Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

Associate Professor Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering is a research psychologist and Director of the Centre for Science Communication. His primary research area is the cognitive science of religion, with his work centered on the cognitive underpinnings of afterlife beliefs, as well as how we ascribe purpose to inherently meaningless life events as a consequence of our species’ evolved psychology, most notably as an artifact of our social cognition. More recently, using controlled studies he has begun to explore people’s ability to cognitively reconcile religious and scientific beliefs when they are faced directly with experiences or information that challenge their worldviews.

Bering is also an essayist and science writer specializing in evolution and human behavior. In addition to writing extensively for Scientific American and Slate, his essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Playboy, The New York Times, The Guardian, Discover, Aeon, and others.

Bering’s first book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton, 2011), was included in the American Library Association’s Top 25 Books of the Year and voted one of the “11 Best Psychology Books of 2011” by The Atlantic.

This was followed by a collection of his Webby-award nominated essays, Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux/Scientific American Press, 2012), and Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us (2013, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux/Scientific American Press), a taboo-breaking work that received widespread critical acclaim and was named as a New York Times Editor’s Choice.

His most recent book was Suicidal (University of Chicago Press, 2018, published in the UK as A Very Human Ending, Doubleday).

Bering’s books have been translated into many different languages and reviewed in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Evening Standard, The Boston Globe, Sunday Times, The Atlantic, The Catholic Herald, and similar outlets.

As a practicing science communicator, he has also been featured in numerous documentaries, TV shows, podcasts, and radio programs, including Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, Conan, Chelsea Lately, Q&A (Australia), NPR’s All Things Considered, and the BBC.

To learn more, visit www.jessebering.com  

Current teaching

Research interests

  • Cognitive science and religion
  • Human sexuality
  • Suicidology
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Social psychology and science communication

Potential postgraduate projects

  • Communicating controversial scientific topics in conflict with religious beliefs
  • Experimental (lab-based) approaches to social psychology and science communication
  • Cognitive biases and science communication

Current PhD students

  • Evan Balkcom – The maintenance of unbelief in light of experiences that challenge it
  • Emma Harcourt – The use of scientific language by anti-abortion groups
  • Daniel Silva-Luna – Awe in science communication
  • Brett Waggoner – Cognitive factors underlying the motivation for a personal legacy

Books

^ Top of page

Publications

Bering, J. M., Smith, S., Stojanov, A., Halberstadt, J. B., & Hughes, R. J. M. (2021). The "ghost" in the lab: Believers' and non-believers' implicit responses to an alleged apparition. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/10508619.2021.1975400

Harcourt, E., Gullam, J., & Bering, J. (2021). Source trust and belief in misinformation about Covid-19 and abortion. Proceedings of the University of Otago Student Research Symposium: Te Wānaka Rakahau: Ākoka. (pp. 31). [Abstract]

Gilbert, A. W., Bering, J. M., & Anderson, L. C. (2021). Addressing head injury risk in youth football: Are heading guidelines the answer? Science & Medicine in Football. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/24733938.2021.1967435

Scarth, B., Bering, J. M., Marsh, I., Santiago-Irizarry, V., & Andriessen, K. (2021). Strategies to stay alive: Adaptive toolboxes for living well with suicidal behavior. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health, 18(15), 8013. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18158013

Stojanov, A., Halberstadt, J., Bering, J. M., & Kenig, N. (2021). Examining a domain-specific link between perceived control and conspiracy beliefs: A brief report in the context of COVID-19. Current Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s12144-021-01977-0

Bering, J. (2018). A very human ending: How suicide haunts our species. London, UK: Doubleday, 288p.

Authored Book - Research

Bering, J. (2018). Suicidal: Why we kill ourselves. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 272p.

Authored Book - Research

Bering, J. (2013). Perv: The sexual deviant in all of us. New York, NY: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 265p.

Authored Book - Research

Bering, J. (2012). Why is the penis shaped like that? And other reflections on being human. New York, NY: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 301p.

Authored Book - Research

Bering, J. (2011). The belief instinct: The psychology of souls, destiny and the meaning of life. New York: W. W. Norton, 272p.

Authored Book - Research

Bering, J. (2015). Perversões: Os comportamentos sexuais desviantes [Translation of Perv: The sexual deviant in all of us]. Lison, Spain: Temas e Debates, 320p.

Authored Book - Other

Bering, J. (2014). Penisin şekli neden öyle? Ve anatomi, parafili, inanç ve Evrim üzerine düşünceler [Translation of Why is the penis shaped like that? And other reflections on being human]. Ankara, Turkey: Big Bang, 366p.

