Field of Science

The cult of Theoi: sacrificing to the god of uncertainty

Religion can be a pain in the backside. What with all those prayers and religious meetings - not to mention all the more tangible sacrifices of money and (sometimes) goats.

It's enough to make an evolutionary psychologist scratch their head and go "hmmm". Why should people go to all that effort? What's in it for them?

One theory is that it signals to others that they are 'true believers', and so can be trusted. Another holds that beliefs that are 'demonstrated' by expensive behaviour are more likely to be believed, and so transmitted.

One idea that's received surprisingly little attention is that people may simply believe that they get a direct payoff from their sacrifice. They make an offering to their god, and god returns the favour by fixing that business deal (or making the rains come on time).

Paul Frijters, of the University of Queensland, and Juan Barón, at Australian National University, have run a series of studies on university students to investigate this.

It was a two-phase game. In the first phase, the students earned some points. For example, in one variant, they played a 'public good' game where everyone contributes anonymously to a central pot, which is then increased and shared equally. The best thing to do is to contribute nothing, and hope that everyone else contributes a lot. But if everyone does that, then no-one takes home much.

Then these points were turned into hard cash, at a rate determined by 'Theoi' (represented on a computer). Now, they didn't know the rules that Theoi used to do this, but they were given the opportunity to contribute some of their points to Theoi, if they so chose.

This cycle was repeated over 20 rounds, and the student's task was to figure out the optimal contribution to make to Theoi in order to maximise their payout.

Now, what the students didn't know is that Theoi in fact just worked at random. The amount they contributed (or 'sacrificed) to Theoi had no effect whatsoever on the outcome.

Contributions to Theoi as a percentage of Phase 1 earnings.
Despite this fact, the level of sacrifice to Theoi was remarkably resilient. Although it did decrease as the rounds wore on, it did not decrease by much - and nearly half the students were sacrificing just as much at the end of the experiment as they were at the start.

There were some interesting tweaks. They tried giving the students access to everyone else's decisions and results. That was a large pool of data - more than enough for them to figure out that Theoi was just acting randomly. But still they didn't figure it out. In fact, those students who spent longer puzzling over it actually tended to then sacrifice even more!

When they renamed 'Theoi' as 'Weather', however, the level of sacrifice dropped more quickly. This suggests that anthropomorphisation is important.

What this study shows is that these students seem inherently resistant to learning that the forces at work are random. They started off with the assumption that Theoi would reward sacrifices, and they just didn't seem able to shake that assumption, despite all the evidence.

So who sacrificed most? Academic discipline didn't matter - engineers, artists, scientists, all sacrificed about the same.

Nor did religious or superstitious beliefs have any effect on the amount sacrificed. Perhaps that's because Theoi was clearly not really a god or supernatural in any way. They were just trying to second-guess the experimenter's fiendish mind.

Women maintained their level of sacrifice more than men. People with lucky charms, or a high sense of self-control ("locus of control") reduced their level of sacrifice more quickly.

The most significant factor was the amount contributed in Round 1, the "Public Good" game. The people who contribute most in this game are those people who have faith in communal cohesion - that their good deed will be reciprocated. However, I have doubts about whether this effect is real. Fritjers & Baron measured sacrifices as a percentage of winnings in round 1. The people who contributed most in round 1 would also leave it with the fewest points. Perhaps that affected their decision on what proportion to sacrifice.

Still, this is a very interesting study, even though it's clearly an artificial set-up. What it's really testing is people's ability to see the randomness when they're expecting their sacrifices to have some effect. What it shows is that these students were not very good at this task!

Really they want to believe in Theoi, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And for of them, that conviction seemed nearly impossible to shake.



Paul Frijters, Juan D. Barón. The Cult of Theoi: Economic Uncertainty and Religion. IZA DP No. 4902. April 2010

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

Religion promotes punishing wrongdoers - but is that a good thing?

"Costly punishment" is the term used to describe an interesting phenomenon in which people will punish wrongdoers even if it brings a cost to themselves. For example, you could imagine a situation where a vigilante attempts to beat up a criminal - risky, if the criminal gets the upper hand. It's an understandable reaction if you are going to have to deal with the individual again.

Yet lab studies show that people will punish misbehaviour even if all the transactions are anonymous and "single-shot". That's generally considered to be a good thing, because society benefits (even if the individual doesn't). The mystery is why that kind of behaviour should persist.

