Field of Science

The biochemistry of religious aggression

Anyone who's taken a passing interest in the news at any time in the past 100 years will have noticed that Israel/Palestine region has had more than its fair share of religious violence. So it's the ideal place to start looking if you want to investigatge the links between religiously-motivated aggression and the common-or-garden variety.

Jeff Victoroff, of the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine and colleagues (including Samir Quota of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme) set out to do just that. They examined fifty-three 14-year-old Muslim Palestinian boys, all of whom were refugees living in the al Shati ("Beach") refugee camp outside Gaza City in the Palestinian Autonomous Territory of Gaza.

On average, these boys were about as aggressive as any other boys their age. In other words, they were entirely normal in this regard - quite surprising given that 40% of them reported having had a family member wounded or killed by the Israeli Defense Forces.

The researchers asked these boys if they agreed with two statements concerning "religiously conditioned political aggression":
  1. "Religious ends justify any means" (43% agreed)
  2. "Harming civilians is a justifiable tool in a Muslim arsenal." (22% agreed)

Those boys who agreed with the first statement also had higher testosterone levels (although there was no relationship with the second statement). Perhaps surprisingly, however, there was no correlation between conventional aggression and testosterone levels.

Conversely, there was no link between religious aggression and cortisol levels. Conventionally aggressive boys did, however, have low levels of cortisone.

Even stranger, there was no correlation at all between religious aggression and conventional aggression.

These results can perhaps be understood when you realise that testosterone is not really the 'aggression' hormone it's often portrayed to be. In fact, testosterone seems really to be a 'success' or 'social dominance' hormone. Winners have high testosterone.

Cortisol, on the other hand, is an anxiety hormone. Animals (including humans) with abnormally low cortisol often become aggressive, perhaps as a result of an inappropriate anxiety response (check out the Do You Mind blog for more on this).

What this suggests is that religious aggression is a very different beast to conventional aggression. The authors speculate that religous aggression, unlike conventional aggression, is not anti-social in the context of a Palestinian refugee camp:
Upon reflection, our second main hypothesis was probably naive from the standpoint of political psychology. From the Palestinian point of view, Gazans suffer unsustainable privations, indignities, and distress owing to an unjust occupation, to which rage is an entirely understandable response. Therefore, far from exhibiting antisocial behavior, a teenaged boy who supports the "any means" standard in the context of resistance to the Israeli occupation might be prosocially supporting his community’s interests.
They go on to say:
The data in this study do not permit any definite conclusion regarding the underlying psychological factors linking testosterone and support for religious-political aggression (RPA)—far less provide data pertinent to these larger questions of the psychoneuroendocrinology of asymmetric war. We merely speculate that the observed association between testosterone and support for RPA, in particular the association with the "any means' item, might be less related to a general aggression factor and more related to dominance seeking, risk taking, and/or reactivity to the provocation of Israeli occupation.
One other finding was that both conventional aggression and religious aggression were linked to a traumatic history and feelings that the Palestinians are treated unjustly. But clearly only some of the boys in the study responded to this by supporting religious violence.

Perhaps, based on these results, it's those boys who have a testosterone-pumped sense of competitiveness.

ResearchBlogging.orgVictoroff, J., Quota, S., Adelman, J., Celinska, B., Stern, N., Wilcox, R., & Sapolsky, R. (2010). Support for religio-political aggression among teenaged boys in Gaza: Part I: psychological findings Aggressive Behavior, 36 (4), 219-231 DOI: 10.1002/ab.20348

Victoroff J, Quota S, Adelman JR, Celinska B, Stern N, Wilcox R, & Sapolsky RM (2011). Support for religio-political aggression among teenaged boys in Gaza: part II: neuroendocrinological findings. Aggressive behavior, 37 (2), 121-32 PMID: 21274850

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

Why non-religious Americans die younger

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIf you're 55 right now and living in the USA, this graphic shows you how much longer you have left to live!

The data come from the Health and Retirement Study, which was started back in 1992 and has been following a group of 18,000 Americans ever since. Over that time, just over 4,000 have died.

In a new analysis, Allison Sullivan of the Population Studies Center at the
University of Pennsylvania has looked how religiosity in 1992 was linked to early deaths later on. The top-line results are in the graph - Jews lived the longest, and Black Protestants died youngest. The non-religious didn't do too well - less well than mainline Christians.

In fact, in each year the non-religious were 28% more likely to die than were mainline Protestants.

Digging into why this might be, Sullivan found that one important factor is probably the divorce rate. On average, being divorced or separated raised the risk of death by 60%, and being never married raised it by 45%. The non-religious were around 50% more likely to be either divorced/separated or never married, and when she factored this into the stats, it explain a large chunk of the mortality differential.

