Field of Science

If you ostracise them, will they come?

Humans, like all other primates, are obsessed by their peer group of colleagues and acquaintances. And that's for good reason because, for primates, being excluded from the group can be lethal.

So what do you do if you find yourself being ostracised? Well, for humans at least, one option is to turn to religion. Religion, after all, provides a ready-made community for those who conform to the group ideology – and even for those who don't, religion offers a virtual world of supernatural buddies.

A series of studies by Nil├╝fer Aydin (University of Munich in Germany) and colleagues has tested this idea, and given some sense of it's power. Here's what they found.

First they found that migrant Turks living in Germany feel more excluded than Turks living in Turkey, even when matched for age and wealth. They were also more religious and, what's more, the more excluded they felt the more religious they were.

In the second study they took a group of Christians and asked some of them to write about a time when they had felt excluded. Sure enough, they later reported being more religious than those Christians who had been asked to write about a time when they had felt accepted.

In another, similar study they found that Christians who wrote about being excluded were more likely to approve of a whole bunch of religious behaviour, like talking to God and meeting other religious people. A fourth study found that these effects seem to be linked to social discomfort, rather than any effect on self esteem.

The final study was rather more subtle.

One group of Christians were asked to write about being excluded at work, while another group was asked to write about being accepted. Some were then asked to write about religion (they were 'primed' with religion). Then, it what was apparently an unrelated task, they were asked to help out with another study.

They were told that, in this mythical study was, people were to be subjected to the ice-water test. In this test, participants are asked to plunge their hand into freezing water – anything longer than about 30 seconds of this causes extreme pain. The Christians were told that this time needed to be set by an independent party, and were asked how long it should be.

The graph shows the results. Those Christians who wrote about being included suggested a non-pain inducing time of 30s. But those Christians who wrote about being excluded seemed to be venting their frustrations on the anonymous stranger by recommending an agonizing time of 70s for the ice-water test.

If, however, they had previously been primed with religious thoughts, this aggressive drive disappeared. Religion, for these Christians, might be working as an effective buffer to reduce the stress caused by social exclusion.

Now none of these studies is perfect. In the first, it simply be could be that more religious Turks feel excluded in Germany (although that wouldn't explain why Turks in Germany are more religious in general). And studies 2 to 4 were pretty artificial set ups. And the other studies didn't actually ostracise people, only got them to write about it - which is the weakest kind of experimental set up.

As for study four, an alternative explanation might be that the religious prime didn't make people less stressed, but rather made them behave better even in the face of stress. Other studies have shown that priming people with religious (an non-religious) concepts can make them change their behaviour to conform to social expectations.

But for me the bigger question is whether you can get these effects simply from religious beliefs, or whether (as I suspect) it's the thought that participation in religion that relieves the stress of feeling excluded.

That's critical because traditional society has religion at it's core. It may be that people turn to religion when ostracised simply because that's the easiest way to get re-accepted by the group

But many societies are giving up religion, but without necessarily finding a replacement for the social cohesion that religion has been central to in the past. What will fulfil this function in the future?


ResearchBlogging.orgAydin, N., Fischer, P., & Frey, D. (2010). Turning to God in the Face of Ostracism: Effects of Social Exclusion on Religiousness Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (6), 742-753 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210367491

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

Travelling... (taking a short break from posting)

Just a quick note to say I'll be travelling quite a bit for the next 2 weeks, and so posting will be infrequent!


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

Religion and the case of the disappearing right-brain

Studies of brain damage give a unique insight into how the mind works. If your behaviour changes when a specific lump is taken out, then that's pretty good evidence for the function of that particular lump.

So what happens when half your brain starts to rot away? Dennis Chan, a neurologist at the Institute of Neurology in London, decided to find out.

'Right temporal lobe atrophy' is a rare condition in which a major part of the right side of the brain simply withers away. You can see a particularly severe case in the picture (the right side of the brain is on the left...). Chan and colleagues compared twenty of these patients with twenty patients whose left-hand side of the brain was withered.

As you might expect, all these people had some serious psychological problems. But, for people with left-brain atrophy, the problems are obvious. That's because this side of the brain controls speech and (for most people) the dominant hand. You can pretty readily spot somebody with left-brain atrophy.

Right brain atrophy is altogether more subtle, and also weirder. These patients get lost easily. They find it difficult to recognise faces, and they have a variety of behavioural disorders, including disinhibition and obsessions. One patient insisted on having all the light switches in her house painted gold and silver!

And, interestingly, three patients were 'hyper-religious'.

Now, they don't describe what they mean by this term, and three patients (15%) might not sound like a lot. But none of the patients with left-brain atrophy were hyper-religious. Two patients also had 'complex visual hallucinations of inanimate objects' and two had sensory crossover, in which stimulation of one sense was experienced as a different sense.

