Suspicion, Intuition and Religiosity

Incorrect answer: “To commend me on my good driving.”

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” the officer asked me last Thursday.  I knew from watching my husband’s reactions when he’s been pulled over (the man never gets tickets, I swear) that the best thing to do is to play dead.  Not literally, but you have to avoid certain pitfalls:  being too confident, not being confident enough, being too animated, responding emotionally (regardless of the emotion – but anger and sadness are definitely out), flirting [1], being friendly, and most of all you cannot under any circumstances answer that loaded-for-bear question.  Which can be difficult because officers must be trained in waiting out uncomfortable silences. [2]  Almost anything you say or do can be misinterpreted to your detriment.

In my case, not answering the question is particularly important.  Whenever I’ve been pulled over, I can usually think of about four or five different possible things I did wrong.  Listing them off would not exactly help my case.  Yesterday, I really wasn’t sure.  Speeding [3]?  Undoubtedly, although I was going with the flow of traffic and some other cars had passed me, so I didn’t think that was why he stopped me.  Crossing six lanes of traffic in a fairly short distance?  There’s really no alternative if you want to get on the 51 from the 10 near the Phoenix airport.  That’s just a fact, city planners.  [4]  Tailgating?  Maybe technically I was; there were a lot of cars, and crossing six lanes of traffic required opportunism and not strictly adhering to the three-second rule.  Being a single driver in the HOV lane?  Yes, but in Phoenix the HOV lane is open to single drivers except during rush hour, so after quickly checking the time of day, I ruled this one out.  I nearly drove through the Gore zone to pull over, so I considered adding that to my list of potential infractions.

Acting guilty = must be guilty

The officer confirmed it was my remaining possibility:  not fully stopping [5] before turning right on a red light, which I had done just before entering the freeway.  I nodded my head, but coupled it with a confused expression.  I may have muttered, “Did I?”  I was trying to remember to maintain the expressionless response.  When you are under suspicion act bewildered but lucid, helpful without acknowledging any wrongdoing, curious but never belligerent.  The guy probably thought I was some kind of serial killer given the controlled micro-expressions on my face. [6]

Later in the day, I was reading a message from a friend about his impressions from sitting in on a church disciplinary council for the first time.  In the process, half the men were assigned to discuss the fairness of the proceeding toward the member in question.  The other half were assigned to discuss in favor of the church’s interests.  His observation reminded me of my experience being under suspicion earlier in the day.

As was true the one time I served on a criminal jury, I am struck by the faith that human beings put in their own intuitions, their own powers of discernment regarding the mental state of an accused. Observations about affect, about emotionalism (or a lack thereof) in a solemn, intimidating proceeding are seen as definitive evidence about what’s going on in an accused’s head, and what his level of remorse must be, regardless of his words. I myself am much less certain of my (or anyone’s) ability to assess this accurately. I’m also struck by the importance participants place on the issue of dissecting and analyzing levels of remorse at all, given its ultimate irrelevance to the final outcome. [7]

This belief in our own ability to read other people is also called Theory of Mind.  It’s unique to humans, and often diminished in autistic people; even though it’s very common, enabling empathy, it’s an incredibly fallible “skill.”  Serial killers, for example, exploit our theory of mind by deliberately misrepresenting themselves as vulnerable or in need of assistance. [8]    We also know that our ability to read minds is fallible because we are so hard-wired to attribute meaning, intention and attitude to others, that we even personify inanimate objects. [9]

I’m reading your filthy, filthy mind.

Interestingly, Theory of Mind is closely linked with religious belief.  Atheists are less prone to imagine they can discern the minds of others or the divine will, whereas religious people (and country singers) the world over imagine God as someone they can understand, like a friend or neighbor, according to Ara Norenzayan, a researcher studying the psychology of religion.  Additionally, a tendency to favor “intuition” over “analytical thinking” correlates with religious belief.  Once a person begins to examine their gut feelings more closely, it becomes more difficult to rely on those feelings.  The mere act of subsequent deliberation reduces our reliance on instinct, regardless of our natural tendency toward intuition.  This is an interesting contrast to the depiction in Doctrine & Coventants 9:8:

8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must astudy it out in yourbmind; then you must cask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your dbosom shall eburn within you; therefore, you shallffeel that it is right.