Another important factor was religious attendance. In a model that just looked at religious affiliation after controlling for attendance, there was no difference between the non-religious and mainline Protestants.

The importance of attendance is a familiar finding. It seems to be particularly important for women, and seems to work by keeping people happier. Religious belief, and other religious practices, don't seem to have any effect on health.

In fact, what this study does is further underline the importance of social integration for happiness and health. Divorce is well known to have large and long-lasting effects on happiness. And having a group of people to meet with once a week provides people with a ready-made social group.

Of course, these effects are not all that large. If your objective is to keep healthy, there's a whole load of other things you can do that will have a much greater effect.

But I think humanists, and others who would like a society without religion, need to ponder these findings. Is there a realistic secular alternative to church going that can provide the social integration once supplied by churches? I think there probably is.

In the UK, the current (albeit unpopular) buzzword is 'The Big Society'. Nobody quite knows what it means, but in like to think that it means government providing the infrastructure to help people to come together and build a stronger community. I think it's this sort of vision that humanists need to encourage.

ResearchBlogging.orgALLISON R. SULLIVAN (2010). Mortality Differentials and Religion in the United States: Religious Affiliation and Attendance Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (4), 740-753

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

The religious hypochondriacs of Nairobi

In 2006, the African Population and Health Research Center began a 5-year study into the health of older people (50 years and up) living in two Nairobi 'informal settlements' (aka slums, as pictured). Among other things, they wanted to know how healthy the people living there felt.

So, one of  the questions they asked was simply this: "In general, how would you rate your health today?"

They found that non-Catholic Christians were the most likely to rate their health highly, and Muslims the least likely. The non-religious (only 5% of the sample) and Catholics were in the middle.

Across all religions, however, those who went to services the most often (more than once a week) were 28% less likely to say they were healthy. That's not too surprising. Laura Schnall found a similar phenomenon in the USA. The obvious inference is that sick people go to church/mosque, perhaps in hope of a cure, or of social support.

But here's the odd thing. They adjusted their data for a wide range of factors - marital status, age, education, tribal affiliation. Now religious service attendance was not important. Maybe people weren't going to church because they felt sicker - maybe it was simply that other demographic factors were linked to both ill health and church/mosque going.

They also adjusted for social support, like the number of close friends, how much they participated in social activities, and whether they got support from relatives. All of these were important in explaining how healthy people felt, but none interacted with religion.

Then, last of all, they took into account how sick people actually were. Whether they currently had a severe illness, whether their activities were limited or if they had been to a doctor or other medical advisor recently, or whether they had ever been diagnosed with a range of common chronic illnesses.

After adjusting for real illness, it turned out that regular church/mosque goers say that they are sicker. Think about what that means.

It means that for the same level of real health, for the same level of social support, the same level of education, wealth, etc, people who go to church more often are less likely to feel well.

That's not what's supposed to happen at all!

ResearchBlogging.orgKodzi, I., Obeng Gyimah, S., Emina, J., & Chika Ezeh, A. (2010). Religious Involvement, Social Engagement, and Subjective Health Status of Older Residents of Informal Neighborhoods of Nairobi Journal of Urban Health DOI: 10.1007/s11524-010-9482-0

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

A truly dreadful study into the effects of prayer

In the middle of 2009, a small group of religious scholars and doctors lead by Candice Brown, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, travelled to Mozambique to find out if charismatic healing really works. So they went to some events laid on by Evangelical missions, and ran some tests on the recipients.

Unfortunately, what resulted was one of the shoddiest studies I've ever read!

Basically, the set up was this. The preacher asks if there's anyone who has hearing or sight problems. The researchers measure their hearing and vision, then the patient gets a bit of laying on of hands, then the researchers re-run the hearing and vision test.

Well, the good news is that every single one of the 20-odd recipients was healed. The bad news is that they broke just about every rule in the book for conducting medical trials. Really, it's a case study in how not to do these things.

First off, there was no control group. That means there's nothing to compare it with. So there's no way of knowing whether it was the healing, or something else that did the magic.

They measured hearing using an audiometer, which fires a a 'beep' at different volumes and frequencies into the ear. Sight was measured using a sight chart. Now, these are fine for use in diagnosis, but it's useless for these sorts of studies because it's entirely subjective.

And that, of course, means that it's heavily susceptible to the placebo effect (and remember, there was no placebo control group). We know that the placebo effect is stronger the higher the level of drama and expectation you generate (think: "laying on of hands"!). And we know that remote prayer doesn't work - probably because there's no opportunity to harness the placebo effect. 

