Field of Science

Atheism and IQ: explained by "The Savannah Principle"?

The correlation between atheism and IQ is being talked about again because the study I blogged about last year (by Richard Lynn) has just been published. PZ Myers simply dismisses it - there's no correlation at all, he thinks (although he hasn't read the paper).

But there's another, rather more interesting paper out on the topic. It goes further than Lynn by actually trying to take into account some of the other factors that could explain the correlation.

The author, Satoshi Kanazawa, is an evolutionary psychologist from University College London with some fairly controversial ideas. One of these is what he calls the 'Savannah Principle'.

The idea behind the Savannah Principle is that we have a range of cognitive biases that adapted us for survival in small groups of hunter gatherers, but which are maladaptive for modern life. The controversial bit is that he goes further than that, claiming that people with high IQ can over-ride their evolutionary heritage.

He claims that intelligence is linked to accepting 'correct' but evolutionarily counterintuitive ideas. In his new recent paper, he shows that nations with higher average IQ have higher tax rates and lower income inequality, which suggests that people in these countries are more willing to redistribute wealth to people unrelated genetically. What's more, he shows that higher IQ is linked to less polygamy.

And he also shows that high national IQ is linked to less religion.

Kanazawa concludes that people with a high IQ are more able to overcome our innate, in-built tendency to invent god-like beings.

That's all well and good, but the devil is in the detail. IQ is strongly influenced by environment, and it's quite possible that those environmental influences also affect religion. The web of cause and effect can be pretty complex.

Kanazawa controls for a number of factors, shown in the figure above. Even after taking into per capita GDP and years of education, IQ remains a potent correlate of religiosity.

But I think that there is a factor he's left out. It's well known that, although high national wealth predicts less religion, the connection is not as tight as you might expect. Back in 2004, Norris and Ingelhart showed that wealth distribution is key. Nations with highly unequal wealth distribution are more religious.

In fact, I have a paper due for publication which shows that income inequality is a powerful predictor of religiosity even after controlling for a number of other factors, like GDP, urbanisation, and religious pluralism.

Since Kanazawa has found a link between IQ and income inequality, this immediately begs the question of cause and effect. Is it that high IQ leads to low income inequality and low religion?

Or is it that democratic, homogeneous nations are more likely to invest in other people. As a result, they are more able to develop intellectually and also are more secure (leading to less religion)?

_____________________________________________________________________________________
ResearchBlogging.org
Kanazawa, S. (2009). IQ and the values of nations Journal of Biosocial Science DOI: 10.1017/S0021932009003368

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Why religious people struggle harder to stay alive

A recent study has made quite a splash (by the standards of these things) by showing that critically ill religious patients are more likely to want aggressive (or ‘heroic’) treatments in a last-ditched attempt to stave off death. What didn't get nearly so much attention was another study that helps explain why.

In a nutshell, what the heavily-twittered study showed was that religious patients with advanced cancer were more likely to ask for mechanical ventilation and intensive care. These results have ricocheted around the blogosphere, with some atheists taking them to imply that religious people are afraid of meeting their maker.

That's not quite how the study's lead sees it:

"There may be a sense that it is really not in the hands of the doctors to decide when to give up," study researcher Holly G. Prigerson, PhD, of Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute tells WebMD. "Refusing some of these very aggressive medical interventions may be seen as giving up on the possibility that God might intervene." (WebMD)


In fact, it turns out that religious people really are more optimistic that they aren't going to die.That was the conclusion of a recent study by researchers from the University of South Carolina.

What the South Carolina researchers did was talk to patients in intensive care units (or their surrogates) about their prospects of survival. They found was that patients tended to be more optimistic about their prospects of survival than actually proved the case.

The biggest cause for over-optimism was religious faith. Those who said their religious faith affects their health care decisions were three times more likely to be optimistic about survival than the non-religious.

It's important to realise that being over-optimistic about your chances of death is not necessarily a good thing. Aggressive treatment can be painful and distressing – for loved ones and for patients. If you are going to die anyway, then it is clearly inappropriate (see Respectful Insolence for more on that angle).

What's more, religious people with terminal cancer are much less to plan for their deaths. According to the 'heroic treatments' study, they are half as likely to make living wills (dealing with how they want to be treated as they die) or to nominate a healthcare proxy to make decisions on their behalf.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgFord, D., Zapka, J., Gebregziabher, M., Hennessy, W., & Yang, C. (2009). Investigating Critically Ill Patients' and Families' Perceptions of Likelihood of Survival Journal of Palliative Medicine, 12 (1), 45-52 DOI: 10.1089/jpm.2008.0183

Andrea C. Phelps, Paul K. Maciejewski, Matthew Nilsson, & et al (2009). Religious Coping and Use of Intensive Life-Prolonging Care Near Death in Patients With Advanced Cancer JAMA, 301 (11), 1140-1147

Religion and losing virginity - no relationship among Scottish teens

A survey of kids from 16 secondary schools in the Lothian and Grampian regions of Scotland has taken a look at the factors related to first sexual intercourse.

Among a whole basket of other factors, the study authors found that Christian kids were 25% less likely than kids of no religion to have had sex. What's more, kids who were not religious or were unsure were 30% more likely to have had sex than kids who were religious.

But it turns out that it's not their religious beliefs that cause this difference. Rather it was their social environment. Religious kids are different from other kids. After taking these circumstantial differences into account, there was no effect of religion.

What did matter? Family type (natural parents, step parents etc), parental monitoring, school enjoyment and, strangely, how much spending money they had (more money = earlier).

But most of all, they found they couldn't really explain why some teens have sex earlier than others. Even with all the factors combined, they could only explain 15% of the variation among these kids.

Anyway, this is an interesting study because more similar studies are done in the US. There, there is a widely held belief that, if only kids were more religious, then they wouldn't engage in risky sexual behaviours.

This assumption is pretty dubious. Writing in the New Yorker last November, Madeleine Talbot described a pretty complex picture, and not at all flattering for the advocates of religion.

At the end of last year, a US study found that virginity pledgers not only lost their virginity as readily as non-pledgers, but that they also engaged in more risky sex (because they got no proper sex education).

In the Scottish study, only 37% of the kids said they were Christian (over 60% said they had no religion). Even more remarkably, 90% said that they were not religious!