When tested in the lab, the typical set-up goes something like this. Person A gets given some money, which he can share with person B either fairly or unfairly (keeping most for himself). Person B then gets the option to spend some of her money to 'punish' person A (by taking some or all of their money away).

Ryan McKay, at the University of London, along with colleagues at University of Zurich, set out to see how religion affects this kind of costly punishment.

They tested a group of 300 Swiss students, mostly Christian (30% Protestant, 28% Catholic, 42% no affiliation). They all took part in round 1 (allocation of money) and all took part in round 2 (option to punish the person they were playing with). But, before round 2, they were subliminally exposed to 1 of 4 different sets of priming words:
  • religion: (divine, holy, pious, religious);
  • punishment (revenge, punish, penalty, retribution);
  • religion–punishment (divine, revenge, pious, punish); and
  • control (northeast, acoustic, tractor, carton)

Overall there was no effect of the primes on the amount of punishment handed out. The religious were no more likely to punish than were the non-religious, and religious primes had no effect on either the religious or the non-religious.

However, religious primes did affect one group. Those people who had donated to a religious organization in the past year were significantly more likely to punish after they were exposed to religious primes.

That's an interesting result, because previous studies had found that religious primes affect everyone (religious and non-religious) and previous researchers have suggested that religious primes work by making people feel that they are being watched by a supernatural observer (and so they behave better).

What McKay thinks, however, is that these primes are activating the social conditioning among the 'engaged' religious. When people attend religious services, ideals of costly punishment (i.e. sacrifice for the good of the group) are drilled into them. The religious primes in this study activated that social conditioning, resulting in heavier levels of punishment.

Mckay goes on to make a wider claim: that this is evidence that 'religions' were developed as a way to increase the survivability of those people and groups who adhere to them. The essence of this argument is that religions are cultural constructions that make use of the errors inherent in our thinking (seeing things that aren't there, for example) to promote and reinforce beneficial behaviours.

Well, maybe. But in fact this study doesn't support that claim.

The problem is with the assumption that costly punishment is a good thing (for the group, if not the individual). Recent research suggests that isn't actually true. It seems that costly punishment is actually a bad strategy for individuals, and also a bad strategy for the group as a whole (the best strategy for all concerned is actually to turn the other cheek).

From this perspective, costly punishment doesn't promote co-operation (since it sets up cycles of retaliation). What it does, however, is allow hierarchies and dominance to be established.


So that's the theory. Is there any evidence that this is a problem in real life? Well possibly. You see, it turns out that anti-social punishment (i.e. retaliation against people who engage in 'costly punishment' of cheats) seems to be lowest in Westernised, secular cultures. Anti-social punishment is the evil twin of costly punishment, and is the reason costly punishment does not, in fact work too well.

Could it be that religion reinforces a behaviour which actually lowers group fitness?


ResearchBlogging.orgMcKay R, Efferson C, Whitehouse H, & Fehr E (2010). Wrath of God: religious primes and punishment. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society PMID: 21106588

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

Spirit Possession in Uganda

Spirit possession is common in Uganda, as it is in many parts of the world - especially impoverished areas. It's a complex syndrome, however, with different spirits have different effects.

In Runyankore, the local language spoken by the Banyankore of Southwestern Uganda, possession by evil spirits is known as Okutembwa and can result in the patient talking in another voice. Possession by the spirits known as Okugwa leads to shaking and falling down. Other spirits can induce a trance-like state.

When asked to explain the causes of possession traditional healers, who are experts in spirit possession, usually give cultural explanations (e.g., neglected cultural obligations and rituals, ancestral spirits, bewitchment) or blame sociocultural conflicts (e.g., disputes over unpaid dowries and land ownership).

But Marjolein van Duijl, who has spent the past 5 years as Head of the Department of Psychiatry at
Mbarara University, noticed that many of the features of spirit possession match up with what Western psychiatrists call dissociation - a disconnect between experiences, thoughts and feelings. It can often result in the feeling that you have been "taken over" by some outside force.

The interesting thing about dissociation is that it's often caused by traumatic events. So van Duijl set out to discover if traumatic events were the true cause of spirit possession.

With the help of a local team, she interviewed 119 villagers who had been recently treated by local healers for spirit possession, and compared them with a similar group who had not been possessed. She assessed them for symptoms of dissociation, and also quizzed them on traumatic events in their past (using a couple of standardised questionnaires that have been developed specifically for this purpose).

