Lead author Cristine Legare, assistant professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin, and colleagues reviewed more than 30 studies on how people -- ages 5-75 -- from various countries reason with three major existential questions: The origin of life, illness and death.
They also conducted a study with 366 respondents in South Africa, where biomedical and traditional healing practices are both widely available.
As part of the study, Legare presented the respondents with a variety of stories about people who had AIDS. They were then asked to endorse or reject several biological and supernatural explanations for why the characters in the stories contracted the virus.
The study, published in the journal Child Development, found among the adult participants, 26 percent believed the AIDS could be caused by either biology or witchcraft, while 38 percent split biological and scientific explanations into one theory -- "witchcraft and unprotected sex caused AIDS" -- 57 percent combined both witchcraft and biological explanations -- a "witch can put an HIV-infected person in your path."
"The findings show supernatural explanations for topics of core concern to humans are pervasive across cultures," Legare said in a statement. "If anything, in both industrialized and developing countries, supernatural explanations are frequently endorsed more often among adults than younger children."