What’s behind “no”? Why survey respondents might reject evolution

By Elisa Järnefelt

If a person answers in a survey that they do not accept evolution, it sounds like the simplest and clearest thing. Surely, we can conclude that the person turns their back on evolutionary science as a relevant approach to assess the natural world and thinks that no organisms evolve. Or can we? What if, when answering a question about evolution, the person was not really thinking about evolutionary science, science or even nature? In this territory of ‘Something Else’, what could “no” then mean?

The views that we as individuals end up endorsing are greatly affected by our evaluation of how much the idea presented is in line with the thoughts of those who matter most to us. Answering in a survey does not happen in a vacuum from this social calibration, but people are known to show a bias toward “socially desirable responding”. This means that, even when answering anonymously, we have a tendency to often answer in a manner that we think will present us in a favorable light to our peers. In a way, the survey responses can be unintentionally re-purposed to communicate one’s identity rather than one’s views or beliefs. In this context, if rejection of evolution is understood as a socially shared marker of a particular group, for some individuals answering “no” may be signaling primarily one’s belonging to this group, rather than one’s thinking about evolution as a process in nature, or as a field of scientific research.

Another possibility – that is not in any way in contradiction with the above – is that, without a deeper insight into what evolutionary science actually is or includes, some may be answering “no” in reference to what evolution is believed to represent. This could be anything from the mechanism of natural selection, to something-to-do-with-monkeys, atheism, or even racism and eugenics. If people’s misunderstandings, negative associations, or fears of the consequences that follow from accepting an idea go unnoticed, there is, of course, a good chance that the idea is then experienced as unpleasant. For example, if a religious person has come to perceive the acceptance of evolution as a stamp of atheism, it may be unsurprising if this person then rejects evolution without exploring what evolutionary science actually includes.

Along with the social calibration and learned implicit presumptions concerning what evolution or its rejection may culturally represent, also a more spontaneous and subjective level of calibration may be in play when answering “no” to evolution. Putting aside evolution and its rejection as a social signal and hub of potential prejudices, when thinking about the mechanisms of evolution, the processes evolution involves may feel intuitively implausible to people in various ways. Many ideas within evolutionary science are counter to intuitive or spontaneously formed hunches that both children and adults tend to have about their environment. For example, assessing organisms as ever-changing populations, thinking of humans as subject to these changes, and referring to the changes without tying their origins to purposes, goals or intentions does not come easily to one’s mind. However, people often trust and are (overly) confident about information that is in line with the information they already hold about the phenomenon. Therefore, if thinking about evolution brings to one’s mind the implausible feeling of many of its conclusions, answering “no” is likely to feel easier, and is certainly quicker, than re-assessing one’s intuitions about the state of the world.

When keeping in mind that these various aspects, along with many others, can be present and brought into the simple situation of answering “yes” or “no” in a survey, the task of asking questions can easily start to seem daunting. People’s identities, beliefs, implicit and explicit attitudes, and automatic reactions are an interacting mixture that are not always logically related to each other. Along with making the job of designing a survey rather complicated, I think realizing the multiple aspects of people’s views also represents an opportunity.

Maybe next time, when encountering an individual who answers “no” to a question that you think is an obvious “yes”, you can ask a bit more about their thoughts. What is the thing that they reject? Asking this question can be important because the “no” that the person is thinking may not be the “no” that you are presuming, and realizing this may be the beginning of an interesting and productive dialogue.

Dr Elisa Järnefelt is a cognitive scientist of religion and a Research Fellow for the project Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum.