Field of Science

Monogamy evolves

Polygamy is pretty popular. Most pre-industrial societies were polygamous in some way, and there are increasing pressures in the west for polygamy to be legalised. After all, it's surely just a matter of personal freedom of expression. If homosexuality and other forms of sexual expression are legal, then why not polygamy. Polygamy never hurt anyone, right?

Well flat wrong, actually, if the evidence presented by Joe Heinrich, at the University of British Columbia, is anything to go by. Heinrich does some pretty interesting research on human culture and cognition, some of which I've covered before on this blog.

But the background to his latest is rather unusual. You see, in Canada they're holding a court case to determine whether the criminalisation of polygamy is constitutional. And Heinrich has presented some pretty compelling evidence to suggest that if it isn't, then it darned well should be.

Bottom line is that, in highly stratified societies like most of those in the modern world (and unlike the forager societies that dominated our evolutionary past) polygamy results in surplus males with no prospects of marriage. That in turn causes all sorts of problems. What's more, polygamy tilts society towards viewing women as property for acquisition, and also decreases investment in children. In the long run, social justice and equality is undermined.

For more on all that, take a look at the write-up in the Vancouver Sun, or read the Heinrich's brief itself - it's fascinating stuff!

But what interests me, from the point of view of this blog at least, is what Heinrich infers from these facts. He suggests no less than that the invention of monogamy was the first step in building our modern, democratic society.

Like most sexual innovations, monogamy seems to have been invented by the Ancient Greeks. And, it seems, they devised it as a deliberate ploy to create stronger, more unified city states. Greek culture was highly successful, which lead to monogamy being adopted and then enforced by the Romans. The early Christians incorporated these ideas into their religion as it expanded (there's no particular stricture against polygamy even in the New Testament).

What we have here is an example of what Heinrich calls 'cultural group selection'. Those societies that adopt the most effective cultural practices are successful, and they dominate and eventually swallow up the less successful societies around them. And so, around the world nations are gradually adopting monogamy as a social norm (just as Canada is now considering abandoning it!).

According to Heinrich, exactly the same phenomenon gave rise to religion. Although we have all sorts of weird cognitive biases, there is nothing inherent within us that gives rise to religion. But, those societies that were able to most effectively make use of our cognitive biases were the most successful, and the edifice they created is what we call religion.

In other words, God evolved - but in a memetic, not genetic sense, with human society as the host.


But of course, just because a cultural invention was successful in the past, does not mean it will be so when the environment changes. Polygamy works for hunter-gatherer societies, but not for more settled ones - and especially not urban societies. Heinrich quotes Satoshi Kanazawa, who has shown that polygamy in the modern world is linked to increased crime rates.

Kanazawa has also shown that polygamy is linked to IQ. It seems that, even controlling for other factors, nations with higher average IQ are less acceptant of polygamy. He suggests that, the better people are at abstract reasoning, the more likely they are to reject polygamy as unworkable for modern societies.

And Kanazawa has, of course, shown exactly the same thing for religion.


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

Do secular see religious Jews as more trustworthy?

Here's a nice study on the attitudes of Israeli secular and religious Jews. It was done on Facebook, which means that the sample is a little more diverse than the usual studies conducted solely in undergrads (although they still were mostly in their 20s). It's not published yet, but you can find a write-up of it here.

They asked the participants to imagine themselves in an unfamiliar Israeli town. Then they split them into three groups. The first group was asked to imagine themselves in at a gig (of the type of music they like). The second was asked to imagine themselves at a fitness centre. And the third was asked to imagine themselves at a communal religious activity - a synagogue (for men) or prayer group (for women).

Then they put a couple of scenarios to the participants. First off, they were told that someone wanted to borrow their phone to phone their parents (and to assume their cellphone plan gave free calls). For how long would you lend your phone? Then they were told that, after leaving, they realized that they had left their wallet there. How likely is it to be returned?

Put plainly, the first question is a measure of altruism. The second is a measure of trust.

It turned out that people were more likely to be altruistic (lent their phone for longer) and more trusting (thought it more likely their wallet would be returned) in the religious setting compared with the other two.

What is interesting is that there was no difference between the religious and the secular on these measures. They were equally altruistic and equally trusting.

And, what's more, both secular and religious Jews were more willing to lend their phone to the religious group member, and both thought that the religious group was more likely to return the lost wallet.

Now that's not too surprising. Although this could indicate that secular Jews think that religious Jews are more likely to be decent chaps, it seems more likely to me that they simply understand that these are different social set-ups. Religious groups are much less anonymous than the other two groups. And, unlike music concerts and fitness centres, religious groups are bound by social ties.