Damage to the right brain - albeit the parietal lobes rather than the temporal lobes - has been linked to religiosity previously. Brick Johnstone and Bret Glass found that people with damage in this region were more spiritual, and Cosimo Urgesi and colleagues have found that tumours in this part of the brain also increases religiosity.

That's perhaps because the right hand side of the brain tends to play an important role in spatial awareness.

However, for the sake of the statistical purists who sometimes drop by I should point out that correlation is not causation. Although it seems likely that brain atrophy leads to religion, you can't rule out the possibility of the reverse!


ResearchBlogging.orgChan, D., Anderson, V., Pijnenburg, Y., Whitwell, J., Barnes, J., Scahill, R., Stevens, J., Barkhof, F., Scheltens, P., Rossor, M., & Fox, N. (2009). The clinical profile of right temporal lobe atrophy Brain, 132 (5), 1287-1298 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awp037

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

What did your mommy and daddy believe?

Young adults in the USA are more likely than ever before to tell pollsters that they don't see themselves as 'being' of any particular religion - they are unaffiliated. The data are clear, but the reason for this shift is not.

It might simply be their age. Maybe they will be more likely to identify with a religion when they're older. Alternatively, there could be an uptick in the numbers of people who are leaving religion - for good.

Or maybe it's a snowball effect. More than ever before, American kids are being raised in families that are not affiliated to any religion - you can see that in the graph, which shows how the percentage of kids raised in families with no religion has increased over the years. These kids don't tend to join a religion, so you can add them to the kids who drop out in each generation.

It's actually pretty difficult to untangle the statistics to work out what's going on here. Philip Schwadel, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska, has used a couple of newly developed statistical techniques to try to do just that, using data from the General Social Survey (which has been surveying Americans since the early 1970s).

What he found was that all three effects seem to play a role. He found that, across all generations since around 1990, there has been a sharp increase in the numbers of people reporting that they have no religious affiliation.

But, surprisingly, younger generations aren't more likely to drop out of religion than they were before. In fact, people born to a religious family in the 60s and 70s are no more likely to switch out of religion than were people born before 1945.

Not so for people born in the period 1945-1960. They are more likely than older generations to switch out of religion. Clearly, growing up in the Hippy generation had its effects!


About one quarter of the increase in non-affiliated young adults can be explained simply by the fact that more and more American kids are being raised in non-affiliated families. This is the snowball effect. When the Hippy generation grew up, they passed on their lack of affiliation to their kids - who were joined by other people who are continuing dropped out of religion at the normal, background rate.

The big question now is what will happen to these young non-affiliated. Based on earlier generations, you might expect a fair number of them to rejoin a religious identity as they age. But will this happen to the Millennial generation? Time will tell!


ResearchBlogging.orgSchwadel, P. (2010). Period and Cohort Effects on Religious Nonaffiliation and Religious Disaffiliation: A Research Note Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (2), 311-319 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01511.x

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

Children can tell the difference between science and religion

Paul Harris, a psychologist at Harvard University, is interested in how children learn to differentiate between different kinds of knowledge. In his latest study, he's teamed up with two Spanish psychologists to unpick the beliefs of young, Catholic children.

These 10-12 year olds have a pretty firm conviction in both God and the soul. They also believe (slightly more strongly, in fact) in invisible scientific entities, like oxygen and germs. What the team wanted to know was whether they believed in these things for the same reasons.

So they asked them how they know these entities exist. The replies were revealing.

The reasons the children gave were broken down into 4 categories:
  • They had encountered the entity
  • There was a written source or other authority that asserted the entity existed
  • There was some feature of the entity that explained its existence in generalized terms (e.g. "Souls exist because everyone has their own way of being", or "Germs are on the dirty things")
  • The existence of the entity is required because it fulfils some need or purpose (e.g. "God exists because he tells us the way).
The figure shows how often children gave each of these kinds of answers to justify the existence of religious and scientific entities.

Several different reasons were given for their belief in religious entities. For scientific entities, however, their reasoning was almost entirely based on the generalized properties or nature of the entity.

In fact, it's even more interesting than that. Because the researchers also broke these 'properties' arguments down further, into whether or not they were causal explanations - "germs cause disease", or "God has created all of us".

For religious entities, only 17% of the already relatively few explanations under this category were causal. For scientific entities, it was very nearly 100%.

In other words, these young Spanish kids almost exclusively rationalise their belief in scientific entities in causal terms. There religious beliefs, on the other hand, were justified in a variety of ways that were almost never causal.


ResearchBlogging.orgGuerrero, S., Enesco, I., & Harris, P. (2010). Oxygen and the Soul: Children's Conception of Invisible Entities Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10 (1), 123-151 DOI: 10.1163/156853710X497202

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