New research reveals our folk beliefs about immortality – we think the good and bad will live on, but in very different ways

GettyImages-821819658.jpgBy guest blogger Dan Jones

When, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony delivers his funeral oration for his fallen friend, he famously says “The evil that men do lives on; the good is oft interred with their bones.” 

Anthony was talking about how history would remember Caesar, lamenting that doing evil confers greater historical immortality than doing good. But what about literal immortality? 

While there’s no room for such a notion in the scientific worldview, belief in an immortal afterlife was common throughout history and continues to this day across many cultures. Formal, codified belief systems like Christianity have a lot to say about the afterlife, including how earthly behaviour determines our eternal fate: the virtuous among us will apparently spend the rest of our spiritual days in paradise, while the wicked are condemned to suffer until the end of time. Yet, according to Christianity and many other formal religions, there’s no suggestion that anyone – good, bad or indifferent – gets more or less immortality, which is taken to be an all-or-nothing affair.

This is not how ordinary people think intuitively about immortality, though. In a series of seven studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Kurt Gray at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues, have found that, whether religious or not, people tend to think that those who do good or evil in their earthly lives achieve greater immortality than those who lead more morally neutral lives. What’s more, the virtuous and the wicked are seen to achieve different kinds of immortality.

The new findings complement previous work showing how we see moral character as a defining feature of people, both when they’re alive and when their souls depart. In the new studies, Gray and colleagues extended this, finding that their participants (recruited online via Amazon Mechanical Turk and including atheists and people of different religious faiths), rated historical figures who were extremely good or bad – Martin Luther King or Hitler, for example – as achieving a greater degree of immortality than morally neutral figures, such as Ameila Earhart and Andy Warhol.

Even if both good and evil people are seen to achieve greater immortality than the more morally neutral, might they nonetheless experience different kinds of immortality? For many of the world’s major religions, the answer is clearly yes: perform morally positive acts on earth and you go to The Good Place (Heaven) to enjoy total freedom in a paradisiacal realm, but do evil and you go instead to The Bad Place (Hell) to be tormented for all time.

Casting a wider anthropological net, many smaller, less formal belief systems also posit that good and evil spirits experience immorality in different ways. In particular, it’s common to find the belief that while virtuous spirits enjoy a transcendental freedom, evil spirits are more likely to be trapped or confined in some way, such as the Iroquois belief that they are eternally confined to their homes. Similar ideas crop up in popular culture too. When the evil wizard Voldemort dies in Harry Potter, his soul lives on in magical objects called Horcruxes. But when Obi-Wan Kenobi dies in the Star Wars films, his spirit is able to roam freely through the ethereal realm of the Force.

Gray and his colleagues found their participants held similar intuitive beliefs about the fates of deceased good, bad or neutral historical figures: they were more likely to see good souls as living in a transcendent state, wicked souls as trapped, and neutral souls as slightly less free than good ones but freer than bad ones. 

The reverse inference also held: reading about someone who had recently died and whose spirit had left the earthly realm and moved beyond space and time prompted participants to infer that this must have been a good person, while the converse led them to think the person must have been bad. 

Similarly, participants inferred that spirits inhabiting expansive locations, like hot deserts , arctic tundra or mountaintops, were more benevolent than those living in more confined locations, like a narrow trench,underground cave or tent in the woods, irrespective of how pleasant those locations were deemed.

Such inferences might explain why paranormal events are typically chalked up to malevolent spirits. The researchers asked more participants to imagine being in the house of someone recently deceased and that they felt a strange sensation as their spirit passed by. After reading these stories, people tended to view this spirit as malevolent, as a trapped spirit must be a bad spirit.

In explaining their findings, Gray’s team suggest that seeing good souls as free and transcendent and bad ones as confined and trapped stems in part for a basic desire for justice, with bad souls ending up in a spiritual prison and less able to roam and harm others. Such a desire may also receive a cognitive boost from the fact that notions of good and evil are metaphorically associated with ideas of lightness and airiness, and darkness and constriction, respectively.

The results did not appear to depend on whether participants already held religious beliefs about the afterlife – the same patterns were found regardless of their stated faith or supernatural belief, suggesting that our folk intuitions about immortality tend to overpower any formal belief systems that we claim to subscribe to. “These ways of thinking are very intuitive, and overcoming them takes effort,” says Gray.

One caveat to these studies concerns the fact that the participants were from a Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic (WEIRD) society. Psychological insights generated from WEIRD participants do not always generalize to other cultures, and in this case beliefs about reincarnation may have been under-represented. But Gray and colleagues argue that the cross-cultural similarities in the beliefs about the afterlife that inspired the research suggest that the new studies tap into a universal aspect of our psychology.

Gray is currently writing up the results of follow-on studies in which he looked at how the state of someone’s mind at the point of death – say, whether it was at the peak of health or wracked by dementia – affected how participants perceived its prospects for immortality. So while we may not ever be able to achieve literal immortality, at least we may soon know what it takes for others to think we’re immortal.