She found that those who were suffering spirit possession did indeed score highly on dissociative symptoms. What's more, they had experienced far more traumatic events.

You can see an example of what she found in the figure (it's just a subset of the full findings, to give you a flavour). Pretty much all of the items on this particular trauma questionnaire (the Traumatic Experiences Checklist) were more frequent in those who were possessed (Parentification, by the way, means having to care for your parent when you are only a child - in effect making a parent out of the child).

Traumatic events that directly threatened the life of the individual concerned were particularly common among the possessed.


The strange thing is that the locals were not at all aware of this link. They consistently gave reasonings like "because cultural rituals have not been performed," or sometimes they blamed obstruction by "the Christian generation," or said that "It can be a result of unresolved conflicts which the spirits try to settle."

But if van Duijl is right, then the true cause of spirit possession is, in fact, traumatic experiences that occured in the patient's past.

Does the misdiagnosis matter? Are these patients having their suffering added to as a result of the misdiagnosis? Maybe not.

"Spirit possession" seems to be a culturally embedded way for a person to manifest their multiple psychological traumatizing events. The rituals around possession may provide a way for the healer and the sufferer to work together to provide a cure. As van Dujil points out:


This also does not imply that all spirit-possessed patients will need their traumatic experiences to be addressed in order to feel better ... Remarkably, the vast majority of patients in our study group felt that the treatment by the traditional healer had helped them well (45% felt better and 54% completely healed after treatment).


Given the terrifying situations that so many Ugandans have been exposed to, and the lack of access to modern psychiatric healthcare, the traditional healers seem to be doing a remarkably effective job. They accepting the culturally-embedded interpretations of their patients symptoms, and work with them to effect a cure.

One last thought on all of this. One of the things that struck me was the high levels of trauma experienced even among the controls. To give you an idea of the sorts of harrowing experiences that the people in this study had to deal with, I'm going to leave you with a case that van Duijl reports in the paper:

A 33-year-old woman came to our mental health clinic accompanied by her sister. For many years she had regularly suffered from attacks in which, according to her sister, she displayed aggressive and strange behavior, after which she started talking in different voices, which were not recognized as her own.

These attacks occurred when the family prepared to go to Christian church or to say prayers. During our session, the client shifted into a trancelike state, and started to move her hands like claws and made animal-like noises, after which she began to speak in a strange language and voice. Her sister explained that this was the voice of an uncle who had died many years ago. This uncle still valued traditional cultural beliefs, while their father had turned to Christianity. There had been an unsolved conflict between their father and this uncle as their father refused to perform rituals for the ancestors.

Later during our conversation one leg of the client made involuntary shaking movements. This was distracting the client’s attention. I asked her what her leg was trying to tell us. By bits and pieces the history became clear: The client had been in love for many years with a Muslim man, with whom she had a child. Her father despised the man because of his religion, and her child was forcefully separated from her by her father.

The church attributed her attacks of possession trance states to activities of ‘‘the devil.’’ She had participated in prayer sessions to get rid of these attacks but it had only helped for a short period. We suspected that her attacks, which often occurred when religious activities were performed, were an expression of suppressed anger against her Christian father who had ruined her life because of his rigid principles. Different options for treatment were discussed including traditional healers, counseling and prayer sessions. Although we regularly discussed and referred our patients to traditional healers, in this case the patient preferred to attend counseling sessions to learn to control her attacks and to focus attention on the underlying experience of traumatic loss.

ResearchBlogging.orgDuijl, M., Nijenhuis, E., Komproe, I., Gernaat, H., & Jong, J. (2010). Dissociative Symptoms and Reported Trauma Among Patients with Spirit Possession and Matched Healthy Controls in Uganda Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 34 (2), 380-400 DOI: 10.1007/s11013-010-9171-1

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

Suppose we were to transplant your brain...

... what would happen to your personality? I mean, if we took the brain of an African-Caribbean and stuck it in the body of a white Englishman - would the resulting person be black, or white?

And what about if you took the brain of a woman and transplanted it into a man? A rich person into the body of a poor person? Would their behaviour change, or stay the same?

What about transplanting the brain of a Catholic into the body of an atheist?

These are all questions designed to dig into whether social categories depend on 'essentialism' - the folk-logic argument that items carry with them some kind of essence that defines what they are. If you think that a man's body with a woman's brain would act like a man then you are (in one interpretation, at least) an 'essentialist'.

