The minimal counterintuitiveness effect

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Cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer argued that minimally counterintuitive concepts (MCI) i.e., concepts that violate a few ontological expectations of a category such as the category of an agent, are more memorable than intuitive and maximally counterintuitive (MXCI) concepts.[1] A number of experimental psychology studies have found support for Boyer's hypothesis. Upal [2] labelled this as the minimal counterintuitiveness effect or the MCI-effect.

Boyer originally did not precisely specify the number of expectation-violations that would render an idea maximally counterintuitive. Early empirical studies including those by Boyer himself [3] and others [4] did not study MXCI concepts. Both these studies only used concepts violating a single expectation (which were labelled as MCI concepts). Atran [5] was the first to study memory for MXCI concepts and labeled concepts violating 2-expectations as maximally counterintuitive. Studies by the I-75 Cognition and Culture Group [6][7][8][9] also labelled ideas violating two expectations as maximally counterintuitive. Barrett [10] argued that ideas violating 1 or 2 ontological expectations should be considered MCI and only ideas violating 3 or more expectations should be labelled MXCI. Subsequent studies [11] of the MCI effect have followed this revised labelling scheme.

Upal [12] has divided the cognitive accounts that explain the MCI effect into two categories: the Context-based model of minimal counterintuitiveness, and content-based view of minimal counterintuitiveness. The context-based view emphasizes the role played by context in making an idea counterintuitive whereas the content-based view ignores the role of context.


  1. ^ Boyer, Pascal. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas University of California Press, 1994.
  2. ^ Upal, M. A. (2010). "An Alternative View of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness Effect", Journal of Cognitive Systems Research, 11(2), 194-203.
  3. ^ Boyer, P., & Ramble, C. (2001). "Cognitive templates for religious concepts". Cognitive Science, 25, 535–564.
  4. ^ Barrett, J. L., & Nyhof, M. (2001). "Spreading non-natural concepts: the role of intuitive conceptual structures in memory and transmission of cultural materials". Journal of Cognition and Culture, 1, 69–100.
  5. ^ Atran, S. (2002). "In gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion", Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ Upal, M. A. (2005). "Role of context in memorability of intuitive and counterintuitive concepts". In B. Bara, L. Barsalou, & M. Bucciarelli (Eds.), Proceedings of the 27th annual conference of the cognitive science society, (pp. 2224–2229). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.
  7. ^ Gonce, L., Upal, M., Slone, J., & Tweney, R. (2006). "The role of context in the recall of counterintuitive concepts". Journal of Cognition and Culture, 6(3–4), 521–547.
  8. ^ Tweney, R. D., Upal, M. A., Gonce, L., Slone, D. J., & Edwards, K. (2006). "The creative structuring of counterintuitive worlds". Journal of Cognition and Culture, 6, 483–498.
  9. ^ Upal, M. A., Gonce, L., Tweney, R., et al. (2007). Contextualizing counterintuitiveness: How context affects comprehension and memorability of counterintuitive concepts. Cognitive Science, 31(3), 415–439.
  10. ^ Barrett, J. L. (2008). "Coding and quantifying counterintuitiveness in religious concepts: Theoretical and methodological reflections". Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 20, 308–338.
  11. ^ Harmon-Vukic, M., Upal, M. A., & Trainor, C. "Understanding the role of context in memory for maximally counterintuitive concepts", in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.
  12. ^ Upal, M. A. (2010). "An Alternative View of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness Effect", Journal of Cognitive Systems Research, 11(2), 194-203.