However, although secular Jews were more trusting of the religious group, they were not as trusting of them as the religious Jews were. In other words, secular Jews were not quite so impressed by religious credentials as the religious Jews.

But all this is just attitudes and expectations. It would be fun to find out what actually would happen in real world situations. Because experiments often reveal behaviour that you would not expect (like the famous Seminary Student study and the Swiss Newspaper Study)

Time to start leaving a few wallets around Israel, to see what happens!


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

The bright, the dim, and the in-between

Previous research has fairly consistently found a small, but statistically significant, link between religion and intelligence. Non-believers score, on average, a few points higher on IQ tests than believers.

But it's that word 'average' that's the bugbear. Averages don't tell you much about what's actually going on with individuals. What's more, IQ tests are not by any means the full story about intelligence.

Recent research by Sharon Bertsch (University of Pittsburgh) and Bryan Pesta (Cleveland State University), goes some way to putting some fascinating details on the story.

They were interested to know whether the relationship between religion and intelligence is linear, or whether the effects are bunched up at either end of the intelligence spectrum. Maybe being at the high end is linked to non-religion, and the low end to religion, but in the middle - Mr and Mrs Average - there might be no relationship at all between intelligence and religion.

They also wanted to know whether not just abstract reasoning (IQ), but also the ability to process information was linked to religiosity. They did this by testing their ability to rapidly judge the different line lengths, and to pick letter out from a crowd.

They also tested how prone people are to 'overclaim'. This is a fascinating test where people are presented with facts (a famous person's name, a scientific concept, or whatever) and they have to say how familiar they are with it. Some of the facts are false, and using some clever processing they can tease out how much the subjects are overclaiming their familiarity with the real facts.

So how did the subjects do? Well, they studied a bunch of undergraduates, so they were a bit smarter than average and none of them were really dumb. Broadly speaking, they confirmed their suspicions: the bottom quartile was the most religious, the top quartile the least, and that there was not too much difference between the two middle quartiles.

In other words, what we have here is an outlier effect. It's the people on the fringes who are really driving the correlation between intelligence and non-religion.

The effect was strongest for sectarianism - by which they mean the belief that your particular religion is the only true religion. That's the one shown in the figure. But they got similar results for scriptural acceptance and religious questioning (the brightest quartile were least accepting of scriptural truth and the most willing to question beliefs). And they found the same sort of relationship between information processing ability.

So, the question then is what is really driving this effect? Is it IQ, or is it information-processing ability? Well, they found that, when they lumped both in a statistical model, information-processing ability was actually more powerful as a predictor than IQ. In fact, with information-processing ability in the model, IQ became irrelevant.

Now that's a remarkable result. Why on earth should judging line lengths, rapidly selecting letter targets, and accurately rating your own familiarity with real-world concepts be linked to non-religion? The authors suggest that these are indicators of the efficiency of neural processing, which in turn might be a building block for the development of more complex cognition and rational thought.

Only more research will tease that one out - and it should be remembered that this research was done in the psychologists guinea pig - mainly white, mainly Christian, US undergraduates. Does it apply to anyone else? Who knows!

On the plus side, however, this is one of the few studies on intelligence and religion that has involved actual lab research, rather than retrospective analysis of data collected for other reasons. That makes it considerably stronger than most studies into this link - albeit for a fairly narrowly defined representation of the human race!


ResearchBlogging.orgBertsch, S., & Pesta, B. (2009). The Wonderlic Personnel Test and elementary cognitive tasks as predictors of religious sectarianism, scriptural acceptance and religious questioning☆ Intelligence, 37 (3), 231-237 DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2008.10.003

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

Who you are!

Last Thursday I asked 'Who are you?'. Well, a massive 131 of you filled in the survey. Big hand to all of you who took the time to do that, especially those who added comments. Thanks also to all those who wrote a little about themselves in the comments to that post.

Suggestions for future topics are all noted - and special thanks to the one commenter who told me about his love for German cars (you know who you are!).

So, now it's time to reveal... who you really are! Well, you are two-thirds male (one trans-sexual), and nearly 80% of you are aged 18-45 (with a peak in the 26-35 group). You're a well educated bunch. Just over half have a graduate degree, with the the rest split evenly between high school and post-graduate degrees.

Just over half have a scientific background, which means there's a healthy sprinkling of people with other backgrounds, which is great to see. There's some lawyers, IT specialists, philosophers and musicians among you - as well as some self-educated polymaths!

