The Error of God: Error Management Theory, Religion, and the Evolution of Cooperation

  • Dominic D.P. Johnson
Part of the Springer Series in Game Theory book series (SSGT)


The punishment of free-riders is widely regarded as central to the evolution of cooperation, but the problem of who pays the costs of punishment remains controversial. I have previously proposed that: (1) human cooperation was promoted by a fear of supernatural punishment for selfish actions (Johnson and Kruger 2004); and (2) such beliefs increased Darwinian fitness because they reduced the probability of real-world detection and punishment for selfish actions or violations of social norms (Johnson and Bering 2006). Here, I explore the role of “Error Management Theory” (Haselton and Buss 2000; Haselton and Nettle 2006; Nettle 2004) in the evolution of beliefs in supernatural punishment, which offers a complementary perspective. Error Management Theory (hereafter EMT), which is derived from signaling theory, suggests that if the costs of false positive and false negative decision-making errors have been asymmetric over human evolutionary history, then natural selection would favor a bias towards the least costly error over time (in order to avoid whichever was the worse error). So, for example, we have a bias to sometimes think that sticks are snakes (which is harmless), but never that snakes are sticks (which may be deadly). Applied to religious beliefs and behaviors, I derive the hypothesis from EMT that humans may gain a fitness advantage from a bias in which they tend to assume that their every move (and thought) is being watched, judged, and potentially punished by supernatural agents. Although such a belief would be costly because it constrains freedom of action and self-interested behaviors, it may nevertheless be favored by natural selection if it helps to avoid an error that is even worse: committing selfish actions or violations of social norms when there is a high probability of real-world detection and punishment by victims or other group members. Simply put, supernatural beliefs may have been an effective mindguard against excessively selfish behaviour – behavior that became especially risky and costly as our social world became increasingly transparent due to the evolution of language and theory of mind. If belief in God is an error, it may at least be an adaptive one. I present theoretical and empirical support for the hypothesis.


Natural Selection Religious Belief Smoke Alarm Selfish Behavior False Negative Error 
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dominic D.P. Johnson
    • 1
  1. 1.Politics and International Relations, School of Social and Political ScienceUniversity of Edinburgh, Chrystal Macmillan BuildingEdinburghUK

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