How Children and Adults Represent God's Mind

Larisa Heiphetz*, Jonathan D. Lane, Adam Waytz, Liane L. Young

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


For centuries, humans have contemplated the minds of gods. Research on religious cognition is spread across sub-disciplines, making it difficult to gain a complete understanding of how people reason about gods' minds. We integrate approaches from cognitive, developmental, and social psychology and neuroscience to illuminate the origins of religious cognition. First, we show that although adults explicitly discriminate supernatural minds from human minds, their implicit responses reveal far less discrimination. Next, we demonstrate that children's religious cognition often matches adults' implicit responses, revealing anthropomorphic notions of God's mind. Together, data from children and adults suggest the intuitive nature of perceiving God's mind as human-like. We then propose three complementary explanations for why anthropomorphism persists in adulthood, suggesting that anthropomorphism may be (a) an instance of the anchoring and adjustment heuristic; (b) a reflection of early testimony; and/or (c) an evolutionary byproduct.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)121-144
Number of pages24
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Anthropomorphism
  • Religious cognition
  • Social cognition
  • Social cognitive development
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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