That's a very different picture from US studies, of course. Why that's interesting is that the 10% who said they were religious must've really meant it - they weren't just saying it to please the interviewer.

And even in these dedicated believers, religious belief had no effect on sexual behaviour. That's a pretty powerful finding.

_____________________________________________________________________________________
ResearchBlogging.org
Suzanne C Penfold, Edwin R van Teijlingen, & Janet S Tucker (2009). Factors associated with self-reported first sexual intercourse in Scottish adolescents BMC Research Notes, 2 (42)

Is psychiatry a religion?

As religion slowly unwinds itself from our culture, what will replace it? Could it be that that thing is already here, in the guise of psychiatry?

Well probably not, of course. But Rob Whitely (Dartmouth Psychiatric Center in New Hampshire, USA), writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, has made a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) comparison of the two (free, full text here). Here's how the uncanny similarities stack up:

Prosyletization...
It could be argued that psychiatry and clinical psychology ... involve large amounts of ‘outreach’ work to people not currently encompassed within its loving embrace. Like religious mission, this occurs at home and abroad

A priesthood....
... psychiatrists go through arcane training which sets them apart from the general public. Psychiatrists have reserved powers to administer medication and can even coerce treatment and compulsory detention. Like many religious denominations, loyalty and conformity are prized virtues within mainstream psychiatry.

Sacred texts...
Psychiatry also has texts which are often referred to in reverential and canonical tones – these are DSM-IV17 and ICD-10, specifically the mental and behavioral disorders section V.18 These texts, in existence for decades, guide both psychiatrists, and to a lesser extent the lay public, in thought and deed

Devotional literature...
... psychiatry and psychology have spawned many books (often labelled self-help) that interpret psychiatric beliefs to the general public, helping them journey through this vale of tears. Indeed, most reputable bookstores now have shelves devoted to psychological self-help, often outweighing those devoted to religious interpretation.

Weekly observances...
As religious leaders encourage weekly visits to their house of worship, some psychiatrists and psychologists encourage weekly visits from their patients. Therein, patients are expected to reveal intimate details of their day-to-day life to the clinician.

... and sacred practices

Psychiatrists may advise their patients to engage in another somewhat ritualistic behaviour, that is the consumption of a small white tablet in whose substance efficacious agents of change are deemed to be present.
Well, OK, it's all pretty tendentious. But there are parallels here that are worth thinking about. Vaughan over at Mind Hacks argues that none of these touch on what he says are a core aspect of religion:

The 'psychiatry is a religion' argument is weak, however, as despite similarities in some functions, none of these are core features of religion. As identified by cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, the single common feature of all religious is a preoccupation with unseen sentient beings, of which psychiatry says nothing.

But really that is just one aspect of religion. In fact, cultural rituals are another core component. As supernatural beliefs diminish, the cultural needs remain and need to be fulfilled somehow. I think it's very probable that psychiatry is helping to do that.

And here's an interesting thought to finish with. A 2007 study found that psychiatrists were the least likely of all medical professionals to be religious. Perhaps they know something that their patients don't?

____________________________________________________________________

Whitley, R. (2008). Is psychiatry a religion? JRSM, 101 (12), 579-582 DOI: 10.1258/jrsm.2008.080044

Curlin, F., Odell, S., Lawrence, R., Chin, M., Lantos, J., Meador, K., & Koenig, H. (2007). The Relationship Between Psychiatry and Religion Among U.S. Physicians Psychiatric Services, 58 (9), 1193-1198 DOI: 10.1176/appi.ps.58.9.1193

Religion and health: the big meta-analysis shows it's about attending, not believing

A couple of epidemiologists from University College London have published a meta-analysis* of nearly 60 studies into the relationship between religion and health.

Their aim was to give a definitive statement not only whether religious people have better health, but to get some precision on what types of religiousness are important.

The figure shows the results from prospective studies (i.e. ones where they measure religiosity, and then some time down the road they measured health) in originally healthy people. The spot indicates their best estimate, and the lines the 'confidence interval'. Basically, if the horizontal line crosses the vertical one, then that particular factor probably has no effect on health.

There's a lot of stuff in there about study design and other factors, but I've picked out the important ones - three factors that do not connect religion and health.
  1. If you are a man, then it seems like being religious isn't connected to being more healthy - or if it is, the effect is quite small.
  2. Intrinsic aspects of religion (belief in a god concept, religious/spiritual well-being, religious/spiritual experience, and religious motivation/orientation) have no effect on health.
  3. Although organisational activities (such as going to Church) seem to have a big effect, non-organisational activities (prayer, meditation, or sacred book study) do not.
In other words, there seems to be a real health effect for women, at least, from participating in group religious activities. According to their analysis, this effect holds even after you control for happiness, strength of social networks, and unhealthy behaviour.

However, in people who are already sick, there is no benefit from any kind of religion. You die just as quick!

The results give some hard, objective numbers to the conclusions that have been made before (see earlier post). These really do seem like consistent, strong findings. Now the only question that needs answering is what's driving them!

-----------------

*A meta-analysis is a tool that uses statistics to get the average results of a large number of studies.
____________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgChida, Y., Steptoe, A., & Powell, L. (2009). Religiosity/Spirituality and Mortality Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 78 (2), 81-90 DOI: 10.1159/000190791

The unfeasable common sense of creationism

Here's a couple of nice items on teleology - and why we fall for it so often.

Jesse Bering, writing in Scientific American, describes some of the research showing that we just can't help thinking teleologically. In other words, we default to believing that things have a purpose for existing, and that the purpose they have is usually to be useful to something (or someone).

Why do we do this? Well because we're driven to it by evolution:
Gopnik argues that human beings have evolved an “innate explanatory drive” that motivates us to seek explanations similar to the way we’re motivated to achieve sexual climax. That is to say, for the sheer thrill and phenomenological bliss of it. Just as those few seconds in bed or on top of the washing machine feel naturally grand and put a smile on your face, so too does lighting upon that fleeting eureka moment in solving a mind-tickling problem leave you glowing. (OK, so maybe doing crosswords or Sudoku isn’t going to have you exactly biting your bottom lip and moaning in ecstasy, but you get the gist of Gopnik’s analogy.)
This explains why people just can't help thinking in creationist terms. It also explains why people get so fixated on needing a 'purpose' for the universe's existence. We're just not wired up to accept what appears to be the real answer: it just exists.

