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Hyperactive Agency Detection

by Steven Novella, Mar 22 2010

Something does not seem quite right. The most powerful man in the world, John F. Kennedy, was taken out by a lone nutjob of no previous consequence? A jet flies into the pentagon and yet the expected debris is not visible. And why can’t I see stars in the NASA Apollo moon landing photos?

Some hidden agent must be at work, conspiring to deceive and carry out some sinister plot.

At least that is how our brains are hardwired to think, and some of us more than others. This tendency has been termed the “hyperactive (or hypersensitive) agency detection device” –  HADD – coined by Justin Barrett. Understanding that HADD is an intrinsic part of human nature is part of the core knowledge base of the skeptic.

As a neurologist and a skeptic I am particularly interested in how brain function relates to human intellectual strengths and weaknesses and how knowledge of such helps us to avoid common mental pitfalls. In other words, knowledge of how the human brain works helps us think better – to be more skeptical and avoid error.

Psychologists and neuroscientists in recent years have demonstrated that our brains are hardwired to distinguish things in our environment that are alive from those that are not alive. But “being alive” (from a psychological point of view) is not about biology, but agency – something that can act in the world, that has its own will and can cause things to happen. Sure, this is a property of living things, but that’s not how our brain sort things out. We can perceive agency in non-living things if they are acting as if they are agents.

This is reflected even in our visual system, which separates out visual information into different streams according to the type of information. One division is between information about actions and information about objects. The object stream is also divided into brain regions that deal with inanimate objects and other regions that deal with living things or animate objects. So on a fundamental level our brains treat agents different than objects – from the moment we see them.

Bruce Hood, author of Supersense, goes over in his book the psychological studies that have documented and described the human tendency to think of objects differently than agents. We imbue agents with an essence – a unique living force, even while infants. Objects are just generic things, totally interchangeable. While agents have their own unique essence. Interestingly, children can come to view a favorite toy (a stuffed animal, for example) with the properties of an agent and will treat it like a living thing. This reinforces the notion that the distinction we make is not between living and non-living so much as agent vs object. This  likely also explains why we can watch a cartoon and react emotionally to the characters as if they were real – they are not living, but we see them as agents.

According to Barrett, HADD works in part by detecting any movement that is non-inertial – something which seems to be moving of its own volition. We then assume it is acting with agency and react accordingly. This likely provided an evolutionary advantage – it is better to assume the rustling in the bushes was not the wind but a hungry tiger. So we are descended from hominids who were more paranoid and had hyperactive agency detection, because they were less likely to be eaten by predators.

We can extrapolate from “non-inertial movement”, or movement that cannot be easily explained as a passive reaction to natural forces, to more and more complex “actions.” HADD detects more than movement, it can detect a pattern in otherwise unrelated events, details that defy easy explanation, or consequences that seem out of proportion to the alleged causes. When HADD is triggered we tend to see a hidden agent working behind the scenes, making events unfold the way they do, and perhaps even deliberately hiding its own tracks.

When HADD is triggered and we think we see the hidden agent, it speaks to us in a very primal way. For some people the perception of hidden agency becomes overwhelming, dominating all other thought processes. We know these people as conspiracy theorists. But there is a little conspiracy theorist inside each of us.

Studies have also demonstrated that HADD is more likely to be triggered when a stimulus is ambiguous – therefore it tends to be our default assumption – an object is an agent until we are sure it’s just an object. Also, in situations where we have less control our HADD becomes more active still.

Barrett and others have speculated that HADD is important to the development of religion – where God is the ultimate invisible agent. So far this hypothesis has not been significantly researched, but it does seem reasonable. Seeing natural or random events as the will of an agent is HADD.

HADD also leads to superstition – thinking that there is a cause and effect between unconnected events. The underlying assumption of superstitions is that things happen for a reason (a vague ill-defined reason, but a sense that there is a hidden agency at work). I think it is liberating to understand that rather (as was most elegantly stated on a bumper sticker) “shit happens.”

Skepticism, in many ways, is a filter on HADD. First we have to recognize that our brains are not perfect perceivers and processors of information. There are specific and myriad ways in which the human brain is biased and flawed. Science and skepticism are methods for correcting or filtering out those biases. Skeptics ask themselves – is it really true. We see many patterns, but only some of those patterns represent underlying reality. We need a process to sort out which ones are real – that is science and skepticism.