Over two-thirds of you live in North America, with 20% in Europe and 5% Australasia. Not too surprising,  and matches with the usage stats.

But now the killer question: are you a load of atheists or what? Well yes, it turns out that you are. Some 80% are atheists, and 15% agnostic. One Buddhist (is that you, Sabio?), and a few people pointed out that Humanist is a better label (because the atheist label just says what you're not, rather than what you are).

I'm glad to see there are at least a few believers among you!

The most popular articles are ones on psychology, then neuroscience, with sociology coming in a respectable third. More psychology it is then!

I'm kicking myself now because I didn't put a question in about political beliefs. Now that would have been interesting! Maybe one for the 2011 survey.


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

How are British kids doing these days?

British society, like that of most industrialized nations, has gone through enormous changes in recent decades. But it's hard to get objective data on what the impact has been on the people living there.

Which is why I was interested to see a recent study by Stephen Collishaw, of Cardiff University, and colleagues. They compared data from two studies, one in 1986 and one in 2006, that asked adolescents (aged 16-17) about their state of mind. Whether they felt anxious, depressed, worried, irritable, had disturbed sleep - things like that.

They found that kids in 2006 were more likely to report emotional problems than those in 1986. In particular, both boys and girls were more likely to say that they felt irritable, had disturbed sleep, and felt worn out or under strain. Their parents, too, were more likely to report similar problems.

Overall, the percentage saying they were frequently anxious or depressed has roughly doubled since 1986.

It's possible, of course, that kids today are simply more open about talking about admitting their feelings. That could be the case, although the authors point out that they did not see a general increase in all emotional problems. Instead, they found that some problems (irritable, disturbed sleep, worn out) increased, while others did not.

So, assuming that this is a real effect, what could be causing it? To investige, they looked at kids living with single parents compared with those living with step parents with step parents (see figure). They also looked at kids from disadvantaged homes compared with advantaged homes.

They found no consistent differences. The increase in emotional problems seems to be roughly the same across all social backgrounds. If anything, the greatest increase seems to be among girls with both natural parents and advantaged backgrounds.

Why could this be? It's very hard to say. Potentially, the higher levels of uncertainty of modern life, coupled with more fractured social networks. But this is just speculation.

What can be said is that while life has not got any harder for the children of divorced parents, it doesn't seem, on this evidence at least, to have got much easier - and that has got to be troubling, given the increasing numbers of children living in homes without both natural parents.


ResearchBlogging.orgCollishaw, S., Maughan, B., Natarajan, L., & Pickles, A. (2010). Trends in adolescent emotional problems in England: a comparison of two national cohorts twenty years apart Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51 (8), 885-894 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02252.x

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

Who are you?

Well, Pleiotropy's done it, so now it's my turn. Yes, the "Who are you" blogging meme hits Epiphenom!

It's simple. I'd like to find out a little bit about you, dear reader. Just write something about yourself in the comments - who you are, where you live, what interests you, how you've come to be the person you are. That sort of thing. If you're reading this somewhere other than FieldofScience then you need to travel here to add comments where I'll see them!

Take the survey!

I've also made a survey - a very quick one, just seven multi-choice questions. I'll post the results up here next week. Go on, do it!

Click here to take survey



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

Xanax redux

There's a little corner of your brain - the anterior cingulate cortex - that's thought to play a role in monitoring errors. The electrical signals that flow from this part of the brain ramp up when the mind is challenged with conflicting information, an effect called 'error response negativity', or ERN. In short, ERN represents that anxious, uneasy feeling you sometimes get when you've made a mistake.

Back in 2009 Michael Inzlicht, at the University of Toronto in Canada, found that religious people had lower ERN compared to non-religious people when trying to complete a challenging task. Religion seemed to be acting as a kind of anxiolytic, a bit like the drug Xanax.

But is it religion, or religious people? Perhaps people who are attracted to religion are just naturally more chilled. Or can you actually reduce anxiety by infusing religious thoughts. In his latest study, he aimed to find out.

He took a bunch of students of varying religious beliefs, and subliminally primed some of them with religious thoughts by making them unscramble sentences with religious content. Others had to unscramble neutral sentences.

Then he got them to do the Stroop Colour Word Test, a challenging test that generates ERN.

Both the religious and non-religious performed equally well. And, unlike Inzlicht's first study, there was no intrinsic difference between the two group's ERN after the neutral prime. 

However, for those students that were religious, priming with religious thoughts beforehand reduced their ERN. For atheists, the opposite occurred. Their ERN actually increased if they had been previously exposed to religious messages.

