Field of Science

God prompts can scare us into trying to do the impossible

According to new research from Tina Toburen and Brian Meier at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, giving subliminal messages about religion can make people work longer trying to complete a task that's actually impossible, and make us more anxious about it to boot.

What they did was to ask a group of college students to unscramble ten anagrams. Unfortunately for the students only four could actually be solved - the other six were a meaningless jumble of letters!

They were told they could take as long as they needed to complete the task - up to a maximum of 20 minutes. What's more, they measured their anxiety levels both before and afterwards.

All the students also got some prework, including forming sentences from a word salad. For half of them, these sentences included words related to God and religion. In fact, this was a subliminal prime to get them thinking subconsciously about God.

So the question is, how did the students who got the subliminal God prime fare in the anagram task?

Well, the graph reveals the overall results. Those people who got the subliminal god prime stuck at the task longer and became more anxious when they couldn't solve it.

Interestingly, this effect wasn't weaker in people who had weaker beliefs in God. other priming studies have also found this - it might be down to the fact that students in the US are raised in religious environments, even if they are not religious themselves.

The authors think the primes might have this effect because they made people people feel that God was watching them. Alternatively, they suggest that merely reminding people about authority figures might also do the trick.

Either or both of these things might be happening - only further research will show. But it's interesting to contrast this with other research into anxiety.

For example, people who are more religious tend to be less, not more anxious (although anxiety seems to trigger churchgoing).

Even more relevant to the current study is a finding that religious people show less 'error response negativity' when they make mistakes. This is a pattern of brain activity that's linked to anxiety over making mistakes.

Taken at face value, these two results together suggest that religious people are inherently less worried about making mistakes, but when reminded of their god they get highly stressed about failure!


ResearchBlogging.orgToburen, T., & Meier, B. (2010). Priming God-Related Concepts Increases Anxiety and Task Persistence Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29 (2), 127-143 DOI: 10.1521/jscp.2010.29.2.127

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

Are atheist nations thriving?

Regular readers of this blog will know that nations with a lot of atheists tend to come out on top on a number of measures of 'societal success' - wealth, education, life expectancy, and corruption, for example. They also score higher on a general measure called the Peace Index.

So when I learned that Gallup had published a new international ranking, the Global Well Being Index, I naturally wanted to see how national scores on this measure compare with atheism.

A core part of their measure is the number of people who report they are thriving, defined as follows:
Gallup measures life satisfaction by asking respondents to rate their present and future lives on a “ladder” scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10, where “0” indicates the worst possible life and “10” the best possible life. Individuals who rate their current lives a “7” or higher and their future an “8” or higher are considered thriving.
I compared the percentage of people in each nation who say that they are 'thriving' with the percentage who say that religion is "Not at all important' to them (data from the 5th wave of the World Values Survey). So this isn't a comparison of individual piety with individual 'thriving' - it's a comparison of national averages.

The top graph of the three shows how it pans out. Countries with more atheists also have more people who say that they are thriving. But the relationship is pretty weak (the R-squared of 0.17 means that about 17% of the variation in 'thriving' is explained statistically by the variation in atheism - although cause and effect could go either way, of course).

That's not too surprising. Given that countries with more atheists also tend to be wealthier, I was expecting the relationship to be even stronger.

The weak relationship is explained in part by the fact that there are two kinds of countries with lots of atheists. There are countries where atheism is organic, driven by high living standards. And there are countries where atheism has been imposed (the communist and ex-communist countries).

The comparison between these two different kinds of atheist countries is revealing.

Among countries that have never been communist, there is a much stronger relationship between the percent of atheists and the percent of people thriving. The outlier, Japan, has many atheists but is not thriving - no doubt due to the lacklustre economical performance in recent decades.

Communist and ex-communist countries, however, without exception score very badly on the 'thriving' index. What's more there is no relationship - or perhaps even a slightly negative one - with the numbers of atheists. I suspect this is because the dead hand of communism is still dragging people down in these nations.

