Field of Science

Instinctive thinkers more likely to believe in a personal god – and less likely to be atheists

Late last year some fascinating research revealed that people who take a more deliberative approach to problem solving – rather than just going with their instincts – are also less religious. Now some independent research not only confirms those findings, but also extends them to show how there is a progressive link between thinking style and decreasing religious beliefs.

Gordon Pennycook, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, ran the test on 267 people from around the world (mostly North America and the UK) . The basic set up was the same as the previous study.

They gave people a series of three questions, which each had an intuitive, wrong answer. To get the correct answer, you typically need to think around the problem a little.

So, for example, one question asks “A bat and ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The intuitive answer is $0.10, but the correct answer is $0.05.

The key results are shown in the figure. People who believe in a personal god are disproportionately likely to have got every question wrong.

Pantheists, who believe in god as an impersonal force, did better. Deists, who believe in an impersonal god who does not intervene in the universe, did better still, and agnostics even better. Atheists were the most likely to give correct answers.

So deep thinkers, even if they weren’t atheists, were less likely to believe in the conventional idea of a personal god, and more likely to have unconventional religious ideas. Pennycook also showed that deep thinkers were less likely to be involved in religious activities, and that this could be explained largely on the basis of lower belief in a personal god.

They also measured paranormal beliefs, and found that although these were broadly correlated with religious beliefs, many people are believers in either one or the other. Yet paranormal belief was also lower in people who got more questions right.

Both of these effects – on religion and paranormal beliefs – held even after controlling for factors such as age, sex, education and IQ.

In other words, conventional intelligence (problem solving, understanding words) was less important than having a considered, deliberative approach to problem solving.

Now, you may interpret this as evidence that religious ideas are intuitive, but Pennycook disagrees. He suggests that the problem is that many religious ideas are actually counterintuitive. Deep thinkers maybe don’t take these ideas at face value, and so are more likely to dig into the problem and so come to a different conclusion.
Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J., Seli, P., Koehler, D., & Fugelsang, J. (2012). Analytic cognitive style predicts religious and paranormal belief Cognition, 123 (3), 335-346 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.003

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


  1. The first sentence is grammatically incorrect (or possibly I'm just misreading). I can't parse "but also extends them to show how there is a progressive link thinking style and decreasing religious beliefs"

  2. Add "between" between "link" and "think...".

  3. Yes - I'll fix that as soon as I can get to a computer!

  4. This is very interesting though some of the implications we might care about are hard to interpret without making assumptions about the nature of intuition. What we call intuitions consist of a mixture of the trained or learned pattern recognition (expertise for exapmle) that is very different between people and consist of also the more ubiquitous kinds of things we all pick up, the more "commonsense" intuitions. The distinction between deliberate thought and formal methods on the one hand and more automatic processing on the other hand gives a useful broad stroke, but the automatic processing doesn't seem to be all of the same kind. So it isn't directly obvious what it means to say that someone is relying on intuition. When we rely on intuition are we relying on recognition born of speciallized expertise for example or some more universal heuristic that we all pick up to varying degrees?

  5. I really don't want to be seen as with the stupid group...but I don't understand how the answer is $.05. an I left religion about 8months ago. Maybe I haven't been out long enough? Can someone explain it please?

  6. Never mind I figured it out! If the bat is $1.05...then the ball is only $.05. Hence The bat is $1 more!

  7. I'm sorry but how do we know that "intuitive thinkers" get the questions wrong? How about jut "intellectually challenged"? After all, "jumping to an intuitive conclusion" is exactly the same thing as "failing to apply the thought process."

    In fact, this seems to be corroborative evidence towards a similar theory voiced a while back: that people of above average intelligence are far more likely not to believe in a personal god than those of subaverage IQ.

    This of course upsets the religious, because of the DUnning-Kruger effect.

  8. Todd, fair point, and the study subjects were all fairly monocultural. But to some extent it doesn't really matter. It does seem likely that the test is picking up something real and meaningful - there is a fair amount of other research into this showing, for example, that conservatives are also intuitive thinkers. This might help explain the link between religion and conservatism, at least in part.

