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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The cognitive foundations and prosocial consequences of belief in karma and gods White, Cindel J. M.


People worldwide believe that supernatural forces monitor and respond to human moral action, and determine who experiences good fortune and who suffers and struggles in life. This dissertation examines the psychological diversity of these by beliefs, by investigating beliefs about karma (morally-determined causality) and gods (powerful supernatural agents). Chapter 1 introduces these beliefs as psychological constructs, situated within cultural evolution theories of religion that have proposed that belief in morally-concerned supernatural entities facilitates large-scale cooperation among strangers. Chapter 2 investigates the cognitive foundations of these beliefs, by using path models to show how individual differences in karma and God beliefs can be predicted by a combination of (a) cognitive predispositions that are cross-culturally widespread but variable across individuals and (b) social learning that is highly variable across different cultural contexts. I then show how beliefs about karma and God are associated with social judgments and moral behavior. Chapter 3 asks whether belief in karma can affect social judgments, by moderating the association between moral character inferences and forecasts about the future, consistent with the explicitly endorsed belief in karmic causality through which bad things are more likely to happen to bad people. Chapter 4 describes how believers mentally represent karma and God’s moral concerns—according to both open-ended free list questions and closed-ended psychological questionnaires. I examine how these supernatural beliefs partially reflect individuals’ secular moral values and partially reflects the unique relationships that believers have with different supernatural entities. Chapter 5 provides experimental studies that investigate whether reminders of these morally laden supernatural beliefs cause decreased selfishness among believers, compares the prosocial effects of karma and God, and tests several boundary conditions of these effects. Throughout this research, I present high-powered, pre-registered studies conducted with religiously-diverse samples from North America and Asia, to compare the psychology of karma beliefs in cultural contexts with a long history of karmic theology and in cultural contexts where karmic beliefs are present but less ubiquitous and exist outside of mainstream (Christian) religious doctrines. Finally, I conclude by discussing implications, remaining questions, and possibilities for future research that extends these findings.

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