In a nice synchronicity, Dan Dennett is talking over at TED on the 'strange inversion of reasoning' demanded by Darwinism. And yes, he manages to get a lot of sex references in too!



Now, I have to say that my gut feeling is that part of the reason we talk teleologically is simply that it's much easier to do. I've noticed this when talking to my kids (6 & 4 years old).

"The sun shines on us to make us warm." Well, no actually the sun shines on us as a result of nuclear reactions, and we exist as a result. The second statement is true, but frankly in ordinary conversation I'm more likely to say the former. So the question is, is this simply an artefact of the way our language is constructed (rather than a psychological predisposition on my part?).

Homing in on consciousness

There's a new paper out in PLoS on locating consciousness within the brain. Basically, they used electrodes to measure neural activity in patients undergoing treatment for epilepsy while they were shown words that were either 'blipped' on screen (so they never became conscious of them) or shown for longer times.

The key question was: is there somewhere in the brain that needs to be activated to trigger consciousness, or is it that consciousness happens when the level of brain activity reaches a critical threshold. This is the 'Global Workspace' model of consciousness, and this new study strongly supports it.
The key idea behind the workspace model is that because of its massive interconnectivity, the active coherent assembly of workspace neurons can distribute its contents to a great variety of other brain processors, thus making this information globally available. The global workspace model postulates that this global availability of information is what we subjectively experience as a conscious state. (Gaillard et al)
The figure I've pulled out shows Grainer Causality, which is a mathematical tool used to estimate the causal influence that one electrode site exerts on another. If Global Workspace theory is right, then conscious awareness should result in a massive web of causal relationships among distant sites in the brain. And this is what happened. When large areas of the brain became synchronised, consciousness occurred.

I think these results help to break down dualist ideas separating the mind (or soul) from the brain. Religious belief almost always goes hand in hand with dualism. I'm plodding my way through Keith Ward's book "Why there almost certainly is a God". He's a smart man (a former professor of Divinity at Oxford), and he thinks that minds can lead a life independent of the brain:
The existence of consciousness refutes radical materialism, the theory that nothing exists except physical things in space and time. But emergent materialism, the theory that minds arise from matter, even though they are not just material, is more plausible. However, if you are an emergent materialist, you have already taken the first step to forming some idea of God. You have said that not everything is a physical object in space.
All this passage demonstrates is that Ward can't get his head round the idea of emergent properties. Weather is an emergent property. Doesn't mean that it doesn't exist as a physical object. Emergent properties are information. All Ward is doing is falling for the age-old human error of confusing emergence with magic. It's the modern-day equivalent of primitive animism.

I think, from reading his book, that Ward knows deep down that neuroscience will continue to chip away at the hiding places for animism.

Martha Farah and Nancey Murphy, a neuroscientist and a theologian respectively, made this point in a recent letter to Science magazine:
... as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained. Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all? (free text here)
Now, neurocorrelates are not the same as an explanation. A fundamental barrier to scientific explanations of consciousness is that philosophers can't define it. In fact, it may never be definable or explainable, but this is not a reason to invent dualist explanations, however tempting.

I like Farah & Murphy's conclusion:
... it seems likely that neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions. Predictably, then, some theologians and even neuroscientists are resisting the implications of modern cognitive and affective neuroscience. “Nonmaterialist neuroscience” has joined “intelligent design” as an alternative interpretation of scientific data.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgGaillard, R., Dehaene, S., Adam, C., Clémenceau, S., Hasboun, D., Baulac, M., Cohen, L., & Naccache, L. (2009). Converging Intracranial Markers of Conscious Access PLoS Biology, 7 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000061

trackback

Why women are more religious. Part 4: Personality, power, control (and the take-home for humanists)

Donald Sullins, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America, has shown that (in the USA at least) a lot of the gender difference in religiosity can be explained by social and personality factors (see previous post).

But there are a few niggling doubts. How sure can we be that the differences in personality factors (being tender feeling and soft-hearted) aren't also sociologically driven? And what about the remaining, unexplained difference in gender?

Personality

To deal with the personality issue first. Back in 2002 Vassilis Saroglou, at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, analysed data from 13 studies looking at the relationship between religion and the so-called 'Five Factor Model' of personality. Of these studies 10 were done in North America and 2 in Europe, so this is not exactly a cross-cultural analysis (the remaining study was done in Taiwan).

Saroglou did show, however, that people with certain personality factors were more likely to be religious, although the effect was pretty small. Of the five factors, it turned out that agreeableness and conscientiousness were the most consistent predictors.

He didn't look directly at the gender effect, but there is a big study that has examined gender differences in personality. And this is where it gets interesting.

The leading expert on this topic is David Schmitt, Director of the International Sexuality Description Project. He's found that the gender differences in personality are real, but also that they shrink and disappear once you move out of the wealthy Europeanised nations (see figure).

This is a really bizarre result, but it does show clearly that what we often fondly imagine to be fundamental Mars-Venus differences are, in fact a product of our culture.

In the case of personality, what is happening is that men change and becomes more 'masculine' (less agreeable, less conscientious) in Europe and the Americas.

Perhaps this is because women are fulfilling many of the roles that were once a male preserve. It's almost as if, as institutional gender stereotypes become eroded, so men reinvent themselves to increase the gender differentials.

This is important because, as Sullins showed, the gender differences in religiosity are biggest in regions of the world where religion is less important. And these are exactly the regions where personality differences appear.

So perhaps gender, religion and personality are tightly bound together. Perhaps, in the Western World, these are the means whereby the individual defines his or herself in the absence of clear gender roles.

Power and Control

None of this, however, explains why women are also more superstitious than men (see the second post in this series for some strong, cross-cultural evidence for that). The causes of superstition are as complex as the causes of religion, but there are probably some overlaps, given that paranormal thinking is a common feature of both.

One important driver of superstitious beliefs is the feeling that you are not in control of events around you (I blogged about this in a couple of earlier posts one two).

There's some very new data (it'll be published later this year) shedding a fascinating light on the relationship of power to the religion gender gap.