There is an interesting symmetry between China and Japan. The first is undergoing wild economic growth, while the latter is in the doldrums. And yet they both have similar numbers of atheists, and neither are thriving!


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

Prayer, but not belief in the afterlife, reduces anxiety of sick people

It's clear that stressful situations can bring out the religious in people. What's not clear is whether turning to religion actually helps to relieve anxiety.

Even less well understood is which, if any, aspects of religion are effective. Does the social support that comes with attending religious meetings help, or some other religious activity, or is it some facet of belief itself?

Terrence Hill, at the University of Miami, and colleagues have looked at this using data from the US General Social Survey. Basically, they were looking to see what aspects of religion correlated with anxiety (health warning: these are just correlations. The effect could go either way).

Unfortunately they don't tell us whether religious people are more or less anxious than the general population. But they do show that, after correcting for other factors that can affect anxiety (gender, wealth, ethnicity, etc), more religious people are a little bit less anxious

(Even after including a number of demographic factors in their model, including religion, they could still only explain about 12% of the variation in anxiety between people - so clearly the major causes of anxiety lie elsewhere.)

What they found was that church attendance was linked to a very small reduction in anxiety. Belief in the afterlife was linked to a somewhat larger reduction.

However, people who believe that human nature is fundamentally perverse and corrupt (as opposed to basically good) tended to be slightly more anxious.

With prayer, the results were more complex. What they found, first of all, was that people who prayed more often were neither more nor less anxious than people who don't pray.

Digging a bit further, they found that prayer has different effects in different people. In people who have poor health, or whose finances have recently worsened, prayer significantly decreased anxiety. In people without these problems, prayer was linked to more anxiety.

There was a similar interaction with belief in the afterlife and financial decline. Remarkably, however, belief in the afterlife did not reduce anxiety more in people whose health was poor. Perhaps they were not looking forward to meeting their maker!

On a more serious note, this supports other evidence which suggests that religious beliefs are particularly valued by people looking for support in this world, rather than by hopes for a happy afterlife.


ResearchBlogging.orgEllison CG, Burdette AM, & Hill TD (2009). Blessed assurance: religion, anxiety, and tranquility among US adults. Social science research, 38 (3), 656-67 PMID: 19856703

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

Research Blogging Awards 2010

I'd like to thank my my family, my cats, and especially my therapist... Yes, Epiphenom has won an award! It's a particularly satisfying one, because it's the Research Blogging Awards- with Epiphenom the winner in the Social Science/Anthropology category.

The Research Blogging Awards are voted for by fellow research bloggers, so it's doubly satisfying to win. You can listen to a podcast by Dave Munger and Joy More (of Seed Media, who are behind the awards) - and there's also a transcript if listening's not your thing.

There's $50 prize money, which I'll look to see if they can donate directly to a charity (rather than converting first to sterling). But which charity?

So here's a chance for readers! I'd like you to nominate/vote for a US charity that you think should get the cash. Not a humanist one - I'm thinking something like Médecins Sans Frontières or Oxfam (OK neither of them are US charities, but they have US affiliation). In other words, a secular charity working on an international scale.

By the way, congratulations to Ed Yong and Not Exactly Rocket Science, who's walked off with the $1000 award for the Research Blog of the year. It's a consistently excellent blog, and fully deserves the award!


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

Did world religions help bring about complex societies?

This is a long post, but hang on in there because it's worth it. There's a wonderful paper just out in Science that sheds new light on a mystery of human behaviour: why do people sometimes do good deeds even when they gain nothing from it.

Some forms of altruism can be easily explained by evolution, but evolution can't explain why people are sometimes generous to completely anonymous strangers. This new study may have found a solution: it isn't something inherent to our nature, but rather something that we learn to do.

You might have seen something of it already - it's featured on several news wires. I'm not going to go into detail on the headline results, because you can find them elsewhere (Wired magazine has a nice write up, for example).

