Field of Science

A basic psychological link between religion and right-wing politics

Humans are fine tuned to spot coincidences. Take, for example, an experiment done a few years ago by Paola Bressan and Peter Kramer, psychologists at the University of Padova in Italy. They asked their subjects to watch a computer screen, where dots would appear either above or below a pair of words. They had to press one of two keys on the keyboard, depending on where the dots appeared.

After 32 rounds of this, one of the words, unexpectedly, appeared as white on black (Trial 33 in the picture). Now, this was completely irrelevant to the task at hand, but even so it captured people's attention. They took longer to press the button, as they couldn't help pondering the meaning of the unexpected change.

The strange thing was, those who reacted most strongly to this change were those who also reported being religious as a result of personal experience. They found it harder than others to dismiss the coincidence.

Not only was this effect linked solely to religiosity derived from personal experience (and not, for example, linked to family history or church attendance), but this link was entirely explained by belief in the meaningfulness of coincidences.

What's this got to do with politics, though?

Well, it turns out that something similar happens with political conservatives. David Amodio, a psychologist at New York State University, set up an experiment in which the subjects had to press a key when they saw the letter M, but not when they saw the letter W.

Now, the thing was that almost always it was the letter 'M' that was shown, and this set up the expectation that the next letter would also be an 'M'. So this was a test of whether the subjects could break free of their expectations.

What Amodio found was that liberals were better able to break free of this conditioned response, and to correctly withhold their response when a W was shown.

According to a recent article by Kramer and Bressan, both these experimental results can be explained by the same psychological phenomenon. They speculate that we create 'schema' - fundamental concepts about how the world works. Beliefs, in other words.

These schema can be useful, because they speed up mental processing. By employing grand, simple rules of thumb they save mental effort - but at the expense of accuracy.

By employing this schema, the brain can move on from chewing over things that may not have any survival benefit. The results may not be accurate, but they may be good enough not to be actively harmful. One consequence, however, could be illusions and conspiracy beliefs.

Kramer and Bressan's ideas are pretty speculative. But whatever you think of them, it is truly remarkable that both religiosity and right-wing ideology can be predicted solely on the basis of an inability to cope with randomness.

Now surely that can't be a coincidence?

ResearchBlogging.orgAmodio, D., Jost, J., Master, S., & Yee, C. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism Nature Neuroscience, 10 (10), 1246-1247 DOI: 10.1038/nn1979

Bressan, P., Kramer, P., & Germani, M. (2008). Visual attentional capture predicts belief in a meaningful world Cortex, 44 (10), 1299-1306 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2007.08.021

Kramer, P., & Bressan, P. (2011). Belief in God and in strong government as accidental cognitive by-products Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34 (01), 31-32 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X10002104

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


  1. Classic! It reminds me of BF Skinner's famous experiment and study "Superstition in the Pigeon," which can be found here:
    This is pretty much all we need to know about Fox "News," is it not?

  2. Of course, if this were correct, one would expect to see religious people being more right wing that non-religious people, on average. In the UK, analysis of the last election results shows that this is not the case, and that voting across religious people was very much in line with the rest of the population.

    Results in the US may be difference, as they most likely would be if you repeated the experiment on political views and religion in Saudi Arabia, India or China. As a result, it seems to Mouse that this is, politely put, highly speculative.

  3. It seems like "W" was an unfortunate choice for an experiment that was differentiating between liberals and conservatives :) I can't imagine it would make much of a difference, but...

    In the first experiment, I guess I don't understand how the word being presented differently constitutes a "coincidence". What is it coinciding with? It's certainly a new stimulus, and it makes sense that people would need some time to process that... but I don't understand how it could be labelled a "coincidence"?

    @The Church Mouse: You better believe religiosity and conservative politics are associated in the US! I'm rather surprised to hear you say that is not the case in the UK, as I was pretty sure there was at least some correlation pretty much everywhere you look. People who score highly for the "authoritarian" personality type seem to like themselves a conservative government and an angry literal god...

    Perhaps it's because many people in England call themselves "Christian" (because of their cultural association) even if they never go to church and don't believe a word of it? I dunno, or it could just be totally different there than it is here I guess..

  4. The more and more I learn about biology, pshycology, religion, economy and politics, it is clear to me that people can be divided in two main gruops depending on how they react to uncertainty and novelty. One group is scared of both, and will try to avoid them at any cost. This group is also prone to scapegoating and, in general, to moral panic. The other group is caracterized of a more openness and a fact-based worldwiev. This explain very well (at least to me) why we observe such a cluster of behaviours. Of course, I don't think this as a rigid model but as sort of scale between two extremes.

    Let me thank you for helping me to better understand this (crazy) world.

  5. Church Mouse - didn't know that about the UK. But the link generally does hold, I think (of course, that depends very much on how you define 'religion' and 'right wing')

    I just took a look at the World Values survey question on the most important goals for society (V73). The goal "Progress toward a less impersonal and more humane society", is chosen by 14.6% of people who go Church more than once a week, 14.1% of those who go once a week, 18.4% by those who go once a year, and 19.8% who go less often.

    A similar trend is seen for "Ideas count more than money", while the reverse trend is seen for "A stable economy" and "The fight against crime".

    Also, European Survey data indicate that the religious are more in favour of defence spending (see Does anxiety lead to religiosity and conservative politics?)