It gets worse than that. They were measuring hearing in a noisy environment (a big no-no). They were also measuring hearing on people who have no experience of such a hearing test. It's well known that people get better at these with practice.

Well, all that is bad enough to disregard this study. But if that was all that was wrong with it, I'd just shrug my shoulders and say "meh".

But the most egregious flaw in their study is something rather more interesting, and that's something called the demand effect. That's where subjects consciously or unconsciously respond in a way that they think is going to please the experimenter.

Cast your mind back to the set-up. They asked people to come forward if they were hard-of hearing. Then they tell them that they are going to test them, to see if they really are deaf. They fire a 'beep' into there ear and ask "Did you hear that"?

Now, what is the subject going to do in a situation like this? He's already told the preacher that he's deaf, and he doesn't want to look a fool. He's in a noisy environment, so it's already quite hard to hear the beeps. He hears something faint... was it a beep? Nah, probably not. He's deaf, after all, and so can't hear very well!

Then the preacher comes along and does all the showmanship. They run the test again. Can they hear the beep this time? Well, he doesn't want to let the preacher down, so of course he tries his damnedest to hear the faintest of beeps.

And that simple trick explains why both hearing and sight appears to have dramatically improved among these poor, superstitious villagers. Both they and the researchers have conned themselves.

You might wonder why they didn't try doing the study in controlled conditions back home in the USA. Well, that's because prayer doesn't heal people in such environments. Seriously, that's what they say!

The remarkable thing is that all these flaws are actually acknowledged in the paper (all they don't seem to have got their heads round just what a headache the 'Demand Effect' is for this study).

They know about the flaws, but they choose to pretend they're not important. Just check out the press release, which doesn't mention a single one.

It's a useless study, then. Now, a lot of people set out to do useless studies, but mostly they don't get funded or published. So what happened here?

Well, it won't surprise you to learn that the Templeton Foundation paid for this pitiful charade of science. They got their money's worth, though, in terms of gullible press headlines.

But why on earth did it get published? The Southern Medical Journal is not exactly a world-class publication, but it does normally publish your more mundane mix of research and medical bits and pieces. They know the difference between a good study and a bad one.

Oh, and prayer. They publish a lot of stuff on prayer - 137 articles in the last 5 years alone.

If this study had been on anything other than prayer, it would never have been published. We can only guess at the reasons why this one got through.

Just to finish off, here's a great (and short) video on the placebo effect. Perhaps we should sit Candice down and make her watch it before she tries her hand at any more medical research.

ResearchBlogging.orgBrown CG, Mory SC, Williams R, & McClymond MJ (2010). Study of the therapeutic effects of proximal intercessory prayer (STEPP) on auditory and visual impairments in rural Mozambique. Southern medical journal, 103 (9), 864-9 PMID: 20686441

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

Grammar Nazi? Then you're probably an atheist!

If you're on a first date, how can you find out how religious your dating partner is without asking outright? Well, it turns out that you can just ask for their opinion on grammar

OKCupid is an internet dating site. Lovelorn individuals sign up and put in a little bio, filling in some responses to standard questions. All that adds up to a an unparalleled database for delving (and the best bit is that, as a private company, there's no bothersome ethics committees to navigate!).

They have a whole blog covered to it, squirrelling out all sorts of nuggets. The latest post is devoted to the surrogate questions you can put to your date in order to discover deeper truths about them.

So, it turns out, if you want to find out if your date is religious, you can just ask them "Do spelling and grammar mistakes annoy you?" As they report:

If your date answers 'no'—i.e. is okay with bad grammar and spelling—the odds of him or her being at least moderately religious is slightly better than 2:1.
As someone who is not himself a believer, I found it rather heartening that tolerance, even on something trivial like this, correlated with belief in God, although I should've figured out that religious people are okay with small mistakes. Next to intelligent design, what's a couple typos?
 But there's more. It turns out that last year they analysed the the writing level of individual's profiles, and compared that with religion and also how seriously the individual took religion.

What they found is shown in the figure. Atheists, agnostics, Buddhists and Jews were the most literate. Protestants and Catholics are the least.

I guess the respondents are all in the US, so this suggests a clear link between the dominant religion and illiteracy.

None of this will come as a surprise to readers of this blog. Last year, research by Darren Sherkat showed that fundamentalist beliefs are closely linked to poor verbal skills.

Now it's clear that these poor skills aren't a problem for them - at least not in a prospective mate!

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

A dose of pain to take the guilt away

Can you take away the feelings of guilt through self harm? Well, here's one way to find out.

Take 59 Australian students, and split them into three groups. Get two groups to write about something they did that they feel guilty about.