Essentialism is interesting because it seems to be closely related to a range of spiritual and religious beliefs. It's what psychologist Bruce Hood calls "Supersense".

Now, the brain-transplant situation is a little more complicated because social categories can be driven by situations as much as brain function, but what's interesting about this new study, lead by Marcos Pereira at the Universidade Federal da Bahia in Brazil, is that they compared how responses varied in different countries.

Take a look at this figure. These show the responses from students at three of the top universities in Spain, Brazil, and England. When the bar goes above the line, it indicates essentialist beliefs (i.e. the new creature would act in a manner appropriate for its body, not its mind).

So, taking the first case, of a white man's brain transplanted into a black man. In Spain, the response averaged zero - so they were equally split as to whether behaviour would be 'black' or 'white'. In Brazil, they tended to think in essentialist terms - the new creation would be 'black'. In England, on the other hand, it would be white.

There's a couple of things to note about this study. Firstly, overall the English students were much less essentialist, on average, than the Spanish or Brazilian.

Secondly, the Spanish seem to be more essentialist about Catholicism ("cat oth") than politics ("rig lef").

They also asked the question the other way around - what would happen if you put the brain of a non-Catholic into the body of a Catholic. The results were similar, except for the English. Put this way round, the English are more essentialist (although still less so than the Spanish and the Brazilians).

In other words, for the English, a non-Catholic body becomes Catholic if you put a Catholic brain in. But put a Catholic brain into a non-Catholic body, and they are more inclined to think the result would be non-Catholic. Very odd!

In fact, this reflects a general trend. In all three countries, the students were more essentialist if it was a 'non-dominant' brain going into a 'dominant' body. A female brain put into a male body is more likely to be male than a male brain put into a female body is likely to be female.

But for me, at least, the most interesting result of this study is that the students were not particularly essentialist about Catholicism. They saw it as being more similar to politics than to age or gender. It's something you decide (or is generated by your brain) rather than something that you are as a result of birth or society.


ResearchBlogging.orgPereira ME, Alvaro Estramiana JL, & Schweiger Gallo I (2010). Essentialism and the expression of social stereotypes: a comparative study of Spain, Brasil and England. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 13 (2), 808-17 PMID: 20977029

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

You are your brand label

The last post, on how people find secular alternatives to fill one particular emotional need traditionally fulfilled by religion (the need to feel in control), set me to thinking about another study that was published earlier this year.

The study looked at brands, which are a powerful form of self expression. People use brands to send signals about personality and wealth. Many people are, in a very real sense, defined by their brands.

Religion, too, provides a powerful sense of identity. When someone says they are a Catholic, or a Buddhist, they are saying a lot more about themselves than simply their other-worldly beliefs.

Maybe the two are interchangeable? It's a fairly old idea - the Branding Strategy blog put together an amusing (if pretty tenuous) list of parallels back in 2007. But now a team from the Fuqua Business School at Duke University have put some evidential meat on the bones.

First they showed that US States with a high number of branded stores (Macy's, Gap and Banana Republic) versus  discount stores (Costco, K-Mart, Target, Wal-Mart and Sam’s) also have a low number of religious congregations. About half of this is explained by differences in average wealth. They dug around a bit more and found that education explains some more of it (educated States are suckers for branded goods), as did urbanization. But even after taking these into account the link persisted. It wasn't either that people in less religious states consumed less.

On its own that's not terribly convincing. But then they headed to the lab, and found that students who were primed to think about religion (by writing a short essay) were less likely to choose branded goods in a subsequent exercise.

In another study, they found that priming people to think about how religious beliefs and activities ‘provide you with a sense of self‐worth' made them less interested in brands than those primed to think about how religious beliefs ‘provide you with a sense of safety and security.’

They also polled individuals on their preference for branded goods - apparently they got their participants from some database of people who are into taking these sorts of surveys, but who are selected to be representative of the US populace at large. The least religious people were most likely to favour branded goods, and this was was particularly the case for goods that are important for self-expression (e.g. Ralph Lauren versus Target brand sunglasses) rather than more functional (e.g. Pepperidge Farm versus Kroger brand bread). [And no, I've never even heard of most of the brands they had to choose between!].