It's not clear why this should be. Perhaps religion makes the religious feel comfortable, while for atheists it sets up an immediate conflict, so heightening their response. Maybe priming with reassuring thoughts about atheism would have the opposite effect:

"Maybe when atheists think about science, and the way our world is organized through that lens, it would offer them the same reassurance," suggests Inzlicht. "The point here is the power of the mind to change external circumstances." Vancouver Sun

It's also worth thinking about the implications of this study. On the face of it, reducing anxiety sounds like a good thing. But, like the sensation of pain, ERN is there for a reason. It's there to tell us when we are going down a blind alley, and to motivate us to stop. A low ERN is linked to pathologies such as autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

In this light, it's interesting to compare these results with another study earlier this year. This study found that priming with religious thoughts made people work longer to try to complete an impossible task - when the sensible thing to do was to abandon it as a lost cause. What's more, people primed with religion were actually more anxious afterwards, not less!


ResearchBlogging.orgMichael Inzlicht, & Alexa M. Tullett (2010). Reflecting on God: Religious Primes Can Reduce Neurophysiological Response to Errors Psychological Science : 10.1177/0956797610375451

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

Forget your worries with religious zealotry

When animals are made to feel anxious and frustrated, they often turn to displacement activities - goals which may be irrelevant, but which they can at least achieve. Rats may run so eagerly on wheel that they starve themselves to death. Dogs may lick themselves so repetitively that they develop skin lesions. But what do humans do?

One thing we can do, according to new research by Ian McGregor and colleagues at York University, Toronto, Canada, is to become more fervent in our pursuit of cherished ideals. When people are frustrated in their attempts to achieve concrete, real-world goals, abstract ideologies provide a readily achievable displacement goal.

To test this theory, they ran a series of studies on undergrads. Basically, the setup was to make them anxious about failure, either by asking them to complete an impossible task or to recount a troubled relationship they had. Then they measured various religious attitudes, including religious zealotry.

You can see an example of what happened in the figure. In this particular study they asked participants to think of a goal they had in their personal lives, and then to rate how determined they were to achieve it, how in control they felt, and how important it was. The ones who rated highly were considered to be 'empowered'.

It turns out that that the empowered people did not change in zealotry when placed in a anxiety-inducing situation, whereas the unempowered people became much more zealous. Now, this wasn't because the empowered people felt less anxious. In fact, they felt more anxious. But they didn't turn to religion as a displacement.

In other studies, they also found that people did not become more superstitious in general. What's more, the effect was strongest in people who thought of uncertainty as nerve racking and, intriguingly, in those spirited individuals who believe in taking action to deal with problems.

They also found hints that this effect is stronger in those who believe in the three monotheisms, rather than Eastern religions (or atheists, of course), and suggest that this might be why religious extremism is more common in the West:
In Western religion, the allure of ideological zeal may be that it can reliably activate the resilience of transcendent approach motivation when temporal goals are frustrated. Unfortunately, religious extremists in the West have a long history of blood on their hands. The same empowering approach motivation that makes one soar may also obscure one’s view of others’ perspectives and facilitate ideological cruelty in the guise of noble cause. Such self-empowered, anger-related, and risk-immune RAM processes, in combination with scripture that advocates aggression toward others, may inflame religious violence in the West.
Now, this research is pretty preliminary. Other research has found that anxiety and uncertainly increases belief in a controlling God - but this study found no such effect. Of course, it's possible that both effects (handing over control to a powerful God, or displacing the frustrated goal with an achievable, nontangible one) could both occur in different in people with personalities and in different situations. Then too, there is another theory (Terror Management), which claims that people cling to their 'in-group' cultural traditions when threatened.

But this research is encouraging because, although we've long known intuitively that people turn to religion when they feel stressed and unhappy. The question is how and why. Now, at least, we have three good theories about what is going on here. Only further research is going to tease them apart!


ResearchBlogging.orgMcGregor I, Nash K, & Prentice M (2010). Reactive approach motivation (RAM) for religion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99 (1), 148-61 PMID: 20565192

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

What values motivate the non-religious in the UK?

Most research on religion is done in the US, a country which is something of an outlier among modernised nations because of the importance of religion in daily life. So, for example, the non-religious in the US tend to be 'disagreeable' (meaning that they are nonconformist and prefer to go their own way). But is this something general about the non-religious, or does it simply tell us something about what it takes to be openly non-religious in the USA?

So a recent analysis of the values of the religious and the non-religious in the UK is particularly interesting. The UK is moderately godless - few people go to Church, and a substantial minority (30-40%) don't believe in God.