This admonition actually describes an inverted process from the one most religious people follow.  It starts with analytical thinking (studying it out in your mind) and ends with intuition (the spiritual confirmation).  But studies demonstrate that’s not the process religious people tend to follow.  Most religious people start and end with intuition or gut feeling, “discernment” or “the spirit” in Mormon terms.  When religious people start with intuition and later apply analytical thought, they often come to more secular non-religious conclusions and discard their previous beliefs.  It’s hard to eat sausage once you tour the sausage factory [10].

I know what you did last summer.

People on the autism spectrum do not share this confidence in their intuitive ability to understand others’ motives (or even the interest in doing so). [11]  That doesn’t mean that autistic people can’t also be religious or believe in God, just that they don’t “personify” God to the extent others do.  Rather they “conceptualize” God.

. . . in the autobiographies of autistic individuals, God, the cornerstone of most people’s religious experience, is presented more as a sort of principle than as a psychological entity.  For autistics, God seems to be a faceless force in the universe that is directly responsible for the organization of cosmic structure–arranging matter in an orderly fashion, or “treating” entropy–or He’s been reduced to cold, rational scientific logic altogether. [12]

Perhaps autistic people have a diminished capacity to read emotions, but one thing they do not do is overestimate their ability to assess others’ motives based on facial expressions, circumstance, and conflicting behaviors.  Maybe police officers, juries, and others placed in authority positions (including all of us at times) should question our own ability to read others more than we do.  And of course, that includes our confidence that we know the mind of God.  Religions are in the business of translating and interpreting God’s will; that doesn’t mean we get it right.

What are others thinking? Don’t know, don’t care.

We love to dissect people’s motives, to discuss our beliefs about why someone did something they did or why God let something happen, but all of these are guesses.  We love to hear stories of people with extraordinary discernment who saw through the liar, who understood the anger was a mask for pain, or who were able to help the person who seemed cheery but was in distress.  We imagine we are like those people, the ones who aren’t taken in, the ones who “get people.”  And yet, we forget that most of the time we really don’t have a clue.  We selectively remember the times we got it right.

As I thought about my run-in with the law, I recognized the feelings I have had when scrutinized at work or at church or whenever someone says, “We need to talk.”  The heightened awareness of being under scrutiny immediately changes our behavior.  We may be nervous or have self-doubt.  We may talk too much or too little.  We feel rattled. Those who hope to discern motives should bear in mind that the scrutiny itself alters the behavior.  Does a person in a church court behave normally?  Does a person in a performance review?  Does a person sitting in a paper dress in a doctor’s office?  Does a person in a traffic stop?  Even if they did, would we interpret their actions correctly?

Of course, living in society, we are all watched most of the time.  Society expects certain things of us, like not running red lights [13].  In the church, we have several formal settings in which we are scrutinized:  worthiness interviews for the youth, temple recommend interviews, meetings with mission presidents, being extended a calling, tithing settlement, PPIs.  We can’t avoid scrutiny altogether, but hopefully we can pause next time we are the assessor and question our convictions when it comes to others’ motives and behaviors.


[1] My husband never flirts with cops.  Well, not that I’ve seen.

[2] They could sit through fast and testimony meeting and never ever get up, no matter how long the minutes stretched without someone getting up.

[3] Or as I like to call it “efficient driving.”  And yes, he did tell me I was going 78 in a 65, but didn’t cite me for it.

[4] Unfortunately, being pulled over meant I missed my exit and had to drive through that tangled up spaghetti bowl of roads that is downtown Phoenix.

[5] Or really at all.

[6] Apparently that carries a similar fine.

[7] As a person who watches a lot of Law & Order, I know I’m incredibly accurate at determining who is guilty and who is lying in an interrogation.  It’s almost always the most recognizable actor who isn’t a regular on the show.

[8] Ted Bundy often lured his victims by using crutches and struggling to carry unwieldy packages.  That plus being boyishly handsome.

[9] In one study, participants were shown a large triangle and smaller triangle in a series of enigmatic drawings.  Many participants began to speak to the motivation of the triangles in the drawings, imbuing characteristics like “fear” and “bullying” into their perceived “behavior.”  (from The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life by Jesse Bering).

