Field of Science

How chilled are the religious and non-religious?

When you get in a stressful situation, your heart rate goes up and your blood pressure rises - the classic 'fight or flight' response. Not all people react the same, however.

Kevin Masters, of the University of Colorado, and Andrea Knestel (Brigham Young University), decided to test whether religious and non-religious people react differently to stress. People who do react badly to stress are more likely to die young, and they were wondering if this might help explain the differences in life expectancy between the religious and non-religious.

So they advertised for people to come into their lab (they got 131 people in total, aged between 40-70 years). Then they stressed them!

The stress task involved a spot of mental arithmetic, followed by role-playing (having a row with a medical insurance rep over a claim - a typically American situation!). They first had to spend 5 minutes preparing (aka fretting), and the role-play was filmed - just to add to the stress.

A third of their group was non-religious, and they divided their religious subjects according to whether they were intrinsically religious (i.e. for their own, internal reasons), extrinsically religious (because they love all the external trappings - the social activities, social status etc). Religious people who were both intrinsically and extrinsically religious were called 'pro-religious'.

Well, it turned out that too few religious people would admit to being solely motivated by extrinsic motives. So they only got the 'pro-religious', and an equal number of intrinsically religious.

Well, the strange thing was that the non-religious and the intrinsically religious reacted similarly badly to stress, while the pro-religious were better than either of the other two groups.

It's a bit of a mystery why this should be - the researchers admit that it's not what they were expecting. The pro-religious group also said that they thought the situation, if they experienced it for real, would not be that stressful.

Interestingly, although (like everyone) the pro-religious initially volunteered for the experiment, they were the hardest to track down and follow up on. That's pretty characteristic of extrinsically motivated people in general - they work hard at creating an appearance of being committed and hard-working, but are less interested in following through. Perhaps they were just less empathic.

The pro-religious were also more neurotic. Neurotic people have previously been shown to react with less stress in this sorts of task.

But I think there is something else going on here. Studies of the relationship between religion and health have found that it's not the believing that matters, but the attending. People who go to Church more often are healthier.

Going to Church (mixing with other people, using religion as a tool to improve your social status) is exactly what distinguishes the 'pro-religious' from the intrinsically religious and the non-religious. Could it simply be that the 'pro-religious' are more confident in themselves, as a result of being embedded in society, and so find it easier to brush stress off?

And might this help explain why church-goers tend to live a little longer?
Masters KS, & Knestel A (2011). Religious motivation and cardiovascular reactivity among middle aged adults: is being pro-religious really that good for you? Journal of Behavioral Medicine PMID: 21604184

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

Subliminal religious prompts make Spanish atheists nicer

A strange phenomenon, which has been noticed before in a couple of studies in the USA, is that people (well, students) tend to behave more nicely if you surreptitiously prime their minds with religious thoughts. When you get an unexpected result like that, the worry is that it's just a chance finding.

It's a common concern in the study of the psychology of religion (and science in general), because so few findings are replicated by other researchers. That's why a new study, by Ali Ahmed at Linnaeus University and Osvaldo Salas at the University of Gothenburg (both in Sweden) is particularly interesting.

They tested 224 students at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso in Chile (yes, Chile, not Sweden - don't ask me!), using two of the favourite laboratory tests of 'niceness' - the Dictator Game and the Prisoner's Dilemma. The Dictator Game simply gives the participant some money, and offers them the chance to donate as much as they want to another, anonymous player. The Prisoner's Dilemma asks you to either co-operate or default on another anonymous player.

Basically, the Dictator Game is a measure of how altruistic you are (and your sense of fairness), while the Prisoner's Dilemma is a measure of how co-operative you think other people are.

The students were primed in a classic way - they were given a jumble of words, and had to form them into sentences (there's more details of this at the foot of the post). Half the students got sentences with a religious theme. As you can see, the students who got the religious prime tended to be more generous and co-operative - regardless of whether or not they thought of themselves as religious.

There was no difference between the religious and non-religious students, either in the primed or non-primed state. What mattered was not whether they were religious, but whether they had been primed with religious thoughts. (In the Prisoner's Dilemma game, the non-religious were a bit less co-operative overall, but this was not statistically significant).

This basically backs up results seen in students in the USA, which suggests that it;s not a purely chance or cultural effect. Of course, the big question is why it happens. Ahmed and Salas offer up three possibilities:
  • Reminding people of god makes them feel like they're being watched. For this to be true, the non-religious must have some kind of gut instinct that there is a god (due to their upbringing or their biology), regardless of their conscious beliefs.
  • Religious prompts are just one example of a more general type of 'pro-social' prompt. For example, playing a similar trick but using words like 'law' and 'judge' or even 'honesty' has similar effects. People brought up in a religious tradition may continue to associate religious words with honesty, even if they are no-longer believers.
  • Students are easily lead. These sorts of studies are usually done in students (because they're easily obtained), but the one study that was done in free-range people did not see an effect of religious primes in non-religious adults. Perhaps young minds are just more malleable - in particular, they may still be making their minds up about religion.