What interests me most about this study is the link they found to religion. But first, here's a quick overview of what they did, and the major finding. The heart of the study was a standard battery of economic games designed to test their subject's understanding of fairness:
  • In the 'Dictator Game' Player 1 is given a fixed pool of money (equal to 1 day's wages), and can share as much (or as little) as she likes with Player 2.
  • In the 'Ultimatum Game', Player 2 is given the chance to reject offers that she feels are insultingly small.
  • In the 'Third Party Punishment Game' a third player is given some money as well, and she can spend some of it to punish Player 1, if she thinks that the offer to Player 2 is too small.
Now, the logical thing to do in all these games is to hold on to all your money. You have nothing to gain by sharing (the games are anonymous), and all that happens is that you go home with less. However, what usually happens is that people do share some money (usually not 50%, however!).

What makes this new study unique is that they've put together data from the world over, including the rather marvellous Hadza (you can see the locations on the map). Then they compared how much people contributed with what kind of society they lived in.

They found that contributions were smallest in societies that did not have a market economy (e.g. hunter gatherers). And they found that punishment was lowest in societies formed of small groups.

This potentially resolves the conundrum! What it suggests is that anonymous altruism is not part of our evolutionary make up, but instead is something that we learn from the society around us. The reason big, complex societies can exist is that we drum it into our kids that they must be fair and kind to strangers (against their natural instincts).

So what's the connection with religion?

Well, they also showed that, in two out of the three games, the anonymous contributions were higher in those groups that had converted from tribal religions (in which gods do not enforce morality) to follow a 'world religion' (in practice, either Christianity or Islam).

On the face of it, this is supports the idea that 'world religion' is a cultural adaptation to allow the formation of complex societies. The invention of and all-seeing, morally concerned god increases the honesty in anonymous transactions, and thus allowing large, integrated communities to develop.

When you look at the history of religions, it's clear that the development of religious ideas has progressed in tandem with the increasing complexity of society. Robert Wright has written a book on the topic, and in the supplementary material the study authors give a nice summary of these ideas.

It all sounds very plausible. However, it's not quite that simple, for a whole host of reasons.

First is the problem that a 'world religion' may be a consequence, not a cause, of a complex society. A world religion is essentially one that's popular over large geographic area. However, the exchange of ideas that always goes together with the exchange of goods will inevitably bring about a convergence of beliefs to create a 'world religion'.

So you would expect a complex, diverse society to develop some kind of syncretic belief system - a 'World Religion'. And that belief system would inevitably encapsulate the social norms of the complex society that created it. People create a god in their image.

Suppose, for example, that countries with more parasites end up with more fractured societies that are naturally less trusting of strangers. After all, strangers could bring with them disease. Surprisingly, studies have found that this is exactly the pattern you see - people living in high parasite regions are less open to strangers and have more fractured religions (Fincher & Thornhill, 2008). These societies, with their tribal rather than world religions, would naturally be less co-operative in anonymous games.

Perhaps moralising gods moralising gods are not required for complex societies. After all, the Romans and Greeks managed created large, complex societies despite having a pantheon of gods who were not exactly paragons of virtue.

And the reality is that, in modern societies at least, non-belief is correlated with less corruption and more trust. Social norms, rather than god beliefs, seem to be of primary importance.

As support for the hypothesis that 'world religions' promote pro-social behaviour, they quote the work of Shariff & Norenzayan. That was a small study which found that, in a similar economic game, subliminal religious primes (i.e. a quick flash of a religious word) were marginally more effective in believers than non-believers.

However, they also showed that non-religious primes were equally effective, and also that without the priming both religious and non-religious were equally pro-social. What's more, other studies (Randolph-Seng & Nielsen, 2007, Ahmed 2009) have shown that pro-social effects of religion are all about the situation, rather than the beliefs.

