Field of Science

A personal god boosts the placebo effect

The placebo effect is that spooky phenomenon that can cure people simply by convincing them they're getting real medicine (whereas they in fact are just taking a sugar pill). Although it's been reported in all sorts of areas of medicine, it's particularly potent for treating things like irritable bowel syndrome, pain, and depression.

In fact, a recent analysis found that most of the effect of antidepressant medicine in people with depression was in fact due to the placebo effect (but the effect got smaller in people with more severe depression).

With that in mind, a new study showing a connection between religious beliefs and the efficacy of antidepressant medicine is really interesting. What they did was to interview people who had just been enrolled in clinical trials of antidepressants, as well as some who had been admitted to hospital (they're a bit vague on the details here). On average, they had moderate-to-severe depression.

They measured religion using the Religious Well Being scale. This asks questions about strength of belief in a personal god, like ‘‘I believe that God is concerned about my problems.’’

What they found was that, after 8 weeks, those patients who scored high on the scale were more likely to respond to the medication (i.e. have a large improvement in their depression).

Now, there are a lot of niggles with this study that mean it's a long way from definitive. There weren't many patients (136 at the end), and half the patients who started didn't finish. That always raises a red flag because you have to suspect that the patients who dropped out did so for a reason. For example, perhaps religious patients who remained depressed dropped out of the study.

What's more the lead author, Patrica Murphy, states that the effect was "tied specifically to the belief that a Supreme Being cared." But that isn't actually something you can conclude from the study - since they didn't measure other aspects of religion.

And, finally, the RWB scale is rather leading. It assumes that you believe in a God, and then seeks to find out what kind of God that is. It doesn't distinguish between atheists and believers who believe in a personal god that just doesn't care about them (i.e. low self-esteem individuals).

Despite all this, it's a fascinating result that chimes with other research into religion and the placebo effect. We know already that the placebo effect is more powerful if the patient thinks that someone cares about them. And we know that you can engage the placebo effect in Catholics simply by getting them to look at a picture of the Virgin Mary.

But most intriguing is the evidence that people who believe their fate is in the hands of God are more likely to ask for 'heroic' treatment to try to snatch them from the jaws of death.

Could it be that fatalistic religious people, who think that a personal god is watching over them and looking after them, are also more convinced that medicine will work? That certainly would enhance the placebo effect.

PS. Strangely enough the authors, from the Department of Religion, Health and Human Value at Rush University Medical Center, never once mention the placebo effect as a possible explanation for their findings!

ResearchBlogging.orgMurphy, P., & Fitchett, G. (2009). Belief in a concerned god predicts response to treatment for adults with clinical depression Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65 (9), 1000-1008 DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20598

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

A little housekeeping

I'm very happy to announce that Epiphenom has joined the 'Field of Science' blogger network. Edward Michaud, who runs the network, has been working hard behind the scenes to create the new look Epiphenom. What do you think? I love it!

You may notice there's a new URL, but there's no need to adjust your sets. All the old links will redirect here. And while you're at it, check out the other network members listed across the top.

Research Blogging Awards 2010 FinalistIn other news, ResearchBlogging (the network of blogs dedicated to writing about peer-reviewed science) is handing out awards for the top blogs.

Epiphenom is short-listed in the "Best Blog - Social Sciences or Anthropology" category (right at the bottom of the list), which is pretty cool. Voting starts in about a week - but only registered Research Bloggers are eligible. No riff-raff allowed!

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

Should we entrust children to the care of the devoutly religious?

The Catholic Church is in the news again - this time in Germany - as a result paedophile priests being outed after years of cover-ups. Traditionally, we have entrusted vulnerable children to the care of the devoutly religious, on the grounds that, of all people, they can be relied upon not to abuse those in their care. Does that assumption hold up? We can't extrapolate too wildly from the particular problems of the Catholic Church, but there are other data out there.

So I took a look at the evidence for religion and sexual crime. Now, there is a negative correlation between religion and crime in general, especially in the USA (although the devil is in the detail). Broadly speaking, the relationship seems to hold best for property crime, rather than violent crime. But most studies don't look at sexual crime.

However, here's an interesting fact from the UK. Although disproportionately few crooks in the prison population report having a religious faith, that's not the case when you just look at felons who are in for sex crimes. According to the Times.

