the result of ignorance of biological causes," the study concludes. "Thus, they existed alongside and were not replaced by biological explanations."
Other authors of the study include Karl S. Rosengren of Northwestern University, E. Margaret Evans of the University of Michigan, and Paul L. Harris of Harvard, who have conducted similar studies around the world in an effort to better understand how culture influences cognitive processes. The studies show that belief in supernatural powers are cross-cultural and do not diminish with advances in science or increases in age.
That's especially clear in the South African research.
"It's not that people become less scientific with age," Legare said. Some things just seem to demand more of an explanation than science can provide.
"As you go through your life, there are many opportunities to experience very difficult events," she said. "That's the reality of the human experience. It's a fundamental truth of our species that we want to know why."