In one study that set out to investigate this question, young chimps observed a researcher using a stick to retrieve candy from a clear plastic box, employing both effective and ineffective motions. The chimps quickly discerned the candy-releasing moves and proceeded to repeat only those. Four-year-old children who watched the same demonstration, however, imitated the entire routine, including the unnecessary moves. The children seemed to put their trust in the experimenter and thus invest some magical significance or “blind faith” in actions of no practical value—perhaps a symptom of the human predisposition for superstition, de Waal posits.

The ease with which our brain suspends reality—call it irrationality, imagination or faith—has been crucial to the development of religion in human culture, according to de Waal, a respected primatologist and avowed atheist.


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