The proportion of all prisoners declaring any faith compared with those with none is about 2:1 but among those convicted of sex crime it rises to 3:1. The trend is marked across many faiths, including Buddhism, Anglicanism, Free Church Christianity and Judaism.

That's pretty unscientific, but I have found a few studies that have looked into this in a more rigorous way, and they both found something similar.

Donna Eshuys and Stephen Smallbone of Griffith University in Australia assessed 111 incarcerated adult male sexual offenders. They categorised them as either atheists, religious dropouts, new converts, and lifelong religious stayers.

Surprisingly, they found that this last group (those who maintained religious involvement from childhood to adulthood) had more sexual offence convictions, more victims, and younger victims, than other groups. This relationship persisted after controlling for other factors that might explain it.

A similar study comes from Israel, and looked at Jewish male prisoners. As in the UK, religious individuals were rarer in prison than in wider society (by religious they mean orthodox observant Jews, who made up 3.75% of the prison population, compared with 20% of the general population). However, those religious Jews who were in prison were more likely to be in for sex crimes.

Lastly, Ruth Stout-Miller and colleagues interviewed freshman at a Southern University, and found that those who had been sexually abused by a relative were much more likely to be affiliated with fundamental Protestant religions (while those abused by a non-relative were more likely to be non-religious).

Well, it's not much. But it is interesting that the same pattern seems to crop up in the UK, Australia Israel and the USA. There does seem to be a link between religion and sex crimes, and it seems to be particularly a problem for the more devoutly religious individuals.

We can speculate why this might be (sexual repression, perhaps) although the reasons aren't altogether clear. But I think what is clear is that we should be cautious when entrusting children into the care of devout believers.
Eshuys, D., & Smallbone, S. (2006). Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 18 (3), 279-288 DOI: 10.1007/s11194-006-9020-5

Ben-David S, & Weller L (1995). Religiosity, criminality and types of offences of Jewish male prisoners. Medicine and law, 14 (7-8), 509-19 PMID: 8667998

Stout-Miller, R., Miller, L., & Langenbrunner, M. (1998). Religiosity and Child Sexual Abuse: A Risk Factor Assessment Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 6 (4), 15-34 DOI: 10.1300/J070v06n04_02

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

How come Intelligence, religion, and fertility are linked?

Here's a new study looking at the connection between religion, fertility, and IQ at a national level. We know from previous studies that countries where people are, on average, more religious also tend to have higher average fertility and lower average IQ.

The problem is that we also know that countries that have lower average IQ also have higher fertility. So teasing out the two factors is not obvious.

This is what Charlie Reeve (University of North Carolina Charlotte) has investigated.

What he found was that, even after correcting for per capita wealth, both religion and IQ were independently related to fertility. What's more there was a fascinating interaction.

As you can see in the graph, countries with low religious belief had low fertility, no matter what their average IQ. What's more, countries with high average IQ had low fertility, no matter what their average level of religious belief.

It's only in countries with low IQ that religiosity pumps up the fertility rate. And the effect is quite dramatic - a 150% increase in fertility rate for countries that have both high average religiosity and low average IQ.

Reeve also took a look at other health-related measures, and found a similar effect. Religiosity and low IQ combine to push up both infant mortality and maternal mortality.

With life expectancy, a somewhat different picture emerged (shown in the second figure). In high IQ nations, high religiosity increased life expectancy. In low IQ nations, high religiosity decreased it.

What could be going on here? Well, it's pretty hard to figure out. A simple explanation is that IQ is a buffer against the effects of religion. However, my gut feeling is that there is some other factor mediating the interaction.

Variations in national average IQ probably reflect other social and cultural factors - access to education, for example, as well as democratic and open societies. It may be that religion has a particularly big effect in nations lacking these structures.

One of these factors is our old friend wealth inequality. There does appear to be a relationship between inequality and IQ, perhaps mediated by education.

That said, we do have to treat these results with caution. They don't show that individuals with low IQ and high religion have more kids (although I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case), only that countries with this mix have high fertility. And we can't be sure how robust the results are - I suspect there are very few countries in the 'high IQ + high religion' category.