32 Responses to “Hyperactive Agency Detection”

  1. Citizen Wolf says:

    The HADD hypothesis is very compelling, and if true, means that religion (in whatever guise it takes) will be with us for a long long time.

  2. Robo Sapien says:

    That is one of the more fascinating tidbits I’ve read lately, I will definitely be reading up more on HADD. The concept is very much in line with my own thoughts on human behavior.

    My personal theory, along these same lines, is that humans tend to follow courses of thought that lead them to emotional resposes. We tend to take the shortest path to the most easily produced emotion, regardless of what emotion that may be. For most people, those tend to be negative ones like anger and sadness, as those are the most easily invoked (because, like you said, shit happens).

    Logic and reason are cold, unemotional. Human beings, however, have a strong need to feel SOMETHING, anything, just to get that rush of triggered by X emotion.

  3. I misread the title as “Hyperactive Detective Agency”. That would make a great kids book!

    Think about it, you have a group of detectives that when attempting to solve mysteries they completely ignore the evidence because they’re too hyperactive, instead, they come up with crazy and hilarious theories. It would be a good demonstration to kids the follies of jumping to conclusions and not following the evidence.

    • Citizen Wolf says:

      LOL, the Hyperactive Detective Agency sounds great. In addition to not solving any crimes properly, the weird and wonderful solutions they come up with could be endlessly facinating. Old Mrs Smith’s cat didn’t just go missing, it was snatched away by MIBs who suspected that it was working for the Russians. Not to worry though, it escaped and is making its way back via a psychic connection it has with its owner.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      If I wanted to see that, I’d just watch the news.

    • CW says:

      Isn’t that the agency that Dirk Gently works?

    • Chris says:

      So did I!

      Not just once, but every time I checked in (while avoiding work) here and Dr. Novella’s other blog. It definitely confirms “First we have to recognize that our brains are not perfect perceivers and processors of information. There are specific and myriad ways in which the human brain is biased and flawed.”

      (which I copied to make a comment, but found out I was not first with the observation)

  4. Andrew says:

    Good post.
    “Barrett and others have speculated that HADD is important to the development of religion – where God is the ultimate invisible agent.” I heartily concur.
    Couple HADD with innate hierarchical social instincts, you might call them, and you’ve got the propensity to infer the existence of “An Almighty Alpha”: the monotheistic god of Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Sorry about the shameless self-promotion here, but for more on that line of thought, see:

  5. hardindr says:

    Barrett has written an interesting book using HADD to help explain why people have certain religious beliefs.

    Why Would Anyone Believe in God?

    Other books in a similar vain:

    In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, by Scott Atran

    Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer

    Magic, Miracles, and Religion: A Scientist’s Perspective, By Ilkka Pyysiainen

    Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas, by lkka Pyysiainen

    An article on cognitive approaches to religion

  6. Max says:

    “Why can’t I see stars in the NASA Apollo moon landing photos?”

    The underlying premise is that you should expect to see stars in photos taken on the moon. If this premise is true, and you don’t see the stars, then the photos were not taken on the moon. Of course the other possibility is that the premise is false. Either way there’s an opportunity to learn something. If the premise was true, it raises questions about the photos. If the premise was false, you learn why it was false and adjust your expectations to be more realistic.

    “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…'”
    -Isaac Asimov?

    • Deen says:

      I have little doubt that the natural reluctance to admit we are wrong is also a large part of conspiracy thinking. After all, conspiracies are often invoked to protect some long-held, cherished beliefs.

      • Majority of One says:

        Deen, I agree. To a large extent, being right drives everything and explains most people’s behavior. I also think this is why religions aren’t going away any time soon. As for conspiracies, unfortunately, the evidence that will provide PROOF is no longer there, like with JFK, so we’re left to speculate. I find most people to be open to any possibility but some, your zealots, are not going to listen even with reasoned dialogue. Same with your religious zealots.

        This is why I think it is important to keep an open mind and be open to change your mind if new evidence comes to light.

        About flight 93, I’m still wondering where all the debris was…the wheels, the engines, the suitcases full of clothes, the watches, rings, and other posessions of the passengers, the tail section, the landing gear, etc. etc. etc. All of this just disentigrated? Remember that flight that took off from New York and blew up over the Atlantic? They put that entire plane back together in an aircraft hanger. Darn near every piece and it blew up in mid-air. Something’s hinky about flight 93 lads. I’m open to the official story, but it just doesn’t make sense. Sorry to beat the dead horse and I know I’ll get derision for this but so be it. Something fishy happened. I don’t know what. Don’t know how. And, I’m open to the official story, but it just doesn’t make logical sense.

