Hyperactive Agency Detection Devices and Horny Antelopes

In 1993, the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie published his seminal book Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion.  One of Guthrie’s primary points was that humans have an innate tendency to perceive intentional agents in the environment, even when there are no agents.  A rustling of leaves, shadows in the forest, movement of clouds, noises over the hill, and many other natural — but non-agentive — occurrences could trigger this perception.

Guthrie hypothesized that these automatic and involuntary perceptions were adaptive in the ancestral evolutionary environment, given that the failure to perceive dangerous agents such as lions, hyenas, and hominids could often be fatal.  It was advantageous to overattribute agency because the cost of a false positive (being spooked) was less than that of failing to perceive an actual positive (being killed).

Since 1993 several scientists have picked up on Guthrie’s argument, and major theorists of religion — including Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Ara Norenzayan, and Justin Barrett — have extended Guthrie’s thinking.  These researchers contend that this agency detection device or module is overly sensitive, hyper-active, and has a hair trigger.  It therefore generates perceptions of agents that are non-existent and attributes agency to things that lack it.  From this, humans have developed the concept of spirits and belief in gods.  Research beginning the mid-1940s and which continues to this day confirms these ideas.

While there is little doubt that agency detection and attribution plays an important role in supernatural thinking, this brain-based and behaviorally-evident “device” or “module” is not by itself responsible for the nearly universal belief in spirits.  In a paper he delivered at an “Origins of Religion” conference in 2006, Anders Lisdorf asked “what is the hyper-active agency detection device” (the “HADD”) and “isn’t it a bit much to ask of one cognitive function to be the origin of religious belief?”

As for this latter question, the answer is yes — it is a bit much to ask of this single function.  There are several other aspects of cognitive function (including theory of mind, casual attribution, pattern imposition, and conscious fluctuations), which when combined with HADD, give rise to the belief in spirits.  If HADD — by itself — were sufficient to give rise to belief in spirits, then we might expect many animals to believe in non-existent spirits.  Most prey animals also over-perceive and over-attribute agency.  Because their survival is at stake, they have good reasons for doing so.

I was reminded of these things when reading Sindya Bhanoo’s article in the NYT Science section: “Male Antelopes Scare Partners Into Sex.”  The described behavior is remarkable on several levels:

During mating season, a male topi antelope will try to keep females in heat from leaving his territory by pretending that a predator might be in the area, according to a study that will appear in the July issue of The American Naturalist.

When a female appears to be leaving, the male will run in front of her, freeze in place, stare in the direction that she is going and snort loudly. Typically, that snort means that a predatory lion or cheetah was spotted, but in this case the male is faking it.

“He doesn’t look at the female. He takes a rigid stance exactly as if there were a predator there,” said Jakob Bro-Jorgensen, a research fellow at the University of Liverpool who led the study.

Hearing the snort, the female antelope generally retreats back into the male’s territory, where he will attempt to mate with her right away. Females mate with many males each season, and it would seem that they might catch on after a while. But getting fooled does not have much of a downside, while ignoring what might be a real warning could be deadly.

Clearly humans are not the only mammals who have hyperactive agency detection devices which operate in accord with a cost-benefit calculus, or who deceive others in order to manipulate and get what we want.

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