[10] to say nothing of scrapple.

[11] In one study, participants were shown a video of a man and woman arguing with a third person standing in the background.  The eye movements of participants were tracked.  Most participants looked at the man or woman speaking and occasionally checked the third person to look at their facial expression.  Autistic participants’ eye scans revealed a different pattern.  Most looked at the lamp, occasionally flicking over to the light switch.  When asked to explain what they were looking at, those participants said they were the brightest objects in the room, so the most visually interesting.

[12] Temple Grandin said:  “It is beyond my comprehension to accept anything on faith alone, because of the fact that my thinking is governed by logic instead of emotion.  In high school I came to the conclusion that God was an ordering force that was in everything.  I found the idea of the universe becoming more and more disordered profoundly disturbing.  In nature, particles are entangled with millions of other particles, all interacting with each other.  One could speculate that entanglement of these particles could cause a kind of consciousness for the universe.  This is my current concept of God.”  (The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life by Jesse Bering)

[13] victimless crime, but whatever.


  1. This is some incredible insight, thank you! The often-heard “inspired” leader, who “just knew the interviewee was guilty” has always bothered me. methinks we doth assume too much

  2. Very interesting. So often people are presented in black and white – in church settings in particular – but I think most people, if not all, are much more complex than that. Our motives tend to come in multiple shades of grey, and it’s impossible for others to fully understand because often we don’t fully understand our own motives. I have no idea why I do half the things I do. I defy anyone else to figure it out.

    And the older I get, the less confident I get in my ability to read other people because I’ve had enough experiences where I made totally the wrong call. On the bright side, this increasing lack of confidence makes me more hesitant to judge others too rashly or harshly. Though there are undoubtedly exceptions. I’m only human after all.

  3. This reminds me of an experience I had a few years back. I was supposed to have a lady friend, whom I was close with (and trying to date at the time) over for dinner one Sunday. A few hours before we were supposed to have dinner, she called me and told me that she would not be able to make it. She refused to tell me anything about why. I drove with her to our YSA group’s HFE the next day, and she finally told me what had happened. She went to Girls camp earlier that week as a junior leader. Since she was close with most of the older girls, she had a lot of girl talk with them. Apparently, several of the girls felt that she needed to repent of making out with multiple people, and once changing her clothes in front of a guy friend. (Apparently none of these girls was ever in marching band. We did that on the bus all the time.) All of this had happened several years before, but when her bishop called her in, he put her in disfellowship. His reason? That because she wasn’t crying, she obviously didn’t feel bad and obviously hadn’t repented.

  4. As usual, thought provoking. Thanks Angela. And you know what I think about mind reading.

  5. I was once pulled over on my bicycle many years ago. My instinctive reaction is to argue, which I began to do.. and then it dawned on me I had better just be silent, and nod in the appropriate places.
    In order to concentrate on what the speakers at church are actually saying I often find I need to close my eyes – I’m sure to many people this looks like I’m sleeping (well, during last years afternoon meetings that was true some of the time, we’re on mornings now).
    I have a tough time in the the temple trying to process what is said, as well as having to do, and watch in order to learn. I am so not a kinaesthetic learner, and get on much better when the subtitles are being displayed. Mostly I just feel slightly panicky trying to keep up with what I’m meant to be doing, and have learnt nothing much I fear in all my years attending, though its a bit better now there is less standing up. But I probably look just fine on the surface.
    My ASD son has a hard time meeting people’s eyes when they are speaking to him, and I can relate to that. The more intense the conversation or scrutiny the more he needs to look away. This can often be interpreted as appearing guilty, or not paying attention. Yet he is highly empathetic and sensitive to mood, and will ask if he thinks something is wrong.
    I did read that the problem with ASD is not insufficient information received that results in an inability to judge mood, facial expression etc., more that there is an overwhelming influx of information, too much to process, as the brain fails to filter out the unimportant bits. But the brain can process it eventually, so that after the event, sometimes years after, the answer to something that was a puzzle in a social situation, will suddenly pop up. ASD people can also be intuitively aware of undercurrents others seem not have to have noticed, because of that excess information being processed – that friends are pregnant for instance.
    Of course for some the influx of information is simply too overwhelming, resulting in panicked behaviours in public.