      • Seth Manapio says:

        Majority, based on your knowledge of physics and detailed analysis of the crash, what debris, specifically, is missing? How do you know that it is missing? Where should it be?

      • Max says:

        Start with basic fact checking. How do you know the watches, rings, landing gear, etc. are all missing?
        What do you make of these photos?

        And as I mentioned before, not only were human remains recovered, but even identified.

      • Max says:

        Oh by the way, see the photo of CeeCee Lyles?

        For some odd reason, when I google CeeCee Lyles, no “truther” websites come up. Try it.

  7. Max says:

    Is autism at the opposite extreme of agency detection?
    “Individuals with autism … were also unable to derive psychologically based personality features from the shapes’ movements.”

    Are autistic people less likely to believe in conspiracy theories?

    • Max says:

      Also, I wonder how this relates to IQ, which is supposed to correlate with abstract thinking and pattern recognition.

  8. Gerald Guild says:

    I find this all very intriguing. So many concepts to explore – pareidolia, patternicity, essentialism, vitalism, holism, adaptive unconscious, and now HADD. Isn’t it curious that evolution has given us minds so heavily inclined toward a supersense (and thus religion, superstition, homeopathy) and so many cognitive errors (confirmation bias, self serving bias, attribution error)? These factors set us up for error. Yet authors like Hood, Wade, and Gladwell argue that these cognitions are essential for creativity, social cohesion, and holding important values as sacred. Perhaps this is true; however, I believe that it is extremely important to be aware of these inclinations, no matter how adaptive, because they do come at a significant cost. I contend that they are at the root of the bitter partisanship we see in the US and the often unfruitful banter between believers and skeptics (be the issue Anthropogenic Global Warming, vaccines, health care reform, alternative “medicine” or God). Understanding this “intuitive” inclination is the key to progress on these fronts. Skeptical or at least critical thinking is the path. But again, if antagonists can’t cut through these base errors – no amount of reason will suffice.

    • tmac57 says:

      Yes, these attributes seem to be a double edged sword. The obvious problem is that there are those out there that seem to easily grasp the “loopholes” in our cognition, and use them to exploit people for their own gain, be that monetary, political, or whatever. We need to be “eternally vigilant” to the possibility that we, or others, are being manipulated like puppets by the cynical savants that realize that after all, we are only human,and that, is a fertile ground for plowing.

  9. JerryM says:

    So conspiracy nuts have been HADD by their own brains…

    couldn’t resist

    • Citizen Wolf says:

      This could be a new tag line:
      You know you’ve been HADD when you see bigfoot / fairies / UFO’s / Leprechauns / Christ-in-toast.

  10. Deen says:

    Great article. You’re right, knowledge about HADD should be common knowledge for skeptics.

    Barrett and others have speculated that HADD is important to the development of religion – where God is the ultimate invisible agent.

    I’ve been wondering about this for a while now. If both religion and belief in conspiracy can be the result of a more active HADD, wouldn’t that be detectable as a correlation between religiosity and conspiracy thinking? In my personal experience, this rings true, as I’ve seen plenty of religious people with a persecution complex. But that might easily be confirmation bias, of course. Does anyone here know if this has been researched?

    • Max says:

      “If both religion and belief in conspiracy can be the result of a more active HADD, wouldn’t that be detectable as a correlation between religiosity and conspiracy thinking?”

      Firstly, it depends what you mean by religiosity. If you mean adherence to a religion, consider Zeitgeist the movie, which concludes that religion is a conspiracy. If you expand the definition of religiosity to include conspiracy thinking, then the question becomes redundant.

      Secondly, correlations may not be what you expect. For example, if Christian and Muslim fundamentalism both result from the same brain wiring, you wouldn’t expect Christian fundies to practice Islam.

    • tmac57 says:

      I see more of a correlation between the ‘fervor’ of the belief, rather than the belief itself. The intense ‘surety of convictions’ seems to be a common thread. But, again this might just be confirmation bias on my part.