Jessica Collett and Omar Lizardo, from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, have shown that a mother's socioeconomic status has a strong effect on the religiosity of their daughters, but not their sons. The graphic shows the essence of what they found (they analysed data from the US General Social Survey).

You can see that, as a mother gains higher status, so the religiosity of her daughter drops. The most powerful driver of this is the mothers earnings. There's not much effect on the son's religiosity. A wealthy dad, on the other hand, makes both boys and girls less religious in equal measure.

Why should this be? Collett and Lizardo frame it in terms of attitude to risk, but as I described earlier there really isn't any relationship between attitudes to risk and gender differences in religiosity.

What there is, however, is a link between power and the feeling that you are in control. Just earlier this month, for example, a study came out which demonstrated that people made to feel powerful were more likely to feel they were in control of events, even when those events were happening at random.

Could the relative lower status of mothers be the final missing link in the puzzle of the religion-gender gap? As women become more economically independent, the effect would be to reduce the gender gap. As such, this factor would tend to oppose other factors, which are perhaps pushing in the direction of an increasing gap in wealthy countries.

And the take home for humanists

Over these four posts, I've taken a swift overview of some of the most important trends and thinking about the gender gap in religion. To sum them up:
  • The gender gap isn't caused by risk aversion in women, and certainly not because men are unmotivated by the idea of heaven (if anything, the opposite is probably true).
  • The gender gap varies from culture to culture (bigger in wealthy countries), and depending on how you define religion (bigger for personal beliefs than in religious attendance).
  • A large part of the gender gap seems to be culturally driven.
I guess it shouldn't be too surprising that social factors are so important. Religion is, after all, a social construct, and a complicated one at that. Because religion is multifaceted, there won't be any simple link between psychology and religiosity. In its many guises, religion fulfils many personal and social needs, and people will reinvent religion to meet those needs as they see fit.

The concern for humanists must surely be that, in the West at least, religion seems increasingly to be a tool for gender differentiation. Religiosity is becoming one way that men and women forge their different identities - and religion is becoming stereotyped as essentially feminine. It's something we need to actively counteract.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgSchmitt, D., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can't a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (1), 168-182 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.1.168

Collett, Jessica L., & Lizardo, Omar (2009). A Power-Control Theory of Gender and Religiosity. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

Why women are more religious. Part 3: Social factors (or: What would Jessica do?)

Here's an evolutionary 'Just so' story from Elisabeth Cornwell, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, published just last month on a, ahem, popular women's website:
Why do women today continue to fall victim to an archaic system of beliefs that foster misogynistic behavior? Why are women even more likely to be religious than men? The simple answer is that it is safe. Please don't take this as a slight against women - it isn't. Male/female differences exist, but I'm certainly not suggesting that risk taking is a better option than playing it safe. After all, women are less likely than men to die doing incredibly stupid things (check out the Darwin Awards it is nearly exclusively male 'winners'). But the fact that women are less likely to push the status quo for fear of social exclusion and even retribution makes a lot of evolutionary sense.
Now, as discussed in the previous post, it seems like there is actually no link between attitudes to risk and religiosity. In fact it seems like Cornwell is falling prey to the temptation of 'minimisation of mystery' - here are two mysterious things (risk aversion and religiousness), let's explain one by the other!

But I'm not going to beat on Cornwell's article (Sandwalk has already done that). I'm going to take a look at what I think is Cornwell's deeper idea - that women are attracted to religion because it provides a secure support network. And the best data for that come from a 2006 paper by Donald Sullins, a sociologist of religion (and ordained priest) at the Catholic University of America.

His paper takes a really close look at two sources of survey data that are used a lot in social studies of religion: the General Social Survey in the USA, and the World Values Survey. Sullins wrings the data till it squeaks - there are so many different cuts and analyses that it's difficult to pull out broad theme. But what the hell, I'm going to try!

Sullins basically takes two difference tacks. Firstly, he questions whether men and women really differ in religiosity, and if so how. Then he takes a look at whether social factors or personality differences can explain the gap.

He breaks down religion into two components 'affective' (i.e. the importance of religion, frequency of prayer, etc) and active (i.e. going to church, volunteering). You might think that the social side would be more important to women, and so that might be where the biggest gender gap lies. However, when Sullins looked at the data he found that the opposite was true - the gap between men and women on religiousness is bigger than the gap in church attendance.

In fact, for some religions the gender gap is turned on its head. In Judaism and Islam, men are more likely to attend church than women! What this suggests is that patriarchal religions are more attractive to men (unsurprisingly) and, more importantly, that social factors and not just biology can influence the gender gap.

But there's more to it than this.

Sullins also found that the gender gap is highest in countries where religion is less important. This is pretty unexpected - if religion serves a specific social function for women, then you'd expect the gap to be highest where religion is particularly important. One way to explain these findings is that men only take an interest in religion if it is an important part of daily life - maybe because it will then be important for status building. In countries where religion doesn't matter, it becomes a low status activity and so is relegated to the female sphere.

The second surprise comes in the relationship between reported religiousness and reported church going. Remember that these are survey data we're talking about. An unfortunate flaw with such data is that people tend to tell you what they want to believe about themselves, rather than the reality. This is a particular problem for subjective questions like 'How important is religion to you', and less so for objective questions (Church attendance, for example).

Sullins did uncover some evidence (using GSS data) that this is actually happening. Both men and women report higher levels of 'importance of religion' (on a 6-point scale) than church attendance (on a similar 6-point scale). What's more, as you move along the 'importance of religion' scale, the bias towards higher church attendance goes up for men and down for women.

Bottom line: the gender gap is biggest for self-reported religiosity, rather than attendance, and only really exists at low levels of attendance. Could it be that women who don't go to church still tell people they are religious simply because that is what is expected of them? It's a distinct possibility, based on these data.

Perhaps this is too cynical. And anyway, it still seems likely that there is a real gender difference that needs explaining. So Sullins next takes the GSS gender differences at face value, and looks at how can they be explained.

