Agency Detection and its (possible) role in Paranormal Experience

Ever taken the dog for a walk in the woods and assumed that noise in the bushes was a rabid killer rabbit instead of the wind? Ever laid in bed and thought that unfamiliar knocking must be an axe murderer instead of water pipes cooling? This short article aims to introduce agency detection, why it might exist and how it may relate to some aspects of paranormal experience.

We are all products of an evolutionary process, natural selection. In one sense our bodies and brains are a collection of adaptations, that is, evolved mechanisms for reacting to, interacting with, interpreting, surviving and reproducing in our environment. For example, it is proposed that our brain is not a general purpose information processing machine but a collection of cognitive modules that serve a specific purpose (i.e. vision, taste, hearing, touch, emotions) but also interact and work with each other (Mithen, 1996; Pinker, 1997).

A vital aspect of our evolutionary past is that we evolved from, and are today, an extremely social species. It has been suggested that this aspect has been a driving force in the evolution of certain cognitive abilities such as language, face recognition and theory of mind to name a few. It is in this context that we turn our attention to agency detection.

Agency detection is essentially the propensity to see/interpret events in our environment as being caused or related to other goal-motivated agents. These other agents don’t necessarily have to be human, they could be any other living creature with intentions or goals (i.e. feeding, sleeping, and searching). Guthrie (1993) proposed that, due to our highly evolved social cognition, humans have a tendency to over-attribute agency to events, especially in ambiguous circumstances. As Barrett (2007) puts it, we have “an evolved tendency that produces false positives for the sake of survival”. Why and what are false positives?

Imagine you are in the evolutionary past, walking through some woods. You see a shape up ahead behind some trees. It looks like a bear and you know bears live in the area. Or is it a rock? Think of the saying ‘better safe than sorry’. Better for you to interpret a rock up ahead as a bear (a false positive) and avoid possible fatal injury but pay the cost of fleeing, than to interpret a bear up ahead as a rock and continue on your merry way, only to end up as some hairy mammal’s dinner! Since there would be humans and predatory animals in the environment that would pose a threat to your being, it would be advantageous to carry a cognitive module that erred on the side of false positives in this context. Barrett (2000, 2004) called this proposed module the Hyperactive or Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD).

It doesn’t take a great leap to see how HADD may play a role in some paranormal experience. That bang in the night must be a ghost moving a chair. That mist in the woods must be a spirit trying to manifest. The glass on the Ouija board moves because entities are trying to communicate. All are examples of the attribution of intentionality and agency where none might exist. Couple the existence of HADD with other known psychological phenomena such as expectation bias or suggestion, and an apparently paranormal experience could be explained in more prosaic terms.

So there is the proposal that we have a propensity for interpreting aspects of our environment in terms of intentional agents, we can see why it would make evolutionary sense and what role it may play in some paranormal experience.

Does it conclusively explain why people see ghosts, or the nature or reality of the supernatural? Of course not, but it is something to bear in mind next time the wind rattles your letterbox in the middle of the night and you think Freddie from Nightmare on Elm Street is at your front door!

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