Then get one of those groups to stick their arms into iced water - if you've ever tried to do that for a long time, it hurts! The other group gets nice warm water. The third group writes about just some everyday interaction, but then they get the ice bath too.

When Brock Bastian, of the University of Queensland, and colleagues did that they found a couple of things. First the students who wrote about a guilt-ridden experience really did feel more guilty.

Second, these guilt-ridden students kept their arms in the ice bath longer than the guilt-free students. What's more, their level of guilt dropped more than the guilt-ridden students who had a warm water bath. The figure shows the averages.

This is the second study I know of to show this effect. The other one, published last year, used a different technique (it made people feel like they'd let their partner down in a co-operative game, and the self-punishment was not physical), but the basic results were the same.

Any one study is always a bit suspect. But two independent studies with similar results is much more robust. Darn it, there might just be something to all this guilt-atonement thing. Here's what Bastian and colleagues have to say:

...pain may be perceived as repayment for sin in three ways. First, pain is the embodiment of atonement. Just as physical cleansing washes away sin (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006), physical pain is experienced as a penalty, and paying that penalty reestablishes moral purity. Second, subjecting oneself to pain communicates remorse to others (including God) and signals that one has paid for one’s sins, and this removes the threat of external punishment. Third, tolerating the punishment of pain is a test of one’s virtue, reaffirming one’s positive identity to oneself and others.

But there's still a couple of nagging doubts in my mind. It seems clear that self-punishment could be a signal to others that you're truly sorry, but in this experiment people actually felt less guilty (i.e. less sorry) after the pain. What good is it to me to know that you were sorry, but that you're over it now because you've stuck a needle in your arm?

Secondly, is this a cross cultural effect? Both these experiments were conducted in countries aligned to Christian notions of atonement. Although religions often have a pain fixation, usually it involves displays of fidelity, rituals of self enhancement, or attempts to reach a transcendent state (or all three). It's only Christianity that's made atonement and penance a central part of ritual self-harm.

If that's the case, then is what we're seeing here a basic human instinct, or is it a cultural construction? Do these students feel less guilty after self harming simply because that's what happens in the films?
Bastian B, Jetten J, & Fasoli F (2011). Cleansing the Soul by Hurting the Flesh: The Guilt-Reducing Effect of Pain. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 21245493

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

Casual sex is not so bad after all

Some women from Mars
A while ago I read a paper arguing that religion 'protected' teens against sex. It was your usual analysis - finding that religious teens are less likely to have sex outside of marriage - but the tacit presumption intrigued me. Is sex really that harmful?

Well, no one study is going to answer that, but here's one from Jesse Owen and colleagues at the University of Louisville helps shed some light on it.

Their study has the advantage over most in this field in that it's longitudinal. That means that means that they asked people a bunch of questions, and then a few months later they asked the same people the same questions, to see how their answers changed. College students are always a good testing ground for this sort of topic, and so they asked their questions at the start and end of semester. They only asked students who weren't in any kind of long term relationship.

So, just which students engaged in short-term relationships ("hooking up", in their jargon)?

Well, the ones who hooked up tended to be the ones who at the start of the semester drank more, were less thoughtful about relationships, and more likely to have had short-term flings in the past. But they were less likely to be lonely and yes, they were also less religious.

When they put all of these factors into their model the strange thing is that religion and thoughtfulness dropped out as factors. They only true 'causes' were a past experience of flings, having friends and drinking alcohol. Quelle surprise.

But did all this casual sex make them depressed and lonely? Well actually no, it did not. It didn't make them happier either, it has to be said.

In fact, there was an effect of sleeping around on happiness and loneliness, but it wasn't at all straightforward.

Basically, among all those who were happy and not lonely at the start of the term, those who hooked up during the term became less happy and more lonely than those who did not. But among all those who were depressed and lonely at the start of the term, those who hooked up during the term become more happy and less lonely than those who did not.

Hooking up was good for sad people, but not good for happy people. Make of that what you will.

One last thing. Alcohol had a greater effect on women than on men. That fits with the idea that part of the reason that women are more likely to avoid 'hooking up' is that society disapproves.

In other words, all these evolutionary-psychology yarns about differences between differences in attitudes between men and women towards casual relationships are just that - yarns.

That fits with new opinion poll data showing that, among young people in America, attitudes to relationship commitment and children have flipped. The gender stereotypes have crumbled - pretty much all the attitudes that are supposed to be typical of men are now more likely to be held by women.

Bear that in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that men are form Mars and women are from Venus!

ResearchBlogging.orgOwen J, Fincham FD, & Moore J (2011). Short-Term Prospective Study of Hooking Up Among College Students. Archives of sexual behavior PMID: 21203816

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