Here are the potential factors that he looks at:
  • Demographic (age, education, and traditionalist values were important)
  • Structural (hours worked, since long-working hours could crowd out religion)
  • Socialization (parent's church attendance when the respondent was a child)
  • Network (percent of friends in a congregation)
  • Personality (independence, self-esteem, tender feeling, soft-hearted were the personality factors available)
  • Fear (fear of walking down a dark street alone). Sullins calls this a measure of risk tolerance, but it really is no such thing. The additional fear that women have in this circumstance has nothing to do with risk tolerance, and everything to do with a genuinely higher risk!
When all these factors are bundled in, gender differences in church attendance completely disappear, differences in prayer frequency drop by two thirds (compared with a model that only looked at demographic factors), and differences in the most problematic measure, self-reported religiousness, drop by 40%.

What factors were most important? Well, the personality factors were about as important as structural, social, and network factors put together. Fear had a small effect on affective religion, but not on attendance. In other words, a small part of the reason that women pray more often is that they have greater fears for their personal security.

But the most important single factor was the number of friends you have that are in a congregation. This is the social factor shining through. For both men and women, what your friends do has a powerful influence on what you do and how you think. It seems that one important reason that men are less religious is simply that they have fewer religious friends. Religion, in the USA at least, is a female thing.

Of the personality factors, being tender-feeling and soft-hearted were significant (not independence or self esteem). But this still begs the question: do these differences reflect nature or nurture? And what about the residual, unexplained differences? Are there any other factors that could help explain the gender gap in religion?

Well, yes there are. I was hoping to cover them in this post, but I've waffled on for longer than I intended! And also the tantalising cliff-hanger about a possible link with superstition. That will have to wait for the next (and really really final) post.

____________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgSullins, D. (2006). Gender and Religion: Deconstructing Universality, Constructing Complexity American Journal of Sociology, 112 (3), 838-880 DOI: 10.1086/507852

Why women are more religious. Part 2: It's not about risk at all

I've been spending some time rooting around in the research that's been done on religious differences between men and women. The previous post ruled out the idea that women are simply less willing to take risks about getting to heaven. The evidence is pretty convincing on that score.

But that doesn't rule out the possibility that it's something to do with risk. Religious people are more risk averse than non-religious, and women are more risk averse than men. It's very tempting to say that the two are linked. Maybe it's about risk in this life, rather than the next. After all, many people believe that their god will reward their good behaviour in some material way. They might also pray before doing something risky or dangerous, in the hope that that influence the odds in their favour.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that's the answer either. Jeremy Freese, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has reviewed survey data from the USA and Italy. These surveys were general-purpose, but they did include a measure of risk aversion: they asked respondents whether it is better in general to be cautious or bold. After controlling for age and income, Freese found that risk aversion didn't help explain the gender difference in going to religious services or in the importance of religion.

In fact, perhaps what looks like a solid relationship between risk attitudes and religiosity is not quite what it seems. There's an intriguing undergrad study looking at the relationship between risk aversion and religiosity, and it found that the answer you get depends on the order in which you ask the questions. If you ask about religion and gender first, and then risk aversion, you get the expected result: women and more religious people report that they are more risk averse. But if you ask about risk aversion first, and only then ask about gender/religion, the relationship disappears. In other words, if you remind people of their social status, then they will give you a response that matches the social stereotype. But you have to remind them first!

Well if it's not risk aversion, what is it? Take another look at what the sociologist Rodney Stark said in his 2002 paper:
The upshot is that some men are shortsighted and don't think ahead, Stark said, and so "going to prison or going to hell just doesn't matter to these men."
The evidence he used to support this claim put forward some evidence about risk aversion, but if you think about it this isn't anything to do with risk at all. It's about delayed gratification - your ability to resist temptation for a longer term goal. But just because Stark doesn't have any evidence, doesn't mean that it's wrong. Maybe this is why women are more religious.

However, the differences between men and women on this score are actually much smaller than most people think. In 2002 Irwin Silverman, a psychologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, analysed over 30 studies into sex differences in delayed gratification. He found that the gender gap was so small as to be almost undetectable.

What's more, Stark's argument doesn't make sense if you think about it. Delaying gratification is not necessarily a good thing. Ever heard the proverb 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'? The psychological term for this is discounting - meaning that people put higher value on things they have now, rather than things they might have in the future. That makes sense, because the future is uncertain (you might die first, for example). The further away it is in time, the less chance you have of actually getting it. People who go for immediate gratification do so because they have a high discount rate. Arguably, men have a higher discount rate because, in our evolutionary past, men faced a high risk of being killed in early adulthood.

But that's irrelevant for religious rewards. One thing you can be certain of is that you will eventually meet your maker. The fact that it might be near or far doesn't affect the odds of that. The discount rate doesn't apply, and there's every reason to delay gratification.

So it seems that, whichever way you cut it, Rodney Starks' argument fails the test. Unfortunately, that still doesn't help explain why women are more religious than men. I have some ideas about this from the research I've read, and I'm going to address them in my next (and final, promise!) post on this topic.

But to finish off, here's a teaser. Women are not just more religious than men, they are also more superstitious. The best evidence for this comes from a 2007 paper by Benno Torgler, an economist now at at UC Berkley. He used data from the 1998 International Social Survey on religion, and found that whether he looked at astrology, fortune tellers, or good luck charms, there was always a strong effect of gender. What's more, superstitious people were less likely to be churchgoers, but more likely to consider themselves to be religious people.

Now, superstition has nothing to do with the prospect of rewards in the afterlife, but it is about helping maximise outcomes in this life. So perhaps there are some clues here?

____________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgFreese, Jeremy (2004). Risk preferences and gender differences in religiosity: evidence from the World Values Survey Review of Religious Research, 46 (1), 88-91

Silverman, I. (2003). Gender Differences in Delay of Gratification: A Meta-Analysis. Sex Roles, 49 (9/10), 451-463 DOI: 10.1023/A:1025872421115


Torgler, B. (2007). Determinants of superstition. Journal of Socio-Economics, 36 (5), 713-733 DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2007.01.007

Why women are more religious. Part 1: It ain't Pascal's Wager

Here's a new analysis of the 2007 Pew Survey on the USA Religious landscape, confirming some very old news: women are more religious than men on virtually every measure. And here's a write up of it that's rather more surprising:
Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington, flips the question around: Why are men less religious?
"Studies of biochemistry imply that both male irreligiousness and male lawlessness are rooted in the fact that far more males than females have an underdeveloped ability to inhibit their impulses, especially those involving immediate gratification and thrills," Stark argued in a 2002 paper in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The upshot is that some men are shortsighted and don't think ahead, Stark said, and so "going to prison or going to hell just doesn't matter to these men."
Now hold on a minute here! That's a pretty bold claim, and needs some pretty powerful evidence to back it up. Unfortunately the evidence is circumstantial. What's worse, recent studies have proved Stark to be just plain wrong.