  6. Oregon Mum says:

    I know this probably wasn’t your intent, but your sweeping generalizations of people experiencing Autism are disheartening. “People on the autism spectrum do not share this confidence in their intuitive ability to understand others’ motives (or even the interest in doing so). That doesn’t mean that autistic people can’t also be religious or believe in God, just that they don’t “personify” God to the extent others do. Rather they “conceptualize” God.” Autism is a spectrum disorder and while there are indeed Autistics who fit your mold, there are many, many others who do not. My beautiful son has ASD. How am I to know that he doesn’t “personify” God just because he doesn’t have the language (yet) to put this in a way I can understand? In the Autism community we are constantly striving to show that our kids (or ourselves) aren’t all stone-hearted and incapable of empathy. I just had to speak up and defend my child from the inaccurate assumptions people make about what he is capable of. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Thank you for listening and understanding.

  7. I my not always be the best at reading people, but I have learned that if I get a bad feeling/creepy feeling about someone I unapologetically always trust it. Every time I have felt this, there has always been a good reason.

  8. Oregon Mum – Thanks for your personal insight to ASD as a mother. I certainly would not want to misrepresent the actual experiences of those who are autistic, so additional perspectives are helpful. Of course, reading others’ emotions doesn’t always result in empathy; it frequently does not. More often than not, I think we misread emotional cues and would do better to question our assumptions.

  9. ” Of course, reading others’ emotions doesn’t always result in empathy; it frequently does not. More often than not, I think we misread emotional cues and would do better to question our assumptions.” Well stated.

    It reminds me of Learned Hand’s famous quote about the “spirit of liberty”: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten – that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest.”

  10. I almost never trust my intuition when it regards other people…which has been something I’ve paid for frequently.

    Intuition is a wonderful source of information, so long as it isn’t your only source. Reason and intuition should be balanced and work together.

  11. Overall, the main points of your post are fascinating and I agree with most of them. But, on a less important (to the post) issue regarding Church disciplinary councils…I agree with your friend’s opinion that we are actually very poor at discerning others’ remorse in such a setting (and likely will never know if we were accurate unless we are or become personally close to the subject person).

    However, I must disagree with his final statement: “I’m also struck by the importance participants place on the issue of dissecting and analyzing levels of remorse at all, given its ultimate irrelevance to the final outcome.” Having participated in about 3 dozen courts (and, later) councils, my observation is that the level of remorse and repentance that has already occurred are the primary (and most relevant) point since the whole process is meant to help the person repent and return to “full fellowship.” That is why they are (or used to be) referred to as “courts of love. I often observed that for subjects where the offense had been committed a considerable time previously and professed feelings and actions indicating remorse and repentance had been underway were ALWAYS “given” a less severe “sentence.”

    Just an FYI since these councils and their nature are largely unknown to most members.

  12. fbitsi: That’s an important clarification, and I’m glad you shared that information. From all I know (entirely second hand from those involved in them as I’ve never been called in to a church court and as a woman wouldn’t be sitting in council on one), your description is accurate. I didn’t share all of my friend’s comment, but in his specific case, there was discussion in individual groups without actually sharing their deliberations with the group at large, which he understood to be a deviation from the norm for a church court. His experience in that regard was probably one off.

  13. Also, we have to be vigilant to our own responses of other’s emotions. My mother was very manipulative (histrionic, with narcissistic elements). To this day, I have a visceral reation to a crying woman, and it is not in favor of the poor woman! I feel suspicious and manipulated and can easily get angry in such a situation. So I have to counter my own reaction by looking for cues or evidence of sincerity. Balance is key.

    This is both a blessing and a curse. I have had to sit in on situations where other priesthood leaders are carried away by emotive women. I have been able to approach the situation more rationally and pull out details that need to be addressed that others miss. But I have to be very, very careful. I can be more critical than necessary. In one instance, in assisting a ward council deal with a histrionic woman who was also a drug addict, I explained my concerns about this sister to the Bishop and recused myself afterward from the discussion. It was just too “close to home” for me to respond rationally and help in the deliberations.

    We really need to know ourselves before we can really counsel and help others.