Get right with God


Every person in the world, Chicago social psychologist Nicholas Epley said, is a mind-reader. Not that people are psychics or phrenologists or parlor magicians, but they cannot help trying to peer into each other’s heads: What does one friend really think of another? Did she marry him for love or for money? Was the crime premeditated? Did the North Koreans really test a nuclear weapon? What is the boss going to say next? “And most important,” Epley said to appreciative laughter from last Wednesday’s lunchtime crowd at the Divinity School, “do they think we’re hot or not?”

Yet the data show that such mind-reading isn’t nearly as reliable as people imagine. Rarely do they guess right, in large part because of egocentrism: people use their own thoughts, feelings, and knowledge to intuit those of others. “It works out disastrously,” said Epley, a Graduate School of Business assistant professor. “We overestimate the prevalence of our own beliefs in the world.”

When it comes to estimating the prevalence of their beliefs in the otherworld, people behave the same way, Epley said. Egocentrism becomes particularly difficult to resist when religion is involved. Flipping through a digital slideshow of survey results, he told the group he’d found a “huge” correlation between respondents’ personal beliefs about political issues—abortion, the Iraq war, affirmative action, and legalizing marijuana—and the beliefs they ascribed to God. People usually answered that God’s beliefs resembled their own, only more so. “And God is more extreme if your beliefs are more extreme,” he said. The pattern held true across religious and demographic categories, and it even held when Epley and fellow researchers manipulated respondents’ beliefs. As people changed their own opinions, they adjusted God’s accordingly. Epley thinks he knows why the correlation is so strong: “If you’re out of step with other Americans, your neighbor, or even your parents, it’s not such a big deal. But if you’re out of step with God, that is a very big deal.”


Photo: Epley showed the Div School group a survey-results slideshow.

October 16, 2006