What's more, the measures of IQ and religion are non-standardised. IQ especially is very susceptible to cultural bias. Reeves does try to reduce this by redoing the analysis after cutting out the countries with very low IQ, but doesn't present the results (only reports that they are essentially the same.

Still, this is a very provocative paper. What it suggests is that, in wealthy nations, religion is not so important as a determiner of fertility. That certainly seems to be the case in Europe.
Reeve, C. (2009). Expanding the g-nexus: Further evidence regarding the relations among national IQ, religiosity and national health outcomes. Intelligence, 37 (5), 495-505 DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2009.06.003

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

Reasonable Doubts Podcast - Religion and Society

Last week Jeremy Beahan and Luke Galen, hosts of the Reasonable Doubts Podcast, interviewed me for a feature on Religion and Society. Well, the finished product, Episode 62 is now up - you can download the MP3 here.

I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet myself (bedtime for me here in the UK!), but it was a good discussion. We covered topics around the Gregory Paul's paper and my own work on the societal-level causes of religion (inequality, poor health, crime etc).

Anyway, enjoy!

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

Religion makes you a fat non-smoker

You might have seen news reports about a recent study showing that religious people are no healthier than non-religious. The cynical among you might be wondering what on Earth's going on here, given that other studies have shown the opposite! A classic example of scientists proving whatever they want to, perhaps?

Well, no. There's a good reason that this study has found something different, and that's because it's not asking quite the same question.

You see, working out the relationship between religion and health is actually quite complicated. If you take the straightforward approach the answer is clear: religious people are unhealthier and die younger than the non-religious.

The reason for that is obvious. Religious people tend to be poorer and less well educated. As a result, most studies try to work out whether religious people are healthier after adjusting for these differences.

So the key question boils down to this: which differences should you adjust for? Your decision on this will affect the answer you get.

Most studies adjust for basic demographic factors. Older people and women are more likely to be religious, and both these affect your chances of heart attacks. Most studies also adjust for education and income level.

The rationale is our old friend, the arrow of causality. While being older might cause you to be more religious, being religious doesn't cause you to be older!

But there are also a host of lifestyle factors that make heart disease more likely (smoking, lack of exercise, overeating). Here's where it starts to get more difficult, because religion could definitely cause you to be a nonsmoker.

Many studies adjust for these lifestyle factors. But you can go a step further - and that's what they did in this study.

Lifestyle contributes to heart disease by affecting things like your cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and by making you more likely to be diabetic. If you adjust for all of these, then you are really getting down to a nitty gritty question.

And so the question they were asking in this study was really very specific. They wanted to know if, apart from all the physical things that could link religion to heart disease, there is some other, unexplained factor at work.

So what's this study about, then?

With all that in mind, let's take a quick look at this study. What they did was follow about 5,000 Americans recruited as part of another study and chosen to be ethnically diverse and regionally representative. They recorded heart attacks and strokes over 4 years.

As expected, nonreligious people were much more healthy than the religious. They had lower blood pressure, were leaner, and were less likely to be diabetic. They were, however, more likely to be smokers.

The effects of this could be detected in their organs. The arteries of religious people were more damaged and their hearts were enlarged.

But the nonreligious also better educated, more likely to be white or Chinese, and more likely to be men. All of these would affect your lifestyle.

So they adjusted for age, sex, race, education and income, like many other studies before have done. Crucially (and unlike other studies), they also adjusted for blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and cholesterol.

What they found is shown in the figure. After statistically adjusting for all the common physical factors that are linked to heart disease, there was no effect of religion.

In other words, whatever effect religion has on health (for good or bad), it must do it by affecting known risk factors in some way.

I guess that's not too surprising. But other studies have found that psychological factors can lead to heart disease. This study suggests that these psychological factors aren't significantly affected by religion.

The really interesting thing is...

One last thing - and this is what I thought was the really mind-blowing result from this study.

They found that religious people smoked less. This was one of only two lifestyle factors that remained after they adjusted for all the demographic differences between the religious and non-religious (age, gender, race, education and income).

That's something that's commonly observed, and it may be because religion provides social pressure and support to help people quit.

But the study also found that religious people were fatter (again, after adjusting for demographic factors). The effect was large - religious people were 50-60% more likely to be obese.