  9. Matt, they controlled for IQ in this study, so intelligence didn't contribute the differences seen. In fact, in the previous study I blogged, they showed that the link between IQ and getting these answers right was most probably indirect - i.e. it's just that intelligent people are also more likely to be deliberative.

    Bottom line is that you don't really have to be all that smart to get the answers right, just just have to think it through.

  10. Anon, we're in the same boat - when I saw that question and answer I assumed that the paper must have had a typo in it!

  11. This is an obvious correlation. Haven't we always known about it? Most atheists are atheists because they've had a good long think about religion, and decided that it was a sum with an incorrect answer. Religion itself has become part of intuition, most of us grow up around it and are presented with the ideas involved as answers for questions we can't understand. As Todd said, intuition is part trained, and from a young age most of us were trained into believing many ideas related to religion, whether we knew it or not. E.g. heaven is up, hell is down. Being a virgin is a good thing. Etc. All rather random in isolation, but they stem from religion. And I also think that the human race has been getting cleverer as the number of atheists has risen. And that doesn't take a genius to notice! Instinct is becoming less and less powerful in our decision making and lives because we're getting further and further away from the animals we are. Basically, to sum up, I would just like to say 'well, duh!'

  12. Two things. First, we may have intuitively 'known' it, but it hadn't ben demonstrated in a controlled, scientific experiment. It's always necessary to challenge assumptions, especially seeing as we know from other experiments that most people have rather flattering beliefs about their own abilities!

    Second, there's been a general assumption that intelligence is directly linked to non-belief. What these studies show is that it's maybe not intelligence, but rather thinking style, that's the key factor.

  13. I didn't care for the assumption of questions. The counter intuitive response to the bat and ball is an inference and the supposed correct answer is a guess and in truth both could be right. And 'Thanks' Todd for differentiating intuition as there are many ways in which we can interpret information.378

  14. Your use of the description "intuitive thinker" is basically jargon that apparently has a very specific definition with-in the Psychology community that is not really the same as its understanding in general culture. What you then go on to show is a sloppy, lazy approach to problem solving versus a fine tuned approach to problem solving. I am an intuitive thinker. I got the questions right because I am thorough in my observation and deliberate in my approach before I reach a conclusion. If a problem presents less information than is necessary to reach an unimpeachable conclusion then I use intuition to fill in all of the blanks. Meaning that I am able to sub-consciously mold the information I have received with my experience and imagination to make a prediction of what the right answer is. I am very good at taking incomplete information and predicting the correct answer(often things that unfold over long time periods) This is what makes me an intuitive thinker not guessing at the right answer based on a cursory observation. I agree with you that the experiment points to the problem solving approach as the reason for the disparity. I just object when academics take words that have meanings in general culture, turn them into jargon that is only related in like but not in kind to its general understanding. It creates more problems than it solves and stops people form understanding what you are talking about. Can you answer Carol's post because I don't even understand it(if you are able to answer it I may learn something)? I don't even know what "assumption of questions" means and I don't know how a math problem can have an alleged answer(unless she is saying the sentence structure could have left open the possibility that the $.10 is correct since by saying a dollar more the reader could have taken the sentence to include two discreet actions that form a set(the set being the entire transaction of paying), paying for the bat and then paying for the ball. If that is the case, a person might say, "I paid 10 cents for this ball and $1 more for the bat." But I have to take a lot of liberties to get there so I still don't understand a word of her post.

  15. Edward, humans use a lot of cognitive short-cuts when solving problems. We've evolved that way because we need to come to decisions quickly to survive. So we use a lot of 'rules of thumb' (heuristics, in the jargon), we usually work fine but can sometimes be tripped up. All those weird and wonderful visual illusions are examples of our visual heuristics being fooled.

    By intuitive thought, what they mean is thinking using heuristics (gut feeling), rather than methodical (slow) approach.

    I don't understand Carol's question either. Only 1 answer is correct. There're no assumptions! The point is that the question was carefully constructed to trip up our heuristic for how to answer such questions - it's like the logical equivalent of a visual illusion.


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