So, basically, we need some more studies to sort this one out - in older people, and with non-religious 'prosocial' primes as a control!

Edit: here's a grab of the task they had to do to give them the religious prompt (click for a larger version). Half of them got a mix of 5 religious sentences (like in the table) and 5 non-religious ones. The other half got all non-religious ones. (e.g. they had to unscramble “food tasty cinema was the” (answer: “the food was tasty” - eliminate “cinema.”).
Ahmed, A., & Salas, O. (2011). Implicit influences of Christian religious representations on dictator and prisoner's dilemma game decisions Journal of Socio-Economics, 40 (3), 242-246 DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2010.12.013

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

A homage to the religion in the service of war

So, I'm in New York right now (just a business trip sadly), but I did manage to take a walk to Times Square, where a couple of things struck my eye.

First is that a large focal point is given over to this monument honoring the link between religion and war. Father Duffy didn't actually shoot people, as understand it, but he took part in 4 wars and is honoured for his role in raising morale in the thick of the fighting. The square was dedicated in 1937.

And secondly, let's not forget that THE WORLD ENDS TOMORROW! Which may play havoc with my return flight scheduling.

Here's a chap reminding us of that unfortunate fact in time-honoured fashion. Other bill-board carriers had more banal fare to advertise, such as the location of TFI Fridays. There may be a diabolical link there.

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

Fear of terrorism makes Pakistani students turn to religion

Going by media reports, you'd be forgiven for thinking that terrorism was something inflicted on Westerners by middle-eastern Muslims. It's not. By far the largest group of victims are those same middle-eastern Muslims, and Pakistan is currently bearing the brunt of the violence.

The causes of terrorist violence in Pakistan are complex - conflict between locals and immigrants from India after partition (the Mohajir), friction between the centre and the periphery, and of course, being a border state in the 'Great Game' of Western vs Russian power politics. Although I don't pretend to understand it in any detail, religion is clearly caught up in it all - although not in any straightforward way.

One possible connection may be that religion is encouraged when people feel threatened. You can see this clearly in some new research from a team at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan.

They interviewed 291 students from 4 different universities in Karachi. Almost all (90%) had been exposed to terrorist violence on the television or in conversation with their parents. A staggering 46% knew someone who had been injured or killed in a terrorist attack, and 26% had actually been personally exposed to such an attack.

When asked what strategies they used to cope with the stress, the most popular answer was that they increased their faith in religion (the table shows average scores on a 0-4 scale).

Given that so much of the violence has religious overtones, such a response may seem paradoxical. On the other hand, it may help to explain why such violence perpetuates.

ResearchBlogging.orgAhmed AE, Masood K, Dean SV, Shakir T, Kardar AA, Barlass U, Imam SH, Mohmand MG, Ibrahim H, Khan IS, Akram U, & Hasnain F (2011). The constant threat of terrorism: stress levels and coping strategies amongst university students of Karachi. JPMA. The Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, 61 (4), 410-4 PMID: 21465991

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

Mainline Protestant brains rot slowest

For the past 8 years, the folks at the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development at Duke University Medical Center, North Carolina, have been scanning the brains of a small band of elderly people. They're trying to discover whether changes in the volume of the hippocampus, a small part deep in the brain, are linked to late-onset depression and dementia.

The hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory, and it's known that it decays at an ever-increasing pace as we age. Of course, there are plenty other things you can do with a dataset like this, and (sponsored by the Templeton Foundation) one of the things they've done is to see which religious groups lose it fastest.

Well, there was no difference in brain rot between those who went to church more often and those who did not, or between those who did a lot of private religious stuff and those who did not.

But there was a significant difference according to affiliation.

As you can see in the graph, the rot was slowest in mainline Protestants, faster in born-again Protestants and Catholics, and faster still all in those with no religion. The group who fared worst were those who had experienced a 'life-changing' religious event sometime in the past.

The authors put this down to the stress of being in a minority group. It's known that high levels of stress can increase the rate of hippocampal rot.

In this part of the South-Eastern USA, mainline Protestants are the overwhelming majority - and other evidence shows that being in a minority can make life stressful for the non-religious.

Similarly, having a 'road to Damascus' type of life-changing religious experience can mark you out as an oddity, and someone to be shunned.

So far so reasonable. However, people with 'other' religious affiliations (presumably mostly Jewish) held onto their grey matter just as well as Mainline protestants. Surely these religious minorities should feel at least as much exclusion as Catholics?

And no, in case you were wondering. They don't tell us who had the biggest brains at the start of the experiment!

ResearchBlogging.orgOwen AD, Hayward RD, Koenig HG, Steffens DC, & Payne ME (2011). Religious factors and hippocampal atrophy in late life. PloS one, 6 (3) PMID: 21479219

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

Non-religious nations have higher quality of life

Quality of life is a pretty nebulous concept. There's a lot of coffee-table chat about which places have the best quality of life, but is it really possible to measure it objectively?

