Think about the last time something bad happened to you. Friends and family may have rallied around you, trying to comfort you, show a little empathy and sympathy.
And maybe one of them uttered the mother of all platitudes:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Surely that person meant well; certainly it seemed like the right thing to say. And, remarkably, most humans believe it’s true, that there is a purpose behind it all, no matter what. It seems to be almost innate to us; children tend to believe it more readily than adults.
Paul Bloom, the Brooks & Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science at Yale, was so fascinated by this relatively universal belief that he decided to look into it—to really look into it. So the Templeton Foundation gave him a three-year grant to explore the topic.
ORBITER wanted to know what Bloom learned, so we talked to him about it.
ORBITER: What got you interested in psychology?
Paul Bloom: I got interested in psychology because my brother is severely autistic. When I was a teenager, I worked in camps and after-school programs with autistic kids, and I thought I’d end up working with them as a therapist of some sort. But about two years into the undergraduate program at McGill University, I met this professor, John Macnamara, who did an entirely different sort of psychology, working on interfaith and philosophical issues. And I just got totally entranced. I ended up working with him, and it really transformed my life. I’m glad I didn’t become a therapist. I wouldn’t have become good at it.
You’ve been digging into this universal question, “Does everything really happen for a reason?” What made you want to go there?
Well, it wasn’t just me. It was this brilliant student of mine, Konika Banerjee, who was very interested in the origins of religious belief. And I’ve looked at other aspects of religious belief myself—questions about why we believe in life after death and how the spirit is separate from the body and why creationist views have such a draw on us. But Koni was interested in purpose and meaning, and she noted that religious systems, almost without exception, have stories about why bad things actually happen—why significant life events ultimately may be translated to God’s will. She was interested in studying this belief, how it emerged, and whether it differs from people who are religious or nonreligious.
Did you find that religious people tend to look for purpose more frequently than atheists and nonreligious people?
Yes. Religious adults are more likely to see meaning in life events. We asked people about their significant life events and their meaning, and religious people were much more likely to say that these things are there to teach them a lesson, have a purpose, or ultimately for the good. But we were excited to learn that even atheists feel this to a strong extent, so a lot of people who explicitly deny that there’s a God will search for some sort of karma state or balance in the universe. But that’s definitely more prevalent in a belief system than nonreligious.
Some of your study zeroed in on children, and it seems they are predisposed to believe that things happen for a reason. Is that kind of hardwired into kids, do you think?
We know kids are very interested in the causes of things, whether they’re religious or not. But do they think things happen for a meaning, have a purpose? In Koni’s studies, she finds that they do. They have more of a tendency to say it was for a reason—even a mundane story, like somebody losing her bag on a bus. They’re much more likely to agree that this happened to teach them a lesson about taking care of their stuff.
Any surprises or eureka moments in your research?
I can’t think of any real surprises. Maybe one minor surprise is the extent to which atheists were drawn to say that there’s fate or karma or balance, even though they insist there’s nothing spiritual going on. That’s an interesting inconsistency, and I think it speaks to the way in which this causative habit influences us.
Why are we humans so interested in this topic? Seems like life would be easier if we didn’t wrestle with these hard issues of why things happen. Why are we wired that way?
Why are people are interested in the topic? I think it’s not so much of an intellectual need, but an emotional need. It’s very reassuring to think that, when bad things happen, there’s an underlying purpose behind them. There’s a silver lining. There’s a plan. The idea that the world is this pitiless place where things just happen, one damn thing after another, is frightening to many people.
The question as to why we believe this in the first place, I think, has to do with the evolution of the mind. Two main tracks that have evolved. One yields the physical world, the material world of things and their causation. But the other is the world of minds and minds have goals and plans and emotions and desires. We are wired to attribute things; if you do something, I might say, “Why did you do that?”, because that’s what you do with minds. Similarly, when something happens in the world, I ask a “Why” question—even though there’s no person behind it. I think this is the appetite that goes a long way explaining why we believe in God in the first place.
When bad things happen to us, we rush to those “Why” questions. Why don’t we do that when something good happens to us?
That’s a good question. In our research, we didn’t find a huge difference in good things and bad things; people also believe good things happen for a reason. But I think there’s less of an emotional need to do it, because there’s no problem. If you win the lottery, you don’t fall to your knees and say, “Why did this happen to me?”
I think people of faith can wrestle with this notion of purpose. On one hand, it does bring some level of comfort to know that there’s a loving God despite bad things. But on the other, if God allows it or causes it, we can shake our fist and yell, “How could this possibly have a good purpose?” Did your research reveal any of this type of internal wrestling?
We never addressed those questions in our research. But what you’re saying is a version of the problem of evil that any intelligent deist has to deal with. So, you know, one solution is, there’s the god and there’s the devil. God has limited powers. So when bad things happen, God couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Evil forces intervened. That may be a strange theology these days, but at least it doesn’t cause any of the problems you’re talking about. But if you believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient and omnibenevolent, you’ve got a problem. Because now we’re forcing you to confront the idea that, you know, the cancer of a loved one or a horrible car crash, it was part of God’s plan. I think that leads to some inner turmoil for some people.
And then there’s the problem of people using that theology flippantly. Somebody gets cancer and someone tells them, “Well, God has a purpose. Everything happens for a reason.” That can be aggravating for the person who’s suffering.
Yeah. So this stuff never got published, but Koni was very interested in use of that phrase, in social media and in conversations. She came across some websites for cancer patients, and many of them said they hated that phrase, when people said that to them. I mean, it could be heartfelt, but it almost seems dismissive. To say, “Well, don’t you worry about your troubles. It’s for a greater purpose,” you know? And that often seems almost cold and a bit hard to swallow.
You can dodge this question if you want to, but do your own spiritual beliefs come into your research, or do you set them aside?
It’s always dangerous when somebody says they aren’t biased in any way by their own beliefs I’m an atheist, and I think the idea that “everything happens for a reason” is ultimately foolish. I think it’s just nothing more than a cognitive bias. But I’m not interested whether theological question is right or wrong. I’m interested in what people believe, and I take it as I find it. And I do think that, in an important way, the metaphysical questions, the deep theological questions, are very separate from the psychological questions. People often get them confused. Like the question of whether or not there exists a god is very different a question than why do people believe in god. And I’m interested in the second sort of question.
What are you working on now in your research?
I’m doing a lot of research on morality—on how we make moral judgments, our emerging beliefs about obligations and what’s a just punishment and what constitutes kindness and caring.
See also this article Bloom wrote for The New York Times.