Put these findings together, and what you get is the strong suggestion that the way to encourage pro-social behaviour is to remind people about their cultural training (religious or otherwise). The more you reinforce a social norm of co-operation, the more people will co-operate.

Now, that doesn't rule out a role of religion in stabilising societies. In fact, I'm inclined to that that there must be a link. But it is fearsomely difficult to prove, and it's clear that whatever the link is, it's much more complicated than it appears at first sight.

I'm going to leave you with one other niggling anomaly from the paper. Remember that 'world religion' was associated with more pro-social behaviour in only two out of the three games? Maybe you were wondering which was the one out?

Well, the game that was the 'Third Party Punishment' game. This is the game in which Player 1 should give more money if they fear that Player 3 might spend some cash to punish offers that were too low. It's a particularly relevant test because third party intervention to enforce the rules is a crucial feature of complex society.

Unlike the other two games, being Christian or Muslim had no effect on Player 1's offers. What makes this doubly fascinating is that this is the only game in which wealth and income affected Player 1's decisions.

The authors suspect it might be that the introduction of a 'judge' reduces the intrinsic motivation. In other words, the offers players make depends on what they think the judge will approve of, rather than what they themselves think is fair.

However, I couldn't help but be reminded of another study that looked at punishment behaviour in a similar game. They examined a cross-section of relatively high income countries, and found high levels of co-operative punishment, and low-levels of anti-social punishment, in the least religious societies (Copenhagen and Melbourne).

Conceivably, if you don't believe that there is a god on hand to enforce the rules, you might just be motivated to do it yourself!


ResearchBlogging.orgHenrich, J., Ensminger, J., McElreath, R., Barr, A., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., Cardenas, J., Gurven, M., Gwako, E., Henrich, N., Lesorogol, C., Marlowe, F., Tracer, D., & Ziker, J. (2010). Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment Science, 327 (5972), 1480-1484 DOI: 10.1126/science.1182238

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

Death by human stampede

Over the past 30 years, stampedes have killed at least 7,000 people and injured another 14,000. That's the conclusion that Edbert Hsu (Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions) and colleagues reached after a painstaking trawl of news reports in the world's English-language media.

The real toll is probably even higher, of course, but the data were enough to allow Hsu to work out the characteristics of the most lethal stampedes. They found reports on 215 stampedes, of which 49 occurred at sporting events, 25 at musical events, 38 were political and 41 were religious. The rest (totalling 60) were due to a mixed bag of causes and were mostly spontaneous.

And the award for the most lethal type of stampede goes to... religious ones! In simple terms of the number of fatalities per stampede, religious events come out over double that of their closest rival.

The simple comparison is not a very fair, however. Religious stampedes take place in different parts of the world (often in the Middle East, which is the most dangerous place to be in a stampede), often in low income nations (also very dangerous), and often outdoors (slightly more dangerous than indoor stampedes).

But even when you take all this into account, religious stampedes still come out on top of the lethality stakes - but sporting stampedes are so close as to make it a photo finish.

There's one other factor that contributes to the lethality of a stampede, and that's the size of the crowd. Unfortunately, Hsu was only able to determine the size of the crowd in 130 cases.

Even taking into account crowd size, religious stampedes are still pretty dangerous. When you look at fatality rate (i.e. deaths per crowd member), they're 6 times riskier than stampedes at sporting events.

But with with crowd size taken into account, religious stampedes drop into third place. The riskiest kind of stampede by a long way are the spontaneous ones (because of the lack of crowd control), followed by political ones.

The explanation for all this is fairly simple. Religion is the one event that brings together truly massive crowds, often in settings that are poorly controlled.

One of the most lethal stampedes in recent history occurred in Iraq in 2005, when nearly 1000 people died when fears of a suicide attack sparked panic. In the same year, over 250 died (out of a crowd of 400,000) when Hindu worshippers set fire to shops.

But the biggest contributor is the annual Hajj, which these days draws crowds in excess of 2 million. Five of the biggest stampedes in the past100 years occurred in Mina Valley, Saudi Arabia, during the Hajj.