Well, yes it is, an one way to do it is to do what a team from The University of Arizona and Washington State University have just done.

They began by assuming that 'Quality of Life' is a thing that has effects and causes. It basically sits in between them as a mediating factor. They used a sophisticated model to unpick the relationships (if any) between these effects (in their model, these were life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate and suicide rate) and a basket of factors that might feasibly cause differences in life quality.

They found eight factors had a significant effect on quality of life: divorce rate, public health expenditure, doctor/population ratio; per capita GDP; food supply; female and male adult literacy rate, and population with access to safe drinking water. The model crunched all these, along with the effects, and spat out a Quality of Life rating for the 43 countries they analysed.

Belgium came out top, followed by France, Denmark, Spain and Germany. The USA came in 7th, and the UK was 11th. Bottom of the pile was Sri Lanka, the Dominican Republic and, at lucky number 43, El Salvador.

So I took their data and plotted it against the World Values Survey data on how important God is in people's lives. And this is what the plot looks like.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that the top nations tended to be the least religious (unfortunately there's no data on this variable for Belgium or a bunch of the other nations, which is why some are missing).

This analysis joins all the others - the least religious countries are more democratic, more peaceful, have less corruption, more telephones, do better at science, have less inequality and other problems, and are generally just less dysfunctional.

Cue discussion over which causes what!
Rahman, T., Mittelhammer, R., & Wandschneider, P. (2011). Measuring quality of life across countries: A multiple indicators and multiple causes approach Journal of Socio-Economics, 40 (1), 43-52 DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2010.06.002

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

Religion only makes for happy people if there's a lot of it about

In the previous post I wrote about how the link between religion and happiness, often thought to be rock-solid, doesn't seem to apply in England.

That suggests that the relationship between religion and happiness might vary from society to society. Now a new analysis, by Jan Eichhorn at the University of Edinburgh, finds that this indeed might be the case. He looked at 43 countries, mostly from Europe but also including the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Same as everyone else Eichhorn found that, on average and after taking other factors into account, religious people (whether measured by belief or attendance) tend to be happier. However, countries with more religious people weren't happier on average.

But then he did something different. He looked at the interaction between personal belief and the the national average. And that revealed a subtly different picture.

Having strong religious beliefs isn't linked to happiness in countries where few others have strong beliefs, or where few people go to Church. Eichhorn explains:

People who place a higher importance in god, however, are happier when they live in a country where others do as well. Furthermore, when many people in the country attend religious services regularly, their happiness also is found to be higher.

As the reverse is not the case—people who attend services more often are not happier when the average personal level of importance of god is higher—it appears to be that happiness through religiosity can mainly be derived through conforming to the standard in their country—in particular the visible standard.

In other words, people are happiest when they are in a group of people who are similar to them. Since religious people are a large majority in most countries, it seems that this is a major reason why religious people tend to be happier.
Eichhorn, J. (2011). Happiness for Believers? Contextualizing the Effects of Religiosity on Life-Satisfaction European Sociological Review DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcr027

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

Being religious doesn't make the English happier

It's one of those givens that everyone accepts. Religious people are happier people. Now, you can argue why that might be - perhaps it's the social activities, perhaps it's the confidence that comes from believing in some kind of guardian angel.

Or maybe it's simply what comes from being in the mainstream. In most countries, being non-religious is a minority pursuit - and that's especially the case in the USA, where most research is done.

So it's nice to see some research from the UK. Claudia Cooper, a psychiatrist at University College London, analysed data from over 7,000 people who took part in the 2007 English National Psychiatric Morbidity survey.

On the whole, the English are a happy bunch. 40% said they were very happy, and only 8% said they were not too happy. And the English are an irreligious bunch - 60% of them never go to Church, and they scored on average about 10 on a 20-point scale measuring religious and spiritual beliefs.

In common with other surveys, there was no relationship between religious/spiritual beliefs and happiness. Stronger god-belief did not equate to more happiness.

There was, however, a small, statistically significant link between attending Church (or Mosque, or Synagogue) and happiness. That's what I've shown in the graph.

That's pretty similar to what other surveys have shown. But what's interesting is that Cooper broke down the results by age. She found that the 'happiness effect' of going to Church only appeared in the over 80s.

The very old tend to be more religious than younger people, but actually less likely to go to church than those aged 60-80 (probably because of ill health). Perhaps, as a result, they have fewer alternative social support networks. Or perhaps it's simply that those who are well enough to get out to Church are happier just because they are healthier!

Whatever the reason, these data show that for English people under 80 years old, there is no link at all between religion and happiness.

ResearchBlogging.orgCooper, C., Bebbington, P., King, M., Jenkins, R., Farrell, M., Brugha, T., McManus, S., Stewart, R., & Livingston, G. (2011). Happiness across age groups: results from the 2007 National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 26 (6), 608-614 DOI: 10.1002/gps.2570

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