“Think” and “believe” across cultures: A shared folk distinction between two cognitive attitudes in the US, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu

AbstractDo people hold different kinds of beliefs about gods and spirits than they do about the everyday world? Many say no: that to the faithful, gods and spirits are real in the same way that tables and chairs are real. Yet experimental studies have found that speakers of American English tacitly distinguish between two cognitive attitudes—one for factual beliefs and one for religious credences—through their differential use of the words “think” and “believe” (Heiphetz, Landers, and Van Leeuwen, 2018). In three large-scale studies—conducted in five strikingly different linguistic and cultural-religious contexts (from west to east: the US, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu)—we demonstrate that such linguistic differentiation of factual belief and religious credence is cross-culturally robust. This lends support to the hypothesis that human theory of mind includes nuanced distinctions among different varieties of “belief.”

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