That's a result that has been seen in other studies, but is altogether more difficult to explain! Donald Lloyd-Jones, the study lead, put it like this:

"The obesity story is interesting, and we tried a lot of different ways to get it to go away—looking at social, demographic, and psychosocial factors—and really didn't see any clear explanation for it," said Lloyd-Jones. "So we're left with this observation, and we're not really sure what's the cart and what's the horse. We don't really know if there is something about religious participation that leads to obesity, or if it's the other way around, and that heavier people might seek out religious and spiritual experiences because of things like stigmatization."

ResearchBlogging.orgFeinstein M, Liu K, Ning H, Fitchett G, & Lloyd-Jones DM (2010). Burden of cardiovascular risk factors, subclinical atherosclerosis, and incident cardiovascular events across dimensions of religiosity: the multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. Circulation, 121 (5), 659-66 PMID: 20100975

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

The brain surgery path to transcendence

Transcendence: the belief that you are connected in ineffable ways to the world around you, that you are not limited by your body but can go beyond it in mysterious ways.

The feeling of transcendence seems to be linked to the right parietal lobe. Brain scans of meditating Buddhist monks show decreased activity in this area, and people with brain damage in the region report feeling more spiritual.

Now a new study has taken a closer look in patients undergoing surgery for brain tumours. Using a sensitive measure of spirituality and accurate mapping of the brain lesion, they were able to tie down the relationships to two specific brain regions, shown in the image.

One of these is located in the right parietal lobe, and the other in the left parietal lobe. These parts of the brain are linked to awareness of where your body (and body parts) is in space.

So these results support the idea the transcendental experiences are caused by a loss of function in these key brain areas. What's interesting was the effect was both immediate (it happened straight after surgery) and prolonged (it was detectable in patients who had previously been operated on for a tumour in the same area).

And feeling more transcendental seemed to turn them on to religion. Patients whose brain tumours were located in this area reported being more religious even before surgery. So if somebody you know suddenly takes up churchgoing, you might want to refer them to your friendly, local neurologist!

ResearchBlogging.orgUrgesi, C., Aglioti, S., Skrap, M., & Fabbro, F. (2010). The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence Neuron, 65 (3), 309-319 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.01.026

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

Be religious and be free (or at least, let off with a lighter sentence)

Cherie Booth was in the news this week for giving a suspended prison sentence to a man who broke another guy's jaw in an assault, apparently on the grounds that he was religious. Here's the offending quote:

“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before," she told him at Inner London Crown Court.

"You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”

Now, what a judge should say in these circumstances is that the defendant is a man of good character. By switching that for the term 'religious' she's implying that the two are synonymous, and that, by implication, non-religious people are not.

So it was a verbal gaffe. But it got me thinking: perhaps she's on to something. Is religion an indicator of good behaviour?

Let's start with prison populations. In the UK, as in the US, there are very few atheists in prison. But what there are is a lot of 'non-religious' or 'don't knows'.

In other words, this seems like a classic case of the 'U-shape', where firm atheists and firm religious are unlikely to be offenders. The problem lies with the people in the middle.

So what about some proper social science then? Well, there's a lot of it out there, but not a lot of it is very convincing.

There really isn't anything to link religiosity in an individual to risk for crime. What there is tends to look at the population level, and try to figure out if areas with more religious people have fewer crimes (after adjusting for other factors).

Overall, religious attendance seems to be associated on a population level with less property crime. But the evidence is pretty mixed. What's more the evidence is correlational, which leads to the question of causality.

In the only study to date that seems to have tackled this, Paul Heaton of the University of Chicago looked at US counties. He found that, sure enough, there was a small effect: more religious counties had fewer property crimes (although there was no difference in violent crimes).

So then he looked to see what the relationship was between crime today and religiosity back in 1916. What he found was that the counties with more crime today had seen a relatively larger drop in numbers of religious people.

What this suggests is that high crime rates actually cause a decrease in religiosity. Why this should be is an open question.

It doesn't seem to be that pro-social people move away from areas of high criminality. When he looked only at counties where the population is relatively static, he found something similar.

He also looked at the effect of Easter, a point in the calendar when Church attendance goes up. There was no effect of this on crime rates, which supports the idea that suffusing the population with religious messages doesn't help to reduce crime.