Authored Book - Other

Bering, J. (2014). Perv: Viaggio nellenostre perversioni [Translation of Perv: The sexual deviant in all of us]. Torina, Italy: UTET, 365p.

Authored Book - Other

Bering, J. (2014). Pervers: Seksuele afwijkingen in ieder van ons [Translation of Perv: The sexual deviant in all of us]. Torina, Italy: De Bezige Bij, 298p.

Authored Book - Other

Bering, J. (2019). Why do we see supernatural signs in natural events? In D. J. Slone & W. W. McCorkle, Jr (Eds.), The cognitive science of religion: A methodological introduction to key empirical studies. (pp. 5-14). London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Chapter in Book - Research

Hahn-Holbrook, J., Holbrook, C., & Bering, J. (2011). Snakes, spiders, strangers: How the evolved fear of strangers may misdirect efforts to protect children from harm. In J. M. Lampinen & K. Sexton-Radek (Eds.), Protecting children from violence: Evidence-based interventions. (pp. 263-290). New York, NY: Psychology Press. doi: 10.4324/9780203852927

Chapter in Book - Research

Johnson, D., & Bering, J. (2011). Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. In J. Schloss & M. Murray (Eds.), The believing primate: Scientific, philosophical, and theological reflections on the origin of religion. Oxford Scholarship Online. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199557028.003.0002

Chapter in Book - Research

Ingram, G. P. D., Piazza, J. R., & Bering, J. M. (2009). The adaptive problem of absent third-party punishment. In H. Høgh-Olesen, J. Tønnesvang & P. Bertelsen (Eds.), Human characteristics: Evolutionary perspectives on human mind and kind. (pp. 205-229). Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Chapter in Book - Research

Bering, J. M. (2008). How Sartre inadvertently presaged a proper evolutionary science of religion. In J. Bulbulia, R. Sosis, E. Harris, R. Genet, C. Genet & K. Wyman (Eds.), The evolution of religion: Studies, theories and critiques. (pp. 357-364). Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press.

Chapter in Book - Research

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2007). The serpent’s gift: Evolutionary psychology and consciousness. In P. D. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch & E. Thompson (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511816789.023

Chapter in Book - Research

Povinelli, D. J., Bering, J. M., & Giambrone, S. (2003). Chimpanzees' "pointing": Another error of the argument by analogy? In S. Kita (Ed.), Pointing: Where language, culture, and cognition meet. (pp. 35-68). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. doi: 10.4324/9781410607744

Chapter in Book - Research

Bering, J. M., Smith, S., Stojanov, A., Halberstadt, J. B., & Hughes, R. J. M. (2021). The "ghost" in the lab: Believers' and non-believers' implicit responses to an alleged apparition. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/10508619.2021.1975400

Journal - Research Article

Gilbert, A. W., Bering, J. M., & Anderson, L. C. (2021). Addressing head injury risk in youth football: Are heading guidelines the answer? Science & Medicine in Football. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/24733938.2021.1967435

Journal - Research Article

Harcourt, E., Bering, J., & Gullam, J. (2021). Opposition to abortion related to inaccurate beliefs about fetal pain perception in utero. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/ajo.13356

Journal - Research Article

Scarth, B., Bering, J. M., Marsh, I., Santiago-Irizarry, V., & Andriessen, K. (2021). Strategies to stay alive: Adaptive toolboxes for living well with suicidal behavior. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health, 18(15), 8013. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18158013

Journal - Research Article

Silva Luna, D., & Bering, J. M. (2021). The construction of awe in science communication. Public Understanding of Science, 30(1), 2-15. doi: 10.1177/0963662520963256

Journal - Research Article

Stojanov, A., Halberstadt, J., Bering, J. M., & Kenig, N. (2021). Examining a domain-specific link between perceived control and conspiracy beliefs: A brief report in the context of COVID-19. Current Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1007/s12144-021-01977-0

Journal - Research Article

Stojanov, A., Bering, J. M., & Halberstadt, J. (2020). Does perceived lack of control lead to conspiracy theory beliefs? Findings from an online MTurk sample. PLoS ONE, 15(8), e0237771. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0237771

Journal - Research Article

Alogna, V. K., Bering, J., Balkcom, E., & Halberstadt, J. (2019). Religious intuitions and the nature of “belief”. Studia Humana, 8(3), 58-68. doi: 10.2478/sh-2019-0025

Journal - Research Article

Balkcom, E. R., Alogna, V. K., Curtin, E. R., Halberstadt, J. B., & Bering, J. M. (2019). Aversion to organs donated by suicide victims: The role of psychological essentialism. Cognition, 192, 104037. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2019.104037