To be immortal, do good or evil

Image: Milton’s Paradise Lost – Hell at last, Yawning. Vintage engraving by Gustave Dore, from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Hell at last, Yawning, received them whole.

Post written by Dan Jones (@MultipleDraftz) for the BPS Research Digest. Dan is a freelance writer based in Brighton, UK, whose writing has appeared in The Psychologist, New Scientist, Nature, Science and many other magazines. He blogs at

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Chess grandmasters show the same longevity advantage as elite athletes


Red and blue lines show the ratio of the yearly survival rates for Olympic medallists and Chess grandmasters, respectively, relative to the general population (flat dashed line). Shaded areas show confidence intervals. Via An Tran-Duy et al, 2018

By Christian Jarrett

It’s well established that elite athletes have a longer life expectancy than the general public. A recent review of over 50 studies comprising half a million people estimated the athletic advantage to be between 4 and 8 years, on average. This comes as little surprise. One can easily imagine how the same genetic endowment and training necessary to develop physical prowess in sport might also manifest in physical health. Now for the first time, a study published in PLOS One (open access) shows that athletes of the mind – chess grandmasters – show the same longevity advantage as athletes of the body.

An Tran-Duy at the University of Melbourne and his colleagues obtained data on over 1,200 chess grandmasters, mostly men, from 28 countries in three world regions, including whether or not they survived each successive year after receiving their title, all the way up to the beginning of 2017. From this, the researchers calculated the average yearly survival rates, adjusting for region, age and sex, which allowed them to come up with estimated life expectancies for grandmasters of different ages in different years. They did the same with data for over 15,000 olympic medalists.

There was no difference in the average life expectancy of the athletes and the chess grandmasters, but both groups showed a sizeable life expectancy advantage compared to the general population. For instance, in 2010, the average life expectancy of a chess grandmaster aged 25 was 6.3 years longer than the average for a 25-year-old member of the public. For a 55-year-old chess grandmaster, life expectancy was 4.5 years longer.

The study can’t tell us anything about why chess grandmasters live longer than the public. It’s possible some of the causes are indirect, such as the grandmasters possibly having higher average IQ (which is itself associated with longevity); elite chess players are also known to take more care of their physical fitness than the general population; and the social and economic benefits of becoming a grandmaster, especially notable in Eastern Europe, may have health benefits. Chess may also have direct health benefits, including via its known effects on the brain – for instance, it reduces risk of dementia.

Tran-Duy and his team begin their paper quoting Isaac Asimov: “In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate”, and they reference this quote in their conclusion. “Not only does the game of life continue after the checkmate,” they write, “but excelling in mind sports like chess means one is likely to play the game for longer.”

Longevity of outstanding sporting achievers: Mind versus muscle

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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Is there a crisis in local government outsourcing?

Worrying times for local public sector outsourcing contracts.

Has the third bus arrived with the latest big outsourcing company to report troubles? Following the collapse of Carillion and the losses reported by Capita along comes the announcement of a massive drop in Interserves’ share price and the inevitable ongoing discussions about the viability of the outsourcing model – especially within the public sector.

These three companies share many similarities they are – (or were, in the case of Carillion) – companies spanning the continents and offering services in an array of diverse sectors. Capita for example a multinational business operating in Europe, Africa and Asia, with  a split in its services about fifty-fiftyhalf between the public and private sectors.

Business logic suggests the wide range of skills and experience offered by this kind of international, inter-sectoral organisation, can be a big plus to local government and other parts of the public sector. And most certainly the NHS could benefit from the know-how of senior personnel in business.

Should care be outsourced?

But such size and diversity can also be a weakness when an organisation becomes too big and geographically spread, it can become difficult to coordinate its service delivery potentially leading to confusion, duplication and waste.

Nevertheless, we should not overstate the problems of giant outsourcing companies. They have become part of the local government landscape and many councils depend on them. And most, close to 90%, of all local government contracts work and deliver positive benfites in cost and the delivery of services.

But taken together the recent spate of crisis stories suggests to local authorities and other parts of the public sector that to become too dependent on huge multinationals and to become at risk to uncontrollable market forces is something to be avoided. Public perception of outsourcing is poor and any short term crisis that impacts the delivey of public services receives due attention from the public and politicians alike.

The important lessons coming from the recent crisis are well known and researched. Large scale companies often will under-bid to gain the business, and there is evidence that these organisations continually grow by acquisition, or the under-bidding of contracts to gain turnover share rather than a more organic growth approach. They have to keep running to avoid the collapse. The way it was put to me on one of the bids I was involved with was ‘we bid low to get the contract then when we are in we can get the contract changed to our advantage.’ But sometimes it does not work out like that!

For the public sector contract and procurement managers the pressure to get costs down over-rides sensible decision making and evaluation of bids. They are too tactical in their decision making and think they are doing a good job by squeezing down the price and pushing all the risk onto the suppliers. Well that gets them no-where when the contract collapses! So there are two sides to these problems: aggressive selling by suppliers to get the business and force out competition, and poor procurement and contract management prectices within the public sector.


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