So really, what caused that earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan? A quick Google search posing this very question yields a wide range of answers. Fortunately a majority of the hits acknowledge and explain how plate tectonics caused this tragedy. Sprinkled throughout the scientifically accurate explanations are conspiracy theories suggesting that the US government caused it through hyper-excitation of radio waves in the ionosphere (HAARP) and perhaps even planned radiation releases. Other theories include the “Supermoon’s” increased tug on the earths crust due to the fact that it is at perigee (closest proximity to the earth in its cyclical orbit). Solar flares (coronal mass ejections) were also blamed; and by some, the flares working in concert with the moon in perigee are believed to have triggered the quake. Global warming also gets its share of the blame (but the proponents suggest that real cause is the removal of oil from the crust leaving voids that ultimately trigger earthquake). Some have even suggested that a comet or even God may have done this.
The problem with the scientific explanation is that plate tectonics is invisible to most of us. Its motion is so gradual that it does not “on the surface” seem plausible. We seemingly need a clear causal agent that fits within our understanding of the world. Scientifically literate individuals are inclined to grasp the agency of tectonics because the theory and the effects do in fact, fit together in observable and measurable ways. Others reach for causal explanations that better fit within their understanding of the world.
Our correlation calculators (brains) grab onto events temporally associated with such events and we then conjure up narratives to help us make sense of it all. It is easy to understand why folks might assume that the moon at perigee, or increased solar activity, or even an approaching comet might cause such events. Others, who are prone to conspiracy theories, who also have a corresponding belief that big brother is all powerful and sadistic, will grab onto theories that fit their world views. The same is true for those with literal religious inclinations. Unfortunately, this drive often leads to narrative fallacies that misplace the blame and sometimes ultimately blame the victims.
History is filled with stories drawn up to explain such tragedies. In the times of ancient Greece and Rome, many tales were spun to explain famine, plagues, and military failures. All of this occurred prior to our increasingly complex understanding of the world (e.g., germ theory, plate tectonics, meteorology), and it made sense to blame such events on vengeful gods. How else could they make sense of such tragedies? This seems to be how we are put together.
A study published in 2006 in the journal, Developmental Psychology, by University of Arkansas Psychologists Jesse Bering and Becky Parker looked at the development of such inclinations in children. They pinpointed the age at which such thinking begins to flourish. They also provided a hypothesis to explain this developmental progression. This study was summarized in a March 13, 2011 online article at Scientific American by the first author titled: Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events.
In this study of children ages three to nine years of age, the psychologists devised a clever technique to assess the degree to which individuals begin to assign agency to events in their environment and subsequently act on those signs. What they found was that children between three and six years of age do not read communicative intent into unexplained events (e.g., lights flickering or pictures falling from the wall). But at age seven, children start reading into and acting on such events. So why is it that at the age of seven, children start inferring agency from events in their environment? Bering suggests that:
“The answer probably lies in the maturation of children’s theory-of-mind abilities in this critical period of brain development. Research by University of Salzburg psychologist Josef Perner, for instance, has revealed that it’s not until about the age of seven that children are first able to reason about “multiple orders” of mental states. This is the type of everyday, grown-up social cognition whereby theory of mind becomes effortlessly layered in complex, soap opera–style interactions with other people. Not only do we reason about what’s going on inside someone else’s head, but we also reason about what other people are reasoning is happening inside still other people’s heads!”
So as it turns out, this tendency to read signs into random events is associated with the maturation of cognitive processes. Children with less mature “Theory of Mind” (click here for a very basic description of Theory of Mind) capabilities fail to draw the conclusion that a supernatural being, or any being for that matter, knows what they are thinking and can act in a way that will communicate something.
“To interpret [capricious] events as communicative messages, … demands a sort of third-person perspective of the self’s actions: ‘What must this other entity, who is watching my behavior, think is happening inside my head?’ [These] findings are important because they tell us that, before the age of seven, children’s minds aren’t quite cognitively ripe enough to allow them to be superstitious thinkers. The inner lives of slightly older children, by contrast, are drenched in symbolic meaning. One second-grader was even convinced that the bell in the nearby university clock tower was Princess Alice ‘talking’ to him.”
When a capricious event has great significance, we are seemingly driven by a ravenous appetite to look for “signs” or “reasons.” We desperately need to understand. Our searches for those “reasons” are largely shaped by previously held beliefs and cultural influences. Divine interventions, for example, have historically been ambiguous; therefore, a multitude of surreptitious events, can be interpreted as having a wide variety of meanings. And those meanings are guided by one’s beliefs.
“Misfortunes appear cryptic, symbolic; they seem clearly to be about our behaviors. Our minds restlessly gather up bits of the past as if they were important clues to what just happened. And no stone goes unturned. Nothing is too mundane or trivial; anything to settle our peripatetic [wandering] thoughts from arriving at the unthinkable truth that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that.”
The implications of this understanding are profound. We are by our very nature driven to search for signs and reasons to explain major life events, and we are likewise inclined to see major events as signs themselves. The ability to do so ironically depends on cognitive maturation. But, given the complexity and remoteness of scientific explanations, we often revert to familiar and culturally sanctioned explanations that have stood the test of time. We do this because it gives us comfort, regardless of actual plausibility. As I often say, we are a curious lot, we humans.
Bering, J. (2011). Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=signs-signs-everywhere-signs-seeing-2011-03-13&print=true
Bering, J., & Parker, B. (2006). Children’s Attributions of Intentions to an Invisible Agent. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 42, No. 2, 253–262