The researchers sent surveys to 2,000 people in two towns in the south east of England (Woking and Guildford, to be precise) and got 260 back. So it's not exactly a random sample! They asked people about their values, using a standard scale (the Schwartz Value Scale) which splits values into nine broad categories.

You can see their main findings in the figure. Basically, the peaks relate to values that are endorsed more strongly by the religious. The troughs relate to values that are endorsed more strongly by the non-religious.

These are the values held dear by the non-religious in the UK:
  • Universalism: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.
  • Achievement:  Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.
  • Hedonism: Pleasure and sensual gratification for oneself.
  • Stimulation: Excitement, novelty and challenge in life.
  • Self-direction: Independent thought and action - choosing, creating, exploring.
By contrast, these values are held dear by the religious:
  • Benevolence: Preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact.
  • Conformity-tradition: Restraint of actions likely to upset or harm others or violate social norms. Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide.
And there are two values for which the relationship changes according to how religion is defined - higher for 'religiousness' and 'attendance' than for 'spirituality' or 'identification'. These are:
  • Security: Safety, harmony, and stability of society, or relationships, and of self.
  • Power: Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.

All in all, I don't think there are any major surprises. The religious are relatively more focused on their immediate friends, as well as respect for tradition and conformity. The non-religious, in contrast, tend to be those with the widest horizons and the most independent, confident spirits!


ResearchBlogging.orgPepper, M., Jackson, T., & Uzzell, D. (2010). A Study of Multidimensional Religion Constructs and Values in the United Kingdom Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (1), 127-146 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01496.x

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

Test your knowledge on religion and health

Doctors these days are expected to keep up to date by taking regular courses. Read the materials, answer the questions, and viola! You get some credits towards your 'continuing medical education' (or CME).

Just recently, one provider offered a bit-sized piece of CME asking Is Religiosity or Spirituality Protective For Heart Disease? Well, of course I had to check it out. You can too - anyone can take it and it's only short (you have to register, but that's free).

First, they hit you with a conundrum. Basically, it's the story of one Jorge Delgado, who is middle aged and healthy, but with high cholesterol and overweight. But Mr Delgado doesn't want to take any medications, and here's why:

Mr. Delgado responds that he is unwilling to take medications because he feels healthy and that he believes that reducing his weight is not a realistic goal, given his family’s cultural values and use of food as an integral part of all social activities. He is proud that his wife and children actively participate in all family events and attend church with him weekly. He has read that being religious and attending church regularly prolongs life and reduces the risk for dying of heart disease. He is willing to increase his church attendance to improve his health. How should his physician respond?

So, what should a responsible physician do? Well, anyone who actually wants to take the quiz should turn away now. Because the correct answer, based on the latest scientific evidence, is...

That turning to religion does not in itself protect you from heart attacks and stroke, although religious people do tend to have healthier behaviours. They list all the evidence to back that up.

But then they make a mistake. They say that "Religiosity/spirituality has been demonstrated to increase the incidence of ... obesity". The evidence for this is a study published earlier this year.

But that study is purely correlational, like pretty much all the evidence linking religion to health (both good and bad). It shows you that the link is there (at least in the US), but doesn't tell you why. It certainly doesn't prove that religion is the cause!


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

Two surveys and one apology

First, an apology for the lack of posts recently! To make up for it, my column (Is loss of faith a two-generation process?) in the June issue of Free Inquiry has just been posted online (look under 'Op-Ed'). I'll be writing regular columns for them - and in fact it's writing the next one that's eaten into my blog-writing time!

By way of diversion until the next 'proper' post, a couple of interesting surveys have just dropped into my inbox.

The first was sent to me by Garret O'Connell of SINAPSE, a consortium of Scottish brain imaging groups. They're hosting a series of talks on the potential impact of brain imaging on society -  its increasing use in the courts, as a lie-detector and in marketing research.

To guide new policies and avoid media distortion over the use of brain imaging, they are seeking people to express their opinions and concerns about these issues in a short survey. There are two surveys: one aimed at the public and the other is aimed at neuroscientists. The results of the debate/survey will be presented to Parliament and could help shape future policy change on the use of brain imaging and scientific communication with the media. This one could really make a difference!

The second survey is from Fred Britton, who's working with Allen Cheyne, at the University of Waterloo in Canada to investigate the attitudes, values, and experiences of atheists/agnostics, sceptics, and humanists (see their website). They have a pilot survey for you to take, and they're actively seeking your help to design Phase 2 of the survey. So go take it, and let them know what you think!


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