Let's back up a moment to see where Stark is coming from. In 2002 he co-wrote a study with Alan Miller (Hokkaido University) that looked at survey evidence on religion from around the world. What they showed was that women are more religious than men in every society, and the gap in religiousness was greater in more liberal societies than in more traditional ones. They also found some evidence linking a bigger gap to religions with a greater fixation on reward and punishment in the after life.

Given that men are more likely to take risks than women, they proposed that men are less religious because they are willing to take a gamble on there not being an afterlife. Classic Pascal's Wager, in other words.

In 2007 sociologists Jeremy Freese (Harvard) and James Montgomery (University of Wisconsin-Madison) ripped that argument to shreds.

Never mind the fact that Pascal's Wager is a pretty dodgy to start with, Stark's argument assumes that everyone makes the same risk assessment. Everyone has the same answer to the question: "What's the odds of going to hell if I don't go to Church today?" It's just that men are prepared to take that risk, whereas women aren't. Technically, this is called risk preference.

Whereas what in fact probably happens is that men judge the risk to be lower. I don't believe, therefore I judge the risk of going to hell to be pretty much zero, therefore I don't go the church. This is called risk assessment, and has nothing to do with men being more prepared to take risk.

But even going along with Stark's assumptions, Freese & Montgomery show that his argument is bogus. Stark frames it in economic terms, and so they use a standard economic model to test it. Here's the choices open to you. R is reward, C is cost (i.e. all the time spent in Church when you could've been doing something else), and P is punishment.

What they show is that risk-takers should be more motivated by the idea of heaven than of hell. And the opposite applies to the risk averse - the idea of hell should put the fear of God into them!

In other words, if Pascal's wager was important, and if women are more risk averse, you should only find more women than men in the group of people who believe in hell but not in heaven. In fact, almost no-one believes only in hell. And anyway, when Freese & Montgomery looked at data from the international World Values Survey, they found that women were more religious than men whether or not they believed in heaven or hell (or both). Pascal's wager makes no difference.

But so far this is all very theoretical - and economic theory at that (which doesn't have a great reputation right now!). So here's some hard data from Louise Roth at the University of Arizona. She took a look at both international and US survey statistics, and found pretty much the same thing wherever she looked.

The data I've pulled out are from the US General Social Survey. They show church attendance and prayer according to whether people believe in the afterlife or not. What you need to look at here is the gap between the 'men' column and the 'women' column.

As expected, there is a gap - women are more religious than men. But the gap is actually smaller among those who believe in an afterlife!

These numbers are the exact opposite of what Stark's theory predicts. Far from being unconcerned with life after death, it seems that the best way to get men involved in religion is to promise them life eternal!

If it's not Pascal's wager, then must be something else that's attracting women to religion. But what? I've been looking at that too - with a bit of luck I'll cover it in my next post.

_____________________________________________________________________________________
ResearchBlogging.orgJeremy Freese, James Montgomery (2007). The Devil Made Her Do It: Evaluating Risk Preference as an Explanation of Sex Differences in Religiousness. Advances in Group Processes: The Social Psychology of Gender. Oxford, Elsevier, 187-230

Louise Marie Roth, & Jeffrey C. Kroll (2007). Risky Business: Assessing Risk Preference Explanations for Gender Differences in Religiosity American Sociological Review, 27 (2), 205-220

The neurobiology of denying God

Take 20 believers and 20 non-believers. Stick them in an MRI machine (you may need an NIH grant for this part) and fire 60 statements at them while you scan their brains. Questions like "God’s will guides my acts" and "God cares about the world’s welfare" should do nicely. Get them to deny those those statements while you do it. Then stand back and see which bits of their brains light up in the believers compared with the non-believers.

Will it be the areas related to logical processing? Will it be linguistic areas, or higher emotional functions, or perhaps those areas related to experiential knowledge?

Nope. It's the bits related to deep-seated emotional responses to cognitive conflicts (the anterior insulae), as well as higher-order cognitive conflict (the middle cingulate gyri). They're the bits marked in red in the top picture.

What does this prove? Well not a lot, I suppose. That religious people experience emotional conflicts when denying God is not a great surprise, but it's nice to see it in action.

Want to see something else rather cool? I bet you're wondering what the difference was between the two sets of brains when they weren't denying God.

When your average, middle-aged, right-handed, US believer ponders God, three tiny bits of the brain light up (in addition to the bits that non-believers use). According to the study authors, these bits of the brain might be to do with episodic memory retrieval and imagery and greater effort in representing the meaning of the statements.

OK, now to be fair these two findings were not actually what the study was about. What the researchers (led by Jordan Grafman ) really set out to do was to find out what are the core religious experiences, and to determine which bits of the brain are responsible for processing or generating them.

What they came up with is a four-factor model of religion (God's involvement, God's anger/emotion, Doctrinal knowledge, Experiential knowledge). And lo! They found that each of these was associated with a different kind of brain activity. Crucially, each of these patterns of activity could be linked to standard brain processes linked to normal, non-religious functions.

Statements based on God's involvement provoked activity in brain regions associated with understanding intent. Statements of God's emotions stimulated regions responsible for classifying emotions and relating observed actions to oneself. And knowledge-based statements activated linguistic processing centres. Pretty much what you'd expect.

There's been a lot of press interest in this study, most of it sensationalist (if you can believe that). They haven't found a God spot, or even god spots. They haven't shown that religion is just a by-product of evolution.

What they have shown is that we think about religious concepts in pretty much the same way we think about other concepts. Which is nice, but not as much fun as the results I put up top!

(Many thanks to Bjørn at Pleiotropy for pointing me in the direction of this study!)