This is by no means the end of the story. But it does give a flavour of just how uncertain the social effects of religion still are.

And of course none of it supports Booth's apparent belief that religious people deserve lighter sentences!
Heaton, P. (2006). Does Religion Really Reduce Crime?* The Journal of Law and Economics, 49 (1), 147-172 DOI: 10.1086/501087

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

Does prayer make you more forgiving... and why?

Widely reported earlier this week was a study on prayer and forgiveness. It's by the same crew that gave us the study last year on prayer and gratitude, and has (broadly speaking) the same methodological concerns (it only recruited students who already pray, and uses measures that are difficult to interpret).

But, fair doos, this is an interventional study of the effects of prayer that is basically sound, and the authors deserve kudos for trying to assess this unfashionable area. So what did it show?

Well, they recruited 67 Christian students in Florida, and asked them either to pray for a friend, or to pray without specifying what for, or to think positive thoughts about their friend. They had to do this every day for 4 weeks.

Then they measured the degree of forgiveness they felt towards their friend. As the graph shows, forgiveness was greatest in the 'pray for a friend' group.

They suggest that the reason for this is that prayer creates a generalised feeling of selflessness, although this seems theoretically unlikely to me and the evidence they provide for it is rather tendentious.

So what do we know about prayer? Well, brain scans suggest that praying is much like talking to a friend. So maybe talking to a confidant about a third party helps to generate forgiveness.

Furthermore, although they didn't measure the beliefs of the participants, it's likely (given the local culture) that many of them believed in an active, personal god who can step in to change things in the world around them - including other people.

It's much easier to have forgiving thoughts about people if you think that they are going to change. If these students thought that praying for someone is sufficient to change them for the better, it seems very likely that would made them feel more forgiving.

ResearchBlogging.orgLambert, N., Fincham, F., Stillman, T., Graham, S., & Beach, S. (2009). Motivating Change in Relationships: Can Prayer Increase Forgiveness? Psychological Science, 21 (1), 126-132 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609355634

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

Bound to happen (especially if you're an Asian Christian)

Christians tend to be more fatalistic than the non-religious, which is not altogether surprising. In a post earlier this month I reviewed a study showing one of the consequences of that fatalism.

This post is about an altogether weirder aspect of fatalism!

It comes from a study by Ara Norenzayan (University of British Columbia) and Albert Lee (Queen's University, Ontario). They looked at religious students and found, lo and behold, they were more fatalistic than non-religious students.

They also looked at whether they believed that the world was just. This is a common psychological measure that taps into the tendency to believe that people get what they deserve.

Now, in their sample, there was no correlation between belief in a just world and belief in a god. That's not as surprising as it sounds, because although most studies have found such a link others have not (especially when you widen the pool to include non-whites).

But what was more surprising was that there was no connection between belief in a just world and fatalism.

Think about that for a moment. Students who think the world operates according to a predetermined plan are no more likely to think that you get what you deserve - whether or not they believe in god.

The explanation probably lies in the choice of students. You see, they were careful to recruit a mix of Canadians with Asian and European heritage. The interesting thing thing is that Asians are more likely than Europeans to be fatalistic, regardless of religious beliefs.

You can see that nicely in the graph. Religion and Asian ethnicity add together, with the most fatalistic being Asian Christians.

Why should this be? Well, they did some further statistical analysis and found that the link between Asian ethnicity and fatalism was down to something called causal complexity.

Basically, this is the belief that you can't simply link each event to a single, unique cause. Instead, outcomes have very complex causes, and any one of a number of events can result in a given outcome. This way of thinking, which is more common among Asians than Europeans, leads to a sense of inevitability.

But this non-linear way of thinking is not restricted to Asians, of course. In fact, they showed that you can make people more fatalistic simply by making them think about the Butterfly Effect.

So there you have it. Two ways to achieve a sense of fatalism: believe that gods are manipulating your fate, or believe that there are so many possible ways for something to happen, that it was bound to happen (in retrospect, of course!).

And, bizarrely enough, they're additive!

ResearchBlogging.orgNorenzayan, A., & Lee, A. (2010). It was meant to happen: Explaining cultural variations in fate attributions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (In press)

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