Core Intuitions About Persons Coexist and Interfere With Acquired Christian Beliefs About God

Michael Barlev, Spencer Mermelstein, Tamsin C. German

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


This study tested the hypothesis that in the minds of adult religious adherents, acquired beliefs about the extraordinary characteristics of God coexist with, rather than replace, an initial representation of God formed by co-option of the evolved person concept. In three experiments, Christian religious adherents were asked to evaluate a series of statements for which core intuitions about persons and acquired Christian beliefs about God were consistent (i.e., true according to both [e.g., “God has beliefs that are true”] or false according to both [e.g., “All beliefs God has are false”]) or inconsistent (i.e., true on intuition but false theologically [e.g., “God has beliefs that are false”] or false on intuition but true theologically [e.g., “All beliefs God has are true”]). Participants were less accurate and slower to respond to inconsistent versus consistent statements, suggesting that the core intuitions both coexisted alongside and interfered with the acquired beliefs (Experiments 1 and 2). In Experiment 2 when responding under time pressure participants were disproportionately more likely to make errors on inconsistent versus consistent statements than when responding with no time pressure, suggesting that the resolution of interference requires cognitive resources the functioning of which decreases under cognitive load. In Experiment 3 a plausible alternative interpretation of these findings was ruled out by demonstrating that the response accuracy and time differences on consistent versus inconsistent statements occur for God—a supernatural religious entity—but not for a natural religious entity (a priest).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)425-454
Number of pages30
JournalCognitive Science
StatePublished - Apr 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Core cognition
  • God concept
  • Person concept
  • Religious beliefs
  • Theological incorrectness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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