Over the past 3 decades, nearly 3,000 people have been killed in stampedes during the Hajj - the last big disaster being in 2006. With crowds that big, I suppose the surprise is that there are so few casualties!


ResearchBlogging.orgHsieh, Y., Ngai, K., Burkle, F., & Hsu, E. (2009). Epidemiological Characteristics of Human Stampedes Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 3 (4), 217-223 DOI: 10.1097/DMP.0b013e3181c5b4ba

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

Altruism has 3 degrees of separation

One of the mysteries of human behaviour is why we sometimes act with completely selfless altruism. When asked to play totally anonymous games in which we can cheat without anyone else ever finding out, very often we don't.

Instead, we play the game fairly, which results in a cost to ourselves (compared with what we could've had) and a benefit to the stranger. That's a mystery because evolution says that organisms which don't act to maximise benefit to themselves - whatever the cost to others - should die out.

Several explanations have been put forward, but one of the most intriguing stems from the fact that we live in social networks. In a network like this, we depend critically on the kindness of others.

A new study has looked at how altruistic behaviour can be transmitted between players in the kinds of anonymous games that social psychologists are so fond of. The data were from some earlier experiments in which 240 people played the games over six rounds, each time with different partners (all anonymous).

What they found was that the amount individuals contributed in one round was affected by how generous their partners were in previous rounds. If they played with generous people in round 1, then they would be more generous to the new partners they had in round 2.

In fact, they showed that this effect was propagated through new partners. As you can see in the figure, if Eleni was generous to Lucas, then Lucas would be generous to Erika, and Erika more generous to Jay.

Unselfish acts propagated out to 3 degrees of separation. When you remember that only 6 degrees of separation stand between you and every other person on the planet, you can understand how powerful and important this effect is.

Even within the terms of the game, this 'paying it forward' had a dramatic effect. The magnitude of each action (generous or cheating) was tripled as it rippled through the network. One individual's generosity in round 1 had a major effect on the benefits reaped by players in later rounds.

The infectious nature of altruism might help to explain an anomaly uncovered by previous research. While selfless altruism crops up in these research games when they are played by Westerners, the effect among people from small tribal societies is much less. That might be because Westerners learn this kind of behaviour as a result of the anonymous transactions that are such a central part of life in the West.

It might also help to explain how selfless altruism evolved. Earlier, theoretical studies suggest that all you need is that altruistic behaviour can be copied, and that people can leave groups that have too many cheaters. If you are good, then you will benefit in the long run.

In other words, it's good to be good, because what comes around goes around!


ResearchBlogging.orgFowler, J., & Christakis, N. (2010). Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0913149107

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

Can going to church change your views of god?

Christians don't agree on the nature of their god. Their different ideas are many and varied, but one broad way of looking at it is that they tend to believe either in a personal god (one who takes an active, day-to-day interest in people's lives and also intervenes), or an impersonal, distant god (the sort of god who lights the blue touch paper at the moment of creation and then retires to a safe distance).

So who believes in what kind of god? Well, that's the topic of a recent paper by Scott Schieman at the University of Toronto (I was going to post on an anxiety study today, but Schieman's paper has recently hit the newswires, and the reports miss what's really the central point of his study).

We already know that poor people, the poorly educated, African-Americans, and women - i.e. people with low social status - tend to prefer an active, personal god. That's not too surprising.

What Schieman wanted to know was whether belief in a personal god was linked to religious activities. He found that it was, and in an intriguing way.

He took data from the Baylor religion survey, and compared individual's socio-economic status (a combination of income and education) and compared it with beliefs in divine involvement and divine control. He did that by creating a statistical model derived from the data, and you can see one of the outputs from that model in this figure.

The figure shows how belief in divine involvement varies with socioeconomic status for three different groups: people who go to church weekly, those who go several times a year, and those who never go to church.