____________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgD. Kapogiannis, A. K. Barbey, M. Su, G. Zamboni, F. Krueger, J. Grafman (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811717106

Religion makes people in poor countries (but not rich ones) happier

Gallup has released a new analysis looking at the relationship between happiness and religiosity in different countries around the world (the data come from their 143-nation survey they ran in 2007-8). What's interesting about this one is they selected out two groups: the very rich (mean incomes in excess of $25,000) and the very poor (mean incomes less than $2,000).

They found that the poor countries were very much more religious than the rich ones. In poor countries, 92% of people say religion is very important to them, but that drops to 44% in rich countries. No surprises there.

What's interesting, though, is the difference between the religious and non-religious in happiness. In rich countries, there's virtually no difference. In poor countries, the difference is striking. The two graphs I've pulled out show this.

The first is from the poor countries. Religious people enjoy life more, worry less, and experience less sadness, depression and anger.

The second is from rich countries. Not only has the difference disappeared, but religious people are in fact sadder and more depressed! That's a very surprising result, and might well be down to depressed people 'self-medicating' with religion.

I guess a lot of people won't be surprised by these findings. But they demonstrate nicely what's these days a fairly unfashionable idea in the sociology of religion. People sign up to religion because, if you're at the bottom of the heap, it makes you feel special.

What's the connection between religion and homophobia?

You don't need me to tell you that religious people are more likely to be homophobic. But what you might not have thought too hard about is why that should be. Is it that religion makes people homophobic, or is it simply that religion attracts people who are conservative and/or authoritarian - people who also tend to be homophobic? Then again, 'religion' is a pretty broad church. Is all religion linked to homophobia, or is it just specific types?

And what about racism? Are religious people more likely to be rascist? And if not, why not? This is an important question because religion acts to strengthen group cohesion, and it also comes with a lot of moral rules. Either of these could explain the link to homophobia. But most religions tend to be at least overtly anti-racist. So if religious people are more racist, this is probably because the 'group cohesion' effect overrides the 'moral censure' effect.

Sometimes it seems like you wait years for big studies to come along tackling these issues, and then two come along at once! Putting both of them together starts to put some really interesting meat on the bones of this very fundamental question (with the caveat that, like most research in religion, these studies were done in the USA/Canada)

First up (and hat tip to The Phrenologists Notebook for this one) is some research done by Wade Rowatt and colleagues from Baylor University in the States. They crunched data fro the 2007 Baylor religion survey, which was a nationwide survey of over 1500 adults in the USA (that's the same survey that they use to say that atheism is not increasing). Unsurprisingly, religious people were more likely to be homophobic - in fact, religion was one of the strongest predictors of attitudes to homosexuals.

It also turned out that more religious people were more likely to be authoritarian, conservative, poorer, and Protestant - all factors that also predicted homophobia. Women were also more likely to be religious, but less likely than men to be homophobic.

But even after taking all this into account, religious people were still more likely to be homophobic. In other words, an authoritarian conservative is even more likely to be homophobic if they are also religious. Women are more likely to be homophobic if they are religious. Among all the possible factors they explored, two stuck out as being much more powerful predictors of homophobia than the rest: conservatism and religiosity.

So it seems that religion really does make people homophobic. Now, the interesting thing is that, although religion was also linked to racism, the link was extremely weak. So it doesn't seem that religion in general is acting to strengthen group identification. The implication of this is that religion really does powerfully add to homophobia because of its moral condemnation.

The next study took a more detailed look at different kinds of religiosity, and how they relate to prejudice towards homosexuals and blacks. The author, Bernard Whitely at Ball State University in Indiana, used a statistical technique known as meta-analysis to pool together the results of a large number (61, in fact) of previous studies. This gives it enormous power to get under the skin of what's really going on.

The results showed a much more nuanced picture than any previous study.

Fundamentalism (the belief that there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contain the essential, inerrant truth) was linked both to greater homophobia and racism. So fundamentalist religion generates group cohesion that's sufficiently powerful to overcome the non-racist message of conventional Christianity.

Christian orthodoxy and intrinsic orientation were linked to more homophobia and less racism. In other words, these people do as they're told! (Intrinsic orientation reflects the extent to which people truly believe their religions’ teachings and try to live their lives according to them.)

On the other hand, extrinsic orientation (which reflects the extent to which people use religion as a means to achieve nonreligious goals) had no effect on homophobia, but was linked to racism. The 'group cohesion' part of religion was strong in these kinds of people.

Finally, Quest orientation - people who score highly on this view religion as a search for answers to questions about the meaning of life. They were less homophobic and and also less racist.

Now, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Most religious people will belong to several to some degree or another. But what seems to be the general conclusion from all this is that the rabble-rousing, church-going aspects of religion are the ones chiefly responsible for both homophobia and racism. And they are counterbalanced to some extent by the quieter, more introspective aspects of religion.

So religion is both Jekyll and Hyde. I guess that's not too surprising, but it's nice to have some hard science to back it up!

____________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgWade C. Rowatt, Jordan LaBouff, Megan Johnson, Paul Froese, Jo-Ann Tsang (2009). Associations among religiousness, social attitudes, and prejudice in a national random sample of American adults. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1 (1), 14-24 DOI: 10.1037/a0014989

Bernard Whitley (2009). Religiosity and Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men: A Meta-Analysis International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19 (1), 21-38 DOI: 10.1080/10508610802471104

Religion: Xanax of the people?

Does religion help you be less anxious about mistakes? And if it does, is that a good thing? Researchers from the University of Toronto have shown that religious believers get less 'error-related negativity' (ERN) - a neurological response that's associated with conflict anxiety - when they make mistakes . But another study that came out a month ago sheds some intriguing light on what the practical implications of this actually are.

What Michael Inzlicht and colleagues from Toronto did was put a bunch of students through the Stroop Test. This is an interesting test that basically measures how confused you get when the word blue is written in red ink (i.e. BLUE). The students were strapped to ECG monitors, which measured their ERN when they got the answers wrong, compared with when they got them right.

The religious believers got a lower spike in response to getting the answers wrong. Inzlicht interprets this as an effect of religion - the religious believers had less anxiety because religion reduces uncertainty-related distress. It's an anxiolytic, like Xanax.

