Field of Science

Turning to God for reassurance in the face of wonder

‘Agency detection’ – seeing purposeful minds at work behind seemingly random events – is a powerful human instinct that is thought to play an important role in the generation of religious beliefs.

There’s quite a body of research that shows that a persons ‘agency detection’ can be turned up in circumstances where they are made to feel uncertain or confused. Piercarlo Valdesolo (Claremont McKenna College, USA ) and Jesse Graham (University of Southern California) reckoned that giving people a sense of awe might just unsettle them enough to start detecting agents at work in the world around them.

They ran a series of experiments, all of which involved showing their subjects videos that induced feelings of awe or other emotional states.

For example, to induce awe they showed a dramatic footage from the BBC nature documentary ‘Planet Earth’ or (just in case ‘Planet Earth’ made people think of God, rather than awe) an advert for an LCD TV with amazing imagery, such as waterfalls tumbling through city streets.

As controls, they showed a light-hearted BBC nature documentary (Walk on the Wild Side) or, bizarrely, a 1959 interview conducted by Mike Wallace (this latter was expected to induce zero emotional reaction).

In some experiments, they then simply asked directly about their subjects' belief in supernatural control. In others, to ensure that they were measuring agency detection rather than belief in god, they showed their subjects series of random numbers and asked them to pick out the ones that had been put together by humans rather than computer (none of them had been).

What they found, repeatedly, was that watching an awe-inspiring video increased the tendency to see agents at work. So, for example, they were more likely to believe that the strings of random numbers had been put together by humans (see Figure).

They also measured their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”. What they found was that watching the awe-inspiring videos did indeed increase their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty.

Watching these videos also affected other emotions (like joy, contentedness, and gratitude). But, running a statistical approach known as ‘mediation analysis’, they found that the balance of probabilities strongly suggested that awe increase agency detection both directly and through increasing intolerance of uncertainty.

They point out an interesting observation from other studies. It seems that in individuals who are prone to feelings of awe , this emotion doesn’t trigger intolerance of uncertainty. If you feel awe a lot, you get used to its effects.

And this lead them to conclude that what they unveiled here is a short-term, immediate response to awe-inspiring events:

Although the chronic relation between experiences of awe and uncertainty tolerance (Shiota et al., 2007) suggests that uncertainty tolerance can be strengthened over time, the present results suggest that in the moment of awe, some of the fear and trembling can be mitigated by perceiving an author’s hand in the experience
Valdesolo P, & Graham J (2014). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological science, 25 (1), 170-8 PMID: 24247728

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Why do religious people have more friends?

It’s a fairly well-attested fact that religious people tend to be happier, to be more socially engaged, and to have more social support. Well, there are nuances depending on the country you look at, but that’s the general picture.

But is it cause or effect? Is it that religion helps people to be socially engaged (by encouraging them to take part in community events, perhaps, or by making them feel part of a group), or is it that religion attracts a certain kind of person? There’s been a few studies into that in the past, and they’ve come up with mixed results.

James Benjamin Schuurmans-Stekhoven (Charles Sturt University, Australia) has tried a different approach. He’s looked to see whether the personality of religious people might explain their social support.

He recruited 219 Australians (70% women, average 45 years) and asked them about their spirituality (questions like: "I believe in a universal power, a god", "In the last 24 h, I have personally spent 30 min in prayer, meditation or contemplation," and "I have a set of principles that govern my life". It’s a bit more vague than your regular religion questionnaire, but it was chosen in order to pick up religiousness of all types and creeds, as well as to pick up on the importance of a shared world view in making social connections.

He asked them about their perceptions about the social support they got from friends, family and ‘others’, and also about their personality (specifically their agreeableness and conscientiousness).

What he found was that, after correcting for age, gender and education, their spirituality was a significant predictor of social support. However, he also found that conscientiousness and, especially, agreeableness, were also good predictors of social support.

In fact, personality was a better predictor of social support than spirituality. What’s more, when Schuurmans-Stekhoven put both factors into the model, the contribution of spirituality became insignificant.

What that suggests is that it’s personality, not spirituality, that explains why religious people have more social support. That conclusion is reinforced by Schuurmans-Stekhoven’s additional finding that many non-spiritual people were also highly conscientious and agreeable, and reported high levels of social support.

Now, Shuurmans-Stekhoven is quick to point out that this is just an observational analysis. That means the correlation could be spurious, or could be due to some other, unidentified factor. But his point is that most of the other studies done have exactly the same flaws (and worse). He’s tested the claim that spirituality leads to increased social support (based on correlations), and found it wanting.

Even so, what these results suggest is that spirituality, far from being a cause of sociability, actually attracts sociable people (or at least, a subset of them).
Schuurmans-Stekhoven, J. (2013). Spirit or Fleeting Apparition? Why Spirituality’s Link with Social Support Might Be Incrementally Invalid Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9801-3

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Can prayer improve your self-control?

Self control is a depletable resource. Struggle to maintain your self control in one task, and you’ll find it harder to resist temptation in the next one.

There are things that you can do to blunt this effect, so that you can maintain your self control for longer. Get yourself motivated, do some meditation, or simply knock back some glucose.

But what about prayer?

Malte Friese (Saarland University, Germany) and Michaela Wänke (University of Mannheim, also Germany) recruited 79 students to find out. Half were Christian, 14 atheists, 10 agnostics, 14 were adherents of other religions.

Basically the set up was that their subjects were asked to spend 5 minutes either to pray or to think freely about anything they wanted. Then, after an hour, they did a task designed to deplete their self control.

This task involved watching a 5-minute funny video. Half of them were asked to suppress all emotions and control their facial expressions. The other half just laughed away.

Then they did a Stroop colour-word test. This is where you see colour names written (e.g. blue, red) but the text is the ‘wrong’ colour. In other words, the word ‘blue’ is written in red ink. You have to say what the ink colour is, not the word.

It’s something you have to concentrate really hard on to get right, and exert self-control to damp down your instinctive response.

So, what happened?

Well, as the graphic shows, people how laughed freely made fewer errors. So did people who suppressed laughter - so long as they prayed first. But the error rate shot up in those who suppressed their laughter and didn't pray before hand.

The odd thing was that the effect was the same in atheists as it was in believers.

It's a really peculiar result. My first thought was that those who prayed first found it easier to suppress their laughter (maybe they were more tranquil). But in fact the two groups found equally difficult to  suppress laughter, and reported similar moods.

The investigators speculate that it might be that prayer encourages a deeper kind of social interaction - participants in the prayer group were more likely to say that they had tried to get in touch with or talk to someone else.

Alternatively, it could be that people who prayed were motivated to work harder at the task (perhaps to live up to the expectations or others. Other research has found that subliminal priming about 'god' makes people work longer trying to complete impossible tasks.

Whatever the explanation, as Friese and Wänkepoint out, it's probably not related to supernatural belief per se.

We would like to stress that the point this study tries to make is that praying can at least temporarily prevent self-control depletion to unfold. The point is not that praying triggers a process that only praying can trigger. Quite the opposite, plausibility and the mediation analysis suggest that various other activities could lead to similar findings (e.g., talking to a human being).

So, if prayer does improve self control, it's seems as though it does it by hooking into a regular activity. Quite what, that activity is, we don't know!
Friese, M., & Wänke, M. (2014). Personal prayer buffers self-control depletion Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 56-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.006

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.