Look first at the right-hand side of the graph (where the rich people are). It shows what you might expect: people who go Church every week tend to believe in divine involvement, but people who never go to church are less likely to (but they still score fairly high).

Now look at people with low status, on the left. All of them have high levels of beliefs in divine involvement - even if they don't go to Church!

The effect of that is that, among people who go to church weekly, levels of belief in divine involvement stay high as you move up the socio-economic scale. For people who never go to Church, these beliefs drop away as you progress upwards.

Schieman interprets this as evidence that going to church regularly can reinforce belief in divine involvement:
My observations ... [contest] the view that SES is uniformly associated with lower levels of belief in divine involvement and control. The finding that high SES individuals tend to report similar levels of divine involvement and control as their low SES peers—when they share high levels of religious involvement—challenges the assertion that higher SES contributes to “demythologized beliefs” processes. In contrast, the results are more consistent with the view that exposure to messages and lessons in religious activities reinforces systems of “religious explanations”— especially doctrine about God’s involvement and causal relevance in everyday life.
What he's saying is that the reason high status people don't believe in a personal god is not because their education and wealth persuade them that such beliefs are wrong, but rather because they stop going to church. And when they stop going to church, their beliefs in a personal god are no longer reinforced.

He does also acknowledge that causality can work in the other direction (high status people who don't believe in a personal god don't go to church). However, after pondering this one quite a bit, I suspect he's on to something.

After all, there are lots of reasons for a low status person to believe in a personal god, even if they don't go to church. That's fairly uncontroversial.

But you can well imagine that a high status person might have reasons to go to church, even if they don't believe in a personal god. And yet, those that do go to church regularly do actually believe in a personal god.

Could it be that repeated exposure to an environment that promotes a particular ideology actually influences your beliefs, despite all the external factors that work to undermine them? It wouldn't be the first time that had happened!


ResearchBlogging.orgSchieman, S. (2010). Socioeconomic Status and Beliefs about God's Influence in Everyday Life Sociology of Religion, 71 (1), 25-51 DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srq004

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

In Hastings tomorrow

I'm giving a talk to Hastings Humanists tomorrow, on the topic of why religion persists (cognitive biases, social factors etc). Come along if you happen to be in the area! It's at the Arts forum, St Leonards on Sea.


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

People who are more anxious go to church more often and are less anxious (or something...)

Are religious people more, or less, anxious? The problem's not as simple as it sounds. In general, religion is supposed to make people less anxious. But, partly for this reason, the people who turn to religion are more anxious to start with. What's more, all religions may not be the same, and different aspects of religion might have different effects.

It's a surprisingly under-researched topic, but a couple of new papers have looked into it. The one in this post is from Northern Ireland and I'll cover the other one - from the good ole US of A - in the next post.

The political landscape in Northern Ireland is marked by a sharp sectarian divide between Protestants and Catholics. What Chris Lewis and colleagues found was that female Catholics were the most anxious, and that they also went to Church the most often. Counter-intuitively, they also showed that going to Church was most strongly linked to less anxiety in... Catholic women! Read on...

The study looks at data from the 2001 Health and Well Being Survey. Unusually for these kinds of surveys, it included the 12-item General Health Questionnaire, which is the gold-standard measure of anxiety. This survey found that people in Northern Ireland tend to report more anxiety than do people living in the rest of the UK (here's a detailed report, if you're interested).

Lewis & co split the survey group into four: male and female; Protestant and Catholic.

They found that men had lower anxiety scores than women, and Protestants had lower anxiety scores than Catholics. These effects were additive: male Protestants were the least anxious, and female Catholics the most anxious. The average differences were small (about 1.5 on a 36-point scale), but statistically significant.

Churchgoing habits matched this pattern exactly. Male protestants went to Church least often (every few months, on average), and female Catholics the most often (every fortnight, on average).