However, before rushing to judgement, it's worth knowing that there are lots of things that can reduce your ERN. For example, if you are less anxious to begin with, then that will reduce your ERN. Simply putting a nice background on the computer monitor makes a difference (Larson et al, 2006). And if you try to do two tasks at once, your ERN on the first task goes down (Hideaki et al, 2002). Perhaps these religious types are simply thinking of something else?

But assuming that there is something to this, what are the implications? After all, maybe anxiety serves a useful purpose. Here's Michael Inzlicht, lead author, commenting on the study:
"Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you're paralyzed with fear," he says. "However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we're making mistakes. If you don't experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don't make the same mistakes again and again?" (physorg.com)
Well, the other recent study on ERN comes from Diane Santesso and Sidney Segalowitz of Brock University in Ontario, Canada. They assessed ERN in late teenage boys and found that was negatively associated with risk propensity (risk taking, sensation seeking, and sensitivity to reward) . In other words, low ERN (like the religious believers had) makes you less concerned with the outcome of events.

What's more, low ERN was also associated with low empathy. It's as if the lack of anxiety meant they really didn't care what others thought or felt.

Earlier research also shows that low ERN means that you don't learn so well from negative experiences, although you do learn rather better from good ones (Frank et al, 2005). In other words, you don't learn from your mistakes (because you're not anxious about them). According to Matthew Bottvinick, a psychologist at Princeton University, this is exactly the role of the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain responsible for the ERN). He reckons that the anterior cingulate is responsible for assessing conflicts, and acts as a teaching signal driving a form of avoidance learning.

In other words, Xanax might well take away your anxiety, but is that necessarily a good thing?

____________________________________________________________________

ResearchBlogging.orgMichael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh, Kyle Nash (2009). Neural Markers of Religious Conviction. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02305.x

Diane L. Santesso, Sidney J. Segalowitz (2009). The error-related negativity is related to risk taking and empathy in young men. Psychophysiology, 46 (1), 143-152 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2008.00714.x

M FRANK, B WOROCH, T CURRAN (2005). Error-Related Negativity Predicts Reinforcement Learning and Conflict Biases. Neuron, 47 (4), 495-501 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2005.06.020

M. M. BOTVINICK (2007). Conflict monitoring and decision making: Reconciling two perspectives on anterior cingulate function. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7 (4), 356-366 DOI: 10.3758/CABN.7.4.356

Does Dawkins work?

It seems that cracks are opening in the religious veneer of the US - demographic data are showing that people are increasingly likely to tell pollsters that they are atheists or agnostics (see previous two posts). This much seems clear. The question then is: why?

The shift really seems to have happened in the current decade, and it's a decade that's seen some pretty seismic political events. There was 9/11 and subsequent media frenzy about religious violence. Then there was the plummeting popularity of Bush, whose administration was closely aligned to the religious evangelicals.

And then there's the Dawkins phenomenon.

Has the enormous popularity of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, contributed to the shifting beliefs of the American people? That's certainly what Dawkins hoped for:
If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. (The God Delusion)
On the other hand, critics of Dawkins have argued that his strident, take-no-prisoners style has done more harm than good. Madeleine Bunting, writing in the Guardian, goes so far as to demand proof that anyone at all has been converted.

Well, proof is hard to come by but there is good evidence that Dawkins' prose really can change beliefs, at least in the short term. This evidence comes from a study published last year by psychologist Azim Shariff and colleagues at the University of British Columbia (Shariff is the guy who co-wrote the review last year on the pro-social effects of religion).

What they did was give some students a couple of paragraphs from an essay that Dawkins wrote way back in 1994 that succinctly made his case. They don't quote the passage directly, but I've tracked it down and this is it (it was published in the electronic newsletter Nullifidian):
The great beauty of Darwin's theory of evolution is that it explains how complex, difficult to understand things could have arisen step by plausible step, from simple, easy to understand beginnings. We start our explanation from almost infinitely simple beginnings: pure hydrogen and a huge amount of energy. Our scientific, Darwinian explanations carry us through a series of well-understood gradual steps to all the spectacular beauty and complexity of life.

The alternative hypothesis, that it was all started by a supernatural creator, is not only superfluous, it is also highly improbable. It falls foul of the very argument that was originally put forward in its favour. This is because any God worthy of the name must have been a being of colossal intelligence, a supermind, an entity of extremely low probability - a very improbable being indeed.
Afterwards they were asked to summarize their feelings about Dawkins' argument. A control group was asked to write about their favourite food.

Then they did a distraction task, and then filled in a number of questionnaires, including one about their religiosity. According to this survey, their religiosity dropped by a small, but significant amount. Score 1 point to Dawkins.

But hang on, there's a number of reasons that people might change what they put in a questionnaire that have nothing to do with their actual opinions. It might simply be that they were inhibited from answering truthfully before. Or it might be that they are now inhibited. In other words, people are affected by what they judge to be the questioners' expectations.

So an objective test is needed. What Shariff & co used was a version of the Implicit Association Test. The gist of this is that images (or, in this case, words) are flashed up on the screen, and you have to sort them according to whether they are true or false. The cunning bit is that you are told whether to answer true or false. The test comes not in which ones you get right, but in how fast you react.

The theory is that if the instructions on how to sort into 'true' or 'false' go against your implicit beliefs, then you'll need more time to sort them. If they fit with your prejudice, you'll fly through. It's an objective measure of your real 'gut feelings'.

Anyway, here are the results. The left hand pair of bars show the results from the questionnaire. The right hand pair of bars show the results from the implicit association test.

Both show a decrease in religiosity in those who read the piece by Dawkins, but the implicit test shows a rather striking drop. It seems that Dawkins really can change deeply held beliefs.

OK so this was only a short term study. Once these people got back out into the real world, with the constant barrage of pro-religious sentiments, they no doubt rapidly lapsed. But what happens if the Dawkins message is louder and more regular? Could that really change attitudes in the long-term?

I would like to think so!
____________________________________________________________________
ResearchBlogging.org Azim F. A Shariff, Adam B. Cohen, Ara ANorenzayan (2008). The Devil's Advocate: Secular Arguments Diminish both Implicit and Explicit Religious Belief Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8 (3), 417-423 DOI: 10.1163/156853708X358245