New research reveals our folk beliefs about immortality – we think the good and bad will live on, but in very different ways

GettyImages-821819658.jpgBy guest blogger Dan Jones

When, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony delivers his funeral oration for his fallen friend, he famously says “The evil that men do lives on; the good is oft interred with their bones.” 

Anthony was talking about how history would remember Caesar, lamenting that doing evil confers greater historical immortality than doing good. But what about literal immortality? 

While there’s no room for such a notion in the scientific worldview, belief in an immortal afterlife was common throughout history and continues to this day across many cultures. Formal, codified belief systems like Christianity have a lot to say about the afterlife, including how earthly behaviour determines our eternal fate: the virtuous among us will apparently spend the rest of our spiritual days in paradise, while the wicked are condemned to suffer until the end of time. Yet, according to Christianity and many other formal religions, there’s no suggestion that anyone – good, bad or indifferent – gets more or less immortality, which is taken to be an all-or-nothing affair.

This is not how ordinary people think intuitively about immortality, though. In a series of seven studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Kurt Gray at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues, have found that, whether religious or not, people tend to think that those who do good or evil in their earthly lives achieve greater immortality than those who lead more morally neutral lives. What’s more, the virtuous and the wicked are seen to achieve different kinds of immortality.

The new findings complement previous work showing how we see moral character as a defining feature of people, both when they’re alive and when their souls depart. In the new studies, Gray and colleagues extended this, finding that their participants (recruited online via Amazon Mechanical Turk and including atheists and people of different religious faiths), rated historical figures who were extremely good or bad – Martin Luther King or Hitler, for example – as achieving a greater degree of immortality than morally neutral figures, such as Ameila Earhart and Andy Warhol.

Even if both good and evil people are seen to achieve greater immortality than the more morally neutral, might they nonetheless experience different kinds of immortality? For many of the world’s major religions, the answer is clearly yes: perform morally positive acts on earth and you go to The Good Place (Heaven) to enjoy total freedom in a paradisiacal realm, but do evil and you go instead to The Bad Place (Hell) to be tormented for all time.

Casting a wider anthropological net, many smaller, less formal belief systems also posit that good and evil spirits experience immorality in different ways. In particular, it’s common to find the belief that while virtuous spirits enjoy a transcendental freedom, evil spirits are more likely to be trapped or confined in some way, such as the Iroquois belief that they are eternally confined to their homes. Similar ideas crop up in popular culture too. When the evil wizard Voldemort dies in Harry Potter, his soul lives on in magical objects called Horcruxes. But when Obi-Wan Kenobi dies in the Star Wars films, his spirit is able to roam freely through the ethereal realm of the Force.

Gray and his colleagues found their participants held similar intuitive beliefs about the fates of deceased good, bad or neutral historical figures: they were more likely to see good souls as living in a transcendent state, wicked souls as trapped, and neutral souls as slightly less free than good ones but freer than bad ones. 

The reverse inference also held: reading about someone who had recently died and whose spirit had left the earthly realm and moved beyond space and time prompted participants to infer that this must have been a good person, while the converse led them to think the person must have been bad. 

Similarly, participants inferred that spirits inhabiting expansive locations, like hot deserts , arctic tundra or mountaintops, were more benevolent than those living in more confined locations, like a narrow trench,underground cave or tent in the woods, irrespective of how pleasant those locations were deemed.

Such inferences might explain why paranormal events are typically chalked up to malevolent spirits. The researchers asked more participants to imagine being in the house of someone recently deceased and that they felt a strange sensation as their spirit passed by. After reading these stories, people tended to view this spirit as malevolent, as a trapped spirit must be a bad spirit.

In explaining their findings, Gray’s team suggest that seeing good souls as free and transcendent and bad ones as confined and trapped stems in part for a basic desire for justice, with bad souls ending up in a spiritual prison and less able to roam and harm others. Such a desire may also receive a cognitive boost from the fact that notions of good and evil are metaphorically associated with ideas of lightness and airiness, and darkness and constriction, respectively.

The results did not appear to depend on whether participants already held religious beliefs about the afterlife – the same patterns were found regardless of their stated faith or supernatural belief, suggesting that our folk intuitions about immortality tend to overpower any formal belief systems that we claim to subscribe to. “These ways of thinking are very intuitive, and overcoming them takes effort,” says Gray.

One caveat to these studies concerns the fact that the participants were from a Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic (WEIRD) society. Psychological insights generated from WEIRD participants do not always generalize to other cultures, and in this case beliefs about reincarnation may have been under-represented. But Gray and colleagues argue that the cross-cultural similarities in the beliefs about the afterlife that inspired the research suggest that the new studies tap into a universal aspect of our psychology.

Gray is currently writing up the results of follow-on studies in which he looked at how the state of someone’s mind at the point of death – say, whether it was at the peak of health or wracked by dementia – affected how participants perceived its prospects for immortality. So while we may not ever be able to achieve literal immortality, at least we may soon know what it takes for others to think we’re immortal.

To be immortal, do good or evil

Image: Milton’s Paradise Lost – Hell at last, Yawning. Vintage engraving by Gustave Dore, from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Hell at last, Yawning, received them whole.

Post written by Dan Jones (@MultipleDraftz) for the BPS Research Digest. Dan is a freelance writer based in Brighton, UK, whose writing has appeared in The Psychologist, New Scientist, Nature, Science and many other magazines. He blogs at www.philosopherinthemirror.wordpress.com.

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