So then they looked at the correlation within these groups. What they found was that was that, within each group, people who went to church more often were less anxious. Male Protestant churchgoers were less anxious than male Protestant non-churchgoers, and female Catholic churchgoers were less anxious than female Catholic non-churchgoers (although still more anxious than male Protestant non-churchgoers).

Now, the effect was pretty tiny. But what was interesting was that the strength of the effect followed the same pattern as for anxiety and churchgoing across the four groups.

In other words, going to church had the biggest effect on reducing anxiety among female Catholics, and the smallest effect among male Protestants.

What to make of all this?

The simplest explanation is that being female and/or Catholic in Northern Ireland is a risk factor for anxiety. As a result, many Catholic women turn to the Church, and those that do have their anxiety levels reduced.


ResearchBlogging.orgLewis, C., Shevlin, M., Francis, L., & Quigley, C. (2010). The Association Between Church Attendance and Psychological Health in Northern Ireland: A National Representative Survey Among Adults Allowing for Sex Differences and Denominational Difference Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-010-9321-3

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

Atheists are disagreeable and unconscientious

A new analysis comparing the personalities of religious and less religious people has found that religiosity is generally linked to agreeableness and conscientiousness. Well, that's the headline. To understand why this might be, you need to dig into the details of the study.

Vassilis Saroglou, a leading expert in personality and religious psychology research, has done what's called a meta-analysis - statistically combing the results of dozens of older studies to discern the average. He looked at 63 studies from around the world looking the five-factor model of personality.

The five-factor model is the most widely used measure of personality. According to this model, individuals can be defined according to where they lie on one of five scales: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

One consistent finding stood out: across all measures of religion, cultural areas, and age groups, people who scored higher on agreeableness and conscientiousness also reported being more religious.

There were important cultural differences. As you can see in the figure, religious people in Europe are less agreeable compared with those in America. Unlike the American religious, those in Europe are more closed-minded than the non-religious.

I believe the reason for this lies in the fact that religion is less popular in Europe. Agreeableness is the "tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others" (Wikipedia). It's characteristic of social people - the joiners. In the US, where religion is so common, it would take a disagreeable person to reject the social norm.

In Europe, however, it's easier to declare yourself non-religious and yet still be part of the mainstream. Some of the people who in the US would be 'social religious' are social non-religious in Europe.

As a result, those people who retain religion in Europe tend to be in it for more hardcore reasons. I suspect this also explains why the religious in Europe are more closed-minded - which is a characteristic of fundamentalist religion.

It's because the motivation to be religious is different in Europe compared with the USA. The move from religion to non-religion has occurred mostly among the social religious. As a result, although as a proportion of the whole population the USA has more fundamentalists than in Europe, as a proportion of religious people Europe is relatively stronger in fundamentalists.

What about conscientiousness? Well, this factor is all about planning and dutifulness, versus a more hedonistic style of living for the moment. Religion is, by it's nature, attractive to the sort of people who are willing to make sacrifices now (going to church) for benefits in the distant future (rewards in heaven).

So I think that the personality differences between the religious and less religious are broadly understandable in terms of the cultural factors that are associated with religion. In other words, it's less about what kind of personality is likely to have supernatural thoughts, still less about the effects that atheism or religion might have on personality. It's more about what kind of person would be attracted by the social environment provided by religion in their particular neck of the woods.

As Saroglou says:

...my argument is not that religiousness simply reflects personality traits. On the contrary, I argue that religiousness is best predicted by the interaction between personality traits and contextual factors. Personality traits predict an outcome better when they are examined in interaction with social contexts rather than alone.

Most of these studies were done in the USA (many in US students). It would be very interesting to see a more formal analysis of the personality types that are associated with religion in places where religion is now a minority pursuit.

And there is one important caveat you need to bear in mind. These studies for the most part treat religion as a continuum. Although some did look at fundamentalism, none actually looked at atheism. We can suppose that the personalities of the low-religious are shared by atheists, but until the studies are done, we can't really be sure.