  6. James - LOL yes :) Regarding coincidence, I guess it's only a coincidence insofar as it's something that happens at the same time as something else. The real point of interest is that the degree of 'attentional capture' is greatest in those who who believe that coincidences are meaningful - suggesting that the subjects saw it as a potentially important coincidence.

  7. Anonymous, you might like Tim Dean's Political Spectrum. He plots political ideologies on a 2-D scale (safe world/dangerous world versus meritocratic/unjust world)

  8. "But whatever you think of them, it is truly remarkable that both religiosity and right-wing ideology can be predicted solely on the basis of an inability to cope with randomness."

    We could just as easily say...

    "But whatever you think of them, it is truly remarkable that both irreligiosity and left-wing ideology can be predicted solely on the basis of an inability to recognize patterns and create models of the world."

    Maybe it's because I'm a right-wing atheist, but both skills have value. Many aspects of the world are not in a constant state of flux. Tradition is useful because it allows you to recycle and reuse the solutions to problems that were developed in the past. You don't have to waste time reinventing the wheel each generation. On the other hand, change does happen, so a certain amount of flexibility and adaptation to new data is also required.

  9. I managed to access the Nature Neuroscience paper via the EBSCO database (courtesy of my local library) and while both EBSCO and ProQuest do index Behavioral and Brain Sciences there is a 12 month delay in access to “full text” (which is kind of standard for major journals like Nature, Science, etc.). Cortex is indexed by neither ProQuest nor EBSCO. The first thing I did after downloading the Nature paper and exporting the citation to EndNote was to check the paper’s references. Much to my dismay, a particular name was unexpectedly absent.

    The name I was looking for was that of Dr. Robert “Bob” Altemeyer. It may be my naïveté as an amateur “geek of all fields,” but nonetheless, how does one investigate the probable connections between conservative, right-wing politics and conservative religiosity without mentioning Dr. Altemeyer’s work? In just one of my EndNote libraries I have eight separate references to papers in which he was the lead author. A good place to start would be the free, online book:
    Altemeyer, Bob. "The Authoritarians." 2006. University of Manitoba.
    < >

    The Church Mouse wondered if the results presented by Kramer and Bressan would hold for countries (specifically, the UK) other than the US. Dr. Altemeyer’s research involved predominantly Canadian college students and to the best of my knowledge, he did not do any work with citizens of the UK, or if he did, he did not distinguish them from Canadian students. As to the question of to what extent Canadians more closely resemble their (mostly) nutcase neighbors to the South or those of the British Isles proper, I will not offer an opinion because, as the saying goes, discretion is the better part of valor.

    Another researcher that has done some interesting work in a similar vein is Gregory Paul, see:
    Paul, Gregory. "The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions." Evolutionary Psychology 7. 3 (2009): 44.

  10. @Tom
    Dean's poltical spectrum ? I've been there before, and I think it doesn't catch the whole picture.

    First of all, the world IS a dangerous place. People who old a "safe world" view should have been wiped out by the evolution long ago. My opinion is that some people just freak out when confronted with uncertenaity, and the "dangerous world" view is just a by-product of this fenomenon. Other people are just able to live with the notion the they can't have all under their control.

    If you freak out then a "dangerous world" view lead you to a "just world" view as a mean to reduce anxiety. And religion here plays a very big role. That's way their prone to moral panic and scapegoating. If you don't freak out than you can recognize the role of randomness as one of the biggest driver of your live, and an "unjust world" is simply a fact-based assessement of the world (I think that here all know that the biggest predictor of a pupil academic results is who his parents are, for example).

    I think that people act in cluster; so Dean's political spectrum may be good to categorize political view, but most of the people will find themselves on the diagonal line drawn on the graphic.

  11. @Jason
    "Many aspects of the world are not in a constant state of flux"

    The world IS in a constant state of flux. The economic crisis we're actually in, the man-made global warming, the peak oil, the '68, the fall of USSR, the Internet, the rise of BRIC countries, and many others. The world IS constantly changing. For better or for worse. And I think that you're understimating this.

    "Tradition is useful because it allows you to recycle and reuse the solutions to problems that were developed in the past"

    Traditions only serve to give the impression of a steady-state world. To give the idea that if someone do the same thing in the same way again and again the world will stay the same. But even traditions change a lot from an historical perspective. This is not to say that all which came from the past should be discarded. It is only to say that old ideas should be constantly assesed against the present and the forseeable future to assure that such ideas have not past their utility.

  12. @Jason
    What you write seems to suggest that changes came in little doses, and one can adapt with minor adaptation, step by step.

    What I think is that changes came abruptly. You need to do major modifications to adapt. Of course there are differents types of changes, which have different timescales. For example the '68, the fall of USSR and the Internet just reshaped the world in a metter of few years. Others phenomenons take longer, as the man-made global warming. But taken at their timescales, they are abrupt changes. The caos theory says that a system can recover from small pertubations, but as those pertubations build up the system is unable to cope and changes abruptly.

  13. I happen to be very left wing myself, this experiment sounds totally bizzare, how the hell does this prove a link between right wing politics and religion. There are also plenty of liberals and even communists who are religious. Couldn't it also be less a philisophical disagreement and more like gee I just wasn't paying close attention, or maybe not having good vision or reaction time.


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