  11. MadScientist says:

    It’s an interesting notion, but how do we test it? As far as I can remember I’ve always tested ideas (frequently with disastrous results) rather than simply believing something. We do not need to project notions onto other objects (much less distinguish between object and agent) to come up with incorrect ideas about how the world works. In fact, if humans had a propensity to know how the world worked (except through experiment) then there may be a basis for superstition. As things are though, we’re all just dumb animals who have to learn about the world individually – no preordained knowledge, only reflexive actions which are useful to staying alive long enough to breed. Humans are unique among the existing animals because they have developed effective tools for transferring knowledge to the next generation (and there are also physical advantages in being able to manipulate objects with some finesse).

    So, for now I reject the HADD idea and stick to the simpler notion that as ignorant beasts there is nothing unusual about coming up with stupid ideas about the world, but as intelligent beasts we can test ideas and reject the bad ones. From where I stand, HADD looks like a victim of itself – oh, the computer geeks would like that self-referential notion.

    • Don says:

      I found a fellow skeptic on HADD.

      I don’t understand why it evolve. Take the squirrels in my backyard. They are quite aware that the dog is there to taunt. They know to fear the cat. They aren’t afraid of the wind. They freeze when they hear a noise in the bushes, but then continue on their way.

      I presume that squirrels don’t have hyperactive agency detection. But how would it help them. Animals need to properly evaluate threats. Sensing false threats is non-adaptive. Saying otherwise is nonsensical.

  12. Alan says:

    Two observations:

    1) Believe it or not, but this is quite similar to a subset of Carl Jung’s psychological theory of Archetypes — namely how and why people can see “agents” in things and people.

    2) More to the point I think this is a great insight, but the danger is that as “skeptics” we will think we are somehow immune to their effects — or at least can easily detect them. Yet, I would argue there are a number of instances were many “skeptics” seem to fall for what amounts to conspiracy theories, the most notable example being Climate Change denial.

    So, I hope ideas such as these can help us see the possible danger for us falling into such “magical thinking” — as opposed to just having yet another tool to rationalize how anything we believe as “skeptics” must be generally correct since we are “skeptics”.

  13. feralboy12 says:

    To be fair, the story of the Kennedy assassination didn’t end with the “lone nutjob” taking out the president. Keep in mind that Oswald was killed two days later on television while in the custody of the Dallas police. And while it’s possible that conspiracy theories might have arisen anyway, allowing the only suspect to be killed by a guy with Jack Ruby’s history and connections provides an ideal environment for conspiracy theories to proliferate.

  14. Max says:

    The key difference is whether something is predictable or unpredictable.
    If flooding happens every year at the same time, then it’s predictable, mechanical, like clockwork, clearly unaffected by prayer or rituals. But if it’s unpredictable, then people see it as the will of an agent.
    If your old computer is always slow, you won’t keep cussing at it, but if your new fast computer keeps slowing down for no apparent reason, you just might verbally abuse it.

  15. There’s a perfect explanation for all of these. One word. Photoshop. Yes, photoshop and time machines combined are a perfect match if you wan’t to go back in time and doctor images.

    See, only last week the NWO commissioned me to travel back in time to retouch some stars from the moon landing images. I got there and realised I forgot my USB flash drive so I had to wait 40 years or so before I could get to this time to travel back with my flash drive. Then, I forgot they didn’t have the operating system I required so I had to wait another 40 years or so before I could grab my laptop and travel back in time. Then, I forgot my charger and my battery was flat and I had to wait another 40 years or so before I could grab my spare charger and travel back in time. Then, I forgot I didn’t activate Photoshop and I didn’t have the serial number so I called Photoshop support and apparently they didn’t exist so I had to wait another….

  16. Joshua Hunt says:

    Thanks for the article Dr. Novella! Excellent work!

    Being an atheist I had to realize that even atheists can fall prey to HADD and other biases. I’ve met a few atheists, I was one of them, who buy into 9/11 conspiracy theories and other grand conspiracy theories, as well. An atheist who believes in grand conspiracy theories doesn’t believe in an agency like a god, but accepts the agency of a shadow government. Theists who believe there is an intelligent designer pulling all of the strings and setting everything into motion are no different than an atheist who believes there must be a shadow government pulling all the strings on everything (like 9/11 or the JFK assassination). No evidence for an “intelligent designer” and no evidence for a “shadow government”.

    We’re all irrational to some degree or another.