ResearchBlogging.orgSaroglou, V. (2009). Religiousness as a Cultural Adaptation of Basic Traits: A Five-Factor Model Perspective Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14 (1), 108-125 DOI: 10.1177/1088868309352322

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

Is this why atheists are, on average, more intelligent?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgThere's a new paper out by Satoshi Kanazawa which is causing a bit of a stir. You might have seen something about it already - I'm a little behind the curve on this one, but on the plus side I have actually read the paper, unlike many other pundits!

What's got people talking is the correlation between atheism and intelligence, although that isn't what the paper is actually about. It's already pretty well established that atheists tend, on average, to be more intelligent. This paper firms that finding up a bit more, but makes a bigger claim than that.

But before delving into the paper, I want to just cover a few commonly raised objections that tend to fly about whenever the intelligence-atheism link is raised.

Firstly, although there are many different aspects to intelligence (and intelligence tests), there really is such a thing as 'general intelligence'. People who score highly on one test will tend to score highly on others. That's statistically provable, and the only explanation is that there is some aspect of brain function that enables you to be generally good at tests of intelligence. Of course, there's a lot more to being a smart individual than general intelligence, but general intelligence is a real, measurable thing.

What is true is that the IQ test does not measure general intelligence (no test does, by definition). However, it does provide a good approximation. And in fact, Kanazawa's study does not use IQ tests, but other tests that are also related to general intelligence.

Perhaps more importantly, general intelligence has a genetic component and a substantial environmental one. And so any time anyone tries to use intelligence scores to make racial claims, you can probably disregard them.

So, with that in mind, what did Kanazawa find?

There were actually two studies, both using US data. The first looked at intelligence scores from a group of adolescents (junior high and high school), and compared it with their religious beliefs 8 years later.

The figure shows that atheists are smarter by a good few points on average. And the link remained even after Kanazawa corrected for age, sex, race, education, earnings, and even religion. It's not a trivial difference. In fact the effect is pretty strong - stronger than the effect of education, for example.

The second was from the general social survey - a survey of adults. Once again religion (belief in god and religious intensity) was strongly related to intelligence, even after correcting for a host of factors that you might think could explain the link.

So what? Well, Kanazawa believes that the explanation for the link lies in the Savannah hypothesis. This is the idea that general intelligence evolved as a way to deal with evolutionarily novel situations. It lets us transcend our evolved behaviour and do things that contravene our instincts.

In support of this, Kanazawa shows that intelligence is linked to liberal ideals in the same way. In particular, the link seems to be between intelligence and openness to support of people from other ethnic groups (i.e. whites supporting government intervention to help blacks).

What's more intelligence in those adolescents increases belief among men (but not women) in sexual exclusivity - i.e. that people should not sleep around.

If Kanazawa is right, then intelligence should not be linked to behaviour that is not evolutionarily novel. And, indeed, attitudes to children, marriage, family and friends are not linked to intelligence.

It's an interesting hypothesis, and an interesting analysis. To me, it seems intuitively reasonable that general intelligence should have evolved as a way of solving problems. But it will take more than this study (and his previous one) to convince me.

The problem is that intelligence and rational thinking are different beasts:

The idea that Bush is just one foolish smart person among many, and that intelligence is a poor predictor of "good thinking", comes from a series of recent experiments that compared the performances of people of a range of intellectual abilities on rational-thinking tasks. In a study published last year, Stanovich and Richard West of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, found there was no correlation between intelligence and a person's ability to avoid some common traps of intuitive-thinking. (New Scientist)
You see, intelligence only helps overcome the cognitive biases that lead to poor judgement if you are the the kind of person who uses it. It's not so much about innate braininess, it's about how you approach the world.

But all this does is explain why some intelligent people hold irrational beliefs. Kanazawa's work does help explain why some people manage to shake them off!


ResearchBlogging.orgKanazawa, S. (2010). Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent Social Psychology Quarterly DOI: 10.1177/0190272510361602

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