Human Nature

, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 221–243 | Cite as

Memory and Belief in the Transmission of Counterintuitive Content

  • Aiyana K. Willard
  • Joseph Henrich
  • Ara Norenzayan


Cognitive scientists have increasingly turned to cultural transmission to explain the widespread nature of religion. One key hypothesis focuses on memory, proposing that that minimally counterintuitive (MCI) content facilitates the transmission of supernatural beliefs. We propose two caveats to this hypothesis. (1) Memory effects decrease as MCI concepts become commonly used, and (2) people do not believe counterintuitive content readily; therefore additional mechanisms are required to get from memory to belief. In experiments 1–3 (n = 283), we examined the relationship between MCI, belief, and memory. We found that increased tendencies to anthropomorphize predicted poorer memory for anthropomorphic-MCI content. MCI content was found less believable than intuitive content, suggesting different mechanisms are required to explain belief. In experiment 4 (n = 70), we examined the non-content-based cultural learning mechanism of credibility-enhancing displays (CREDs) and found that it increased participants’ belief in MCI content, suggesting this type of learning can better explain the transmission of belief.


MCI theory Memory Religion Anthropomorphism Credibility-enhancing displays (CREDs) Cultural learning 



The authors would like to thank Benjamin Purzycki and Adam Baimel for their helpful comments. JH would like to thank the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and NYU’s Stern School of Business. AN acknowledges support from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant (435-2014-0456). We also thank the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium, funded by a generous partnership grant (895-2011-1009) also from SSHRC.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Aiyana K. Willard
    • 1
  • Joseph Henrich
    • 2
  • Ara Norenzayan
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Texas at AustinAustinUSA
  2. 2.Department of Human Evolutionary BiologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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