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M., Curtin, E. R., & Jong, J. (2019). Knowledge of deaths in hotel rooms diminishes perceived value and elicits guest aversion. OMEGA, 79(3), 286-312. doi: 10.1177/0030222817709694

Journal - Research Article

White, C., Kinsella, M., & Bering, J. (2018). How to know you've survived death: A cognitive account of the popularity of contemporary post-mortem survival narratives. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 30(3), 279-299. doi: 10.1163/15700682-12341431

Journal - Research Article

Heywood, B. T., & Bering, J. M. (2014). “Meant to be”: How religious beliefs and cultural religiosity affect the implicit bias to think teleologically. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 4(3), 183-201. doi: 10.1080/2153599X.2013.782888

Journal - Research Article

Shackelford, T. K., Liddle, J. R., Bering, J., & Shalkoski, G. (2014). Unbidden confession as an evolved pre-emptive strategy against punishment: A preliminary investigation with prisoners. Personality & Individual Differences, 61-62, 86-90. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.010

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. (2012). Rats laugh, but not like humans: Do animals other than humans have a sense of humor? Maybe so. Scientific American, 307(1), 74-77. doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican0712-74

Journal - Research Article

Piazza, J., Bering, J. M., & Ingram, G. (2011). "Princess Alice is watching you": Children's belief in an invisible person inhibits cheating. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 109(3), 311-320. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2011.02.003

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. (2010). Atheism is only skin deep: Geertz and Markússon rely mistakenly on sociodemographic data as meaningful indicators of underlying cognition. Religion, 40(3), 166-168. doi: 10.1016/j.religion.2009.11.001

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. (2010). The nonexistent purpose of people: Have our minds evolved to see human beings as types of artefacts? Psychologist, 23(4), 290-293.

Journal - Research Article

Ingram, G. P. D., & Bering, J. M. (2010). Children's tattling: The reporting of everyday norm violations in preschool settings. Child Development, 81(3), 945-957. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01444.x

Journal - Research Article

Piazza, J., & Bering, J. M. (2010). The coevolution of secrecy and stigmatization: Evidence from the content of distressing secrets. Human Nature, 21(3), 290-308. doi: 10.1007/s12110-010-9090-4

Journal - Research Article

Piazza, J., & Bering, J. M. (2009). Evolutionary cyber-psychology: Applying an evolutionary framework to Internet behavior. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(6), 1258-1269. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2009.07.002

Journal - Research Article

Piazza, J., & Bering, J. M. (2008). Concerns about reputation via gossip promote generous allocations in an economic game. Evolution & Human Behavior, 29(3), 172-178. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2007.12.002

Journal - Research Article

Piazza, J., & Bering, J. M. (2008). Why hell is other people: Distinctively human psychological suffering. Review of General Psychology, 12(1), 1-8. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.12.1.1

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M. (2006). The cognitive science of souls: Clarifications and extensions of the evolutionary model. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 29(5), 486-498. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X06499106

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M. (2006). The folk psychology of souls. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 29(5), 453-462. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X06009101

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M., & Parker, B. D. (2006). Children's attributions of intentions to an invisible agent. Developmental Psychology, 42(2), 253-262. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.42.2.253

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M., & Johnson, D. D. P. (2005). 'O Lord... You perceive my thoughts from afar': Recursiveness and the evolution of supernatural agency. Journal of Cognition & Culture, 5(1-2), 118-142. doi: 10.1163/1568537054068679

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M., & McLeod, K. (2005). Reasoning about dead agents reveals possible adaptive trends. Human Nature, 16(4), 360-381. doi: 10.1007/s12110-005-1015-2

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (2005). Evolutionary psychology and false confession. American Psychologist, 60(9), 1037-1038. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.1037

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M., Blasi, C. H., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2005). The development of 'afterlife' beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23(4), 587-607. doi: 10.1348/026151005X36498

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M. (2004). Consciousness was a "trouble-maker": On the general maladaptiveness of unsupported mental representation. Journal of Mind & Behavior, 25(1), 33-55.

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40(2), 217-233. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.40.2.217

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (2004). The causal role of consciousness: A conceptual addendum to human evolutionary psychology. Review of General Psychology, 8(4), 227-248. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.8.4.227

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M. (2003). Religious concepts are probably epiphenomena: A reply to Pyysiäinen, Boyer, and Barrett. Journal of Cognition & Culture, 3(3), 244-254. doi: 10.1163/156853703322336670

Journal - Research Article

Bering, J. M. (2003). Towards a cognitive theory of existential meaning. New Ideas in Psychology, 21(2), 101-120. doi: 10.1016/S0732-118X(03)00014-X

Journal - Research Article

More publications...