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God Looks A Lot Like You

The Book of Genesis says that man was created in God’s image. But a new study finds human beings may be returning the favor.

Kurt Gray studies mind perception, or the ability to attribute mental states to others. When he asked people to identify the face of God, he found humans tend to project  their own values and characteristics onto the divine. And human egocentrism doesn’t stop there. People also assume the family dog or cat’s thoughts and feelings mirror their own.

Guest host Anita Rao talks to Kurt Gray, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and leader of the Mind Perception and Morality Lab about his recent research, and why humans see themselves everywhere they look.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On what humans think God looks like:
One difficult thing when you look at perceptions of God is that people have a kind of theologically correct explicit knowledge of God, right? So some people think that God can't be depicted; God has no face; God is everywhere; God is all these things that aren't human-like. But if you use more implicit measures like this one: “Pick which face looks more like God,” you can, by doing those measures again and again and again, get a kind of face map, if you will, of what God looks like. And that usually isn't theologically correct. It's what people actually, implicitly see. 

 

On the reasons why people see the God they see:

 
One is that people are egocentric, and they see minds and faces like their minds and faces. So one egocentric finding was that attractive people see an attractive God. And older people see an older God. And it's pretty striking, actually, if you look at the God that older people see it looks a lot older than the God that younger people see. But the other thing that people do is they use God as a source of motivation fulfillment. So what we found is that Conservatives see a God that looks sterner and more able to enforce order. Whereas Liberals see a God that looks a little more twinkly-eyed in some sense, and kinder and probably more into equality. So you see the God that supports your worldview, in some sense. 
 

On perceiving minds in other beings:
 

 
Cute things, I think because they look like babies, compel us to see minds ... That's about characteristics of the animal, but there's also characteristics of you. So if you're feeling very lonely, then you're more likely to perceive a mind because you want to find someone to love you back. And so this trope of the crazy cat lady reflects that. Someone who doesn't have a lot of other people in their lives is more likely to have animals to fill that social void and see other minds.
 

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.