What do Mickey Mouse, Jesus and Superman have in common? They're all supernatural beings that we have strong feelings about, according to a new psychological study published by University of Otago researchers. But how and who we choose to deify, and who we simply admire, remains a fascinating topic of research for psychologists.

In this New Zealand-based study, scientists began by addressing the "Mickey Mouse problem" — a predicament psychologists refer to when it comes to guessing which supernatural beings will inspire religious beliefs and devotion. For instance, why don't Mickey Mouse and Santa, both beloved worldwide figures, motivate people or attract a large following the same way Jesus or Buddha does?

The researchers approached this problem by asking participants to invent a religious or fictional character with five supernatural abilities; these ranged from mind-reading abilities to flying to living forever. They found that participants ended up assigning religious characters more mind-reading abilities and ambiguous qualities, meaning they had attributes that weren't so easy to define.

"This ambiguity attribute is interesting as it gives people latitude to form interpretations of religious beings that are personally appealing and plausible," Dr. Thomas Swan says. The more ambiguous a character, the easier it is to project one's own beliefs or preferred worldview onto their revered figure.

researcher sits in background looking at jesus figure Lead author, Dr. Thomas Swan of Otago’s Department of Psychology, was inspired by Carl Sagan's popular science book 'Cosmos.' (Photo: University of Otago)

Additionally, religious figures were given roughly the same ratings for benefit and harm, which in theory could cause them to evoke both a loving devotion or fear of their wrath.

Meanwhile, fictional figures were also given impossible attributes, but these veered into more "comic book" attributes, like flying or passing through walls. These fictional characters had clearly defined traits that easily identified them as heroes or villains, while the religious characters, though labeled potentially helpful, were again determined to have more ambiguous qualities.

Interestingly, all of these beliefs held up whether the characters were invented or well-known. "The differences between fictional and religious beings all point to the idea that religious beings attract belief because we are motivated to believe in them," says Swan. "They are appealing to us. They are psychologically useful."

In other words, having religious or spiritual beliefs might soothe your soul better than "Star Wars" can (although that's certainly debatable for hardcore fans!)

Swan's development of a "god template" ties into his larger study about the cognitive-motivational model of religious belief, which is the main focus of his second doctorate in Otago’s department of psychology. He received his first PhD in nuclear physics at the University of Surrey in 2011.

Funnily enough, he attributes a 1980 popular science book to his current research and interests: "When I read Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' as a 16-year-old, I never would have thought it would inspire two PhDs. 'Cosmos' wasn't only about stars and planets; it was about the astronomers themselves, the cultures they endured, and the persecution they faced from the Church," Swan adds.

What attracts us to gods, goddesses and superheroes?
A doctorate student from New Zealand explores the psychology of attraction to supernatural beings — both religious and secular.