The Cultural Transmission of Explanations: Evidence that Teleological Explanations are Preferentially Remembered


Teleological explanations – explanations in terms of functions, purposes, or goals – are pervasive in religion and feature prominently in intuitive theories about the world, such as theory of mind and folk biology. Previous findings suggest that such explanations reflect a deep, explanatory preference. Here we explore the mechanisms underlying the prevalence and persistence of such explanations, following a method developed by Boyer and Ramble (2001) to examine which religious concepts are likely to survive processes of cultural transmission. Specifically, we test the prediction that novel teleological explanations are remembered better than mechanistic explanations, even when effects of an explanation’s quality are taken into account. Two experiments support this prediction for artifact and biological trait explanations, but find the opposite pattern for explanations of non-living natural entities.

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