Now, none of this is particularly surprising. We know that people use brands as a badge of identity, and we know that, in this regard, religion is a particularly powerful brand. However, I don't agree with the pundits who try to take it further, and argue that brand identity is a kind of surrogate religion. For example, take a look a this, which is pulled from Schachar's Working Paper that he published back in 2007:

... Belk and Tumbat (2005) found that the Macintosh community is equivalent to a religion in many ways because it can be characterized by a strong faith in “savior” Steve Jobs and enmity towards a common “satanic” enemy. Similarly, Muniz and Schau (2005) found that the Newton community (centered around PDAs discontinued by Apple) reflects five key themes: (1) tales of persecution, (2) tales of faith being rewarded, (3) survival tales, (4) tales of miraculous recovery, and (5) tales of resurrection. The authors argued that these religious themes reflect the human need for community and religious affiliation.
 To me that sounds like 'just so' story telling - finding amusing parallels between a hobbyist group (one that just happens to have a focus on a brand) and a particular Western religion (Christianity). If those 5 themes are really what constitutes religion, then most people in the world are not religious!


ResearchBlogging.org
Shachar, R., Erdem, T., Cutright, K., & Fitzsimons, G. (2010). Brands: The Opiate of the Nonreligious Masses? Marketing Science DOI: 10.1287/mksc.1100.0591

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

How to win elections by changing beliefs in God

Aaron Kay a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada is interested in how people react when you make them feel like they're not in control of the situation they find themselves in.

He's previously shown that, if you disturb people's sense of control, then they tend to compensate by increasing their belief in a controlling god. In a separate study, he also showed that there's a similar relationship with attitudes to government. What seems to be happening is that, when people lose confidence in their own control, they re-establish their sense of overall control by convincing themselves that some outside agency has control.

Along with some colleagues he's now shown, in several new studies, that belief in a controlling government and a controlling god seem to be interchangeable. For example:
  • In Malaysia prior to a recent national election, people felt that the country was unstable and also their belief in controlling god was high. After the election, belief in governmental stability rose, and belief in a controlling god fell.
  • A group of Canadian students who were given a fictitious newspaper article to read (which declared that the minority parties were about to force an election that would result in no clear outcome) had stronger beliefs in a controlling god than students who read an article with a more reassuring message.
Interestingly, it really does seem to be a belief specifically in a controlling god (or government) that's important here - other kinds of reassurance just don't have the same effect. Kay gave students two different articles (allegedly from a Canadian news website). One article presented the government as being very capable and effective. The other talked instead about the importance of Canadian heritage and identity to Canadians - intended to make the reader think that being Canadian is very reassuring and meaningful.

Then they asked about beliefs in a controlling god, and also beliefs in God as a source of personal significance (e.g. God provides answers to questions of meaning and purpose).

As you can see in the figure, the article portraying the Canadian government as effective significantly reduced the strength of beliefs in a controlling God - but had no effect on beliefs in a 'meaning-giving' God. The article on Canadian identity had no effect on either kind of god-belief.


In their last experiment, they showed that the effect works both ways: weaken beliefs in a controlling god (by asking students to read an article, ostensibly published in science, attacking the idea) and they are more likely to believe that the Government is doing a good job

If their findings are correct, it suggests that politicians who are in power should attack the idea of a god being in control!

Kay and colleagues do point out that the American Bible Belt seems to contradict this idea. After all, people there are both fiercely patriotic and highly religious. They argue that, if it wasn't for the patriotism, these folks would be even more religious.

I have to say that I think they've missed a key fact about the religious right. Although white evangelical Protestants are fiercely patriotic, they have a deep-seated distrust of their government. According to a Pew survey in March this year, fully 15% of them never trust their government, compared with 7% of the unaffiliated.

In fact, it seems to me that this inverse relationship between trust in god and trust in the government could go a long way towards helping explain why politics in Europe and the USA are so different. Ultra-libertarianism might actually drive people to religion.


ResearchBlogging.orgKay, A., Shepherd, S., Blatz, C., Chua, S., & Galinsky, A. (2010). For God (or) country: The hydraulic relation between government instability and belief in religious sources of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99 (5), 725-739 DOI: 10.1037/a0021140

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

European Christians more likely to accept evolution

According to a new survey, conducted over the internet, Christians in Europe are more likely than Christians in other parts of the world to accept evolution. What's more, Christians the world over were much more likely than atheists to say that they were absolutely certain in their beliefs about evolution and how the universe came to be.

The survey was run by David Wilson at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Over 4,300 people took part, recruited basically by word of mouth as well as some adverts. The survey was very quick - just one question about acceptance of evolution, then a few questions on faith and why they hold the beliefs they do.

The figure summarizes the key findings (you'll need to click on it for a larger version). Basically, the bar charts show how the percentage of different groups who say they are absolutely certain of their beliefs in evolution (atheist, black; Christian, red; agnostic, cyan; other, grey). The pie charts show the beliefs of Christians - dark blue is creationist, light blue evolution, and yellow is "theistic" evolution.

Most Christians surveyed were creationist - except in Europe. Although Christians there were just as convinced of the correctness of their beliefs!

Wilson reckons that European Christians might be educated differently, or have a different cultural background. He also suggests that European Institutions which have come out firmly against creationism, like the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, may have had some influence.

I dunno. Looking at the survey, it picked up loads more atheists in Europe. Maybe the survey just circulated in different circles in Europe.

Anyway, another interesting finding of this survey is that it asked Christians why they didn't believe in evolution. The most popular reason was that Genesis should be interpreted literally. The next was that it undermines the belief that humans were created in God's image.

Only then,in third and fourth place do we get to the two 'evidence-based options' - that there is no evidence of evolution of one species into another (50% of responses) and there is no evidence for natural selection (40%).

So the primary objection these Christians had to evolution is not evidential, but dogmatic.

In contrast, when atheists were asked why they didn't believe in God, their overwhelming response (given by 85%) was that there is no evidence!


Wilson, D. (2010). European Christians are at the forefront in accepting evolution: results from an internet-based survey Evolution & Development, 12 (6), 537-540 DOI: 10.1111/j.1525-142X.2010.00439.x

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

Why religious Austrians have more children

On average, the more religious you are, the more kids you'll have. It's a widespread phenomenon, seen across pretty much all of the modern world.

The problem is, no-one really knows why this happens.

It could be something about religious beliefs. Maybe they make you more attractive to potential mates, or maybe they drive you to have more kids once you have found your mate.

Or maybe they encourage traditional, rather than modern, approaches to relationships. The traditional role for women is to stay at home and raise children, while hubbie has a career (and the independence and money that goes with it). It works (in theory at least) because divorce is not allowed, meaning that women cannot be left financially adrift.

Women who chose a more modern, more independent lifestyle have to juggle several competing needs. They need to invest time in their own career, and they need to guard against the financial consequences of divorce. In the absence of social structures to give them this security, they will have less time to devote to child rearing.

Could this be what lies behind reduced fertility among the less religious? To find out, Caroline Berghammer, at the Vienna Institute of Demography, took a look at data from the Austrian Generations and Gender Survey. This included 1250 men and women aged 40-45 - i.e. pretty much at the end of their reproductive career.

For each them, the dates of key life events were recorded - the times when they were cohabiting with a partner, when they were married, when they had each child, and when they divorced.

From these data, Berghammer was able to define each individual's 'life trajectory'. You can see some examples in the figure.

Take the top row. It describes the life path of someone who was single until age 23, then cohabited for a year before getting married. After a year of marriage, they had their first child and, a couple of years later, their second and final child. This sequence was the most common life trajectory, followed by 12% of those surveyed.

The second row describes an individual who remained single and childless. The third an individual who went straight into marriage, without first cohabiting.

Of course, every individual's life trajectory is different. But certain patterns emerged, and so Berghammer was able to assign each individual to one of several 'typical' trajectories.

The most important of these were the 'modern' life (a period of cohabitation before marriage ,but children after marriage) and the 'traditional' (marriage without previously cohabitation).

Berghammer found that people following the 'traditional' lifestyle were more likely to have 3+ children than those following the 'modern' lifestyle. What's more, traditionalist individuals were more likely to be religious (all Catholic in this analysis).

But - and this is the crucial bit - among those who followed a traditional life path, there was no relationship between their depth of religious belief, or their Church attendance, and the number of children they had.

Exactly the same was seen for those following a modern life path. Although this was more popular among non-religious women, those religious women who did follow this trajectory had no more children than the non-religious.

There was also no difference between the religious and non religious in the chances of remaining single and childless.

Berghammer concludes from this that the critical factor in determining fertility is the choice of life trajectory. Once this has been decided, then religiosity has no further effect on fertility.

So this explains why religious Austrians have more children. It's because they are more likely to play traditional roles, in which women value childbearing over independence.


ResearchBlogging.orgBerghammer, C. (2010). Family Life Trajectories and
Religiosity in Austria European Sociological Review DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcq052



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