Field of Science

Do kids have to be taught about the supernatural?

One of the big questions about our supernatural instincts is to what degree they are innate, and to what degree they are learned. While there is some evidence that kids are born with a instinctive belief in omniscience beings, other evidence suggests the exact opposite.

Here's a new study by Ashley King, a grad student at the University of Arizona. She ran a group of 124 children aged 4-8 through a carefully designed study designed to see whether they understood what supernatural omniscience is.

The basic set-up has been used in previous studies. Half the kids were shown a video of someone calling herself "Princess Alice" who said she had special invisible powers and  would be present through the whole ensuing test. The other half were just shown a video of the same person wearing jeans and t-shirt who simply welcomed them and said she was a friend.

After a few other tests, they were given a puzzle by the experimenter. Basically, this involved some numbers hidden on the bottom of wooden blocks that were shown to the child and shuffled behind a screen. The child then had to guess where the different numbers were - an impossible task of course.

The experimenter then was called out of the room - she told the child that she would be gone for exactly three minutes, and left a clock showing how much time had elapsed. Question is, for how long could the children resist the urge to cheat by taking a quick peek at the numbers on the blocks?

As the graphic shows, the answer is "not very long"! But the interesting thing is that there does not seem to be much difference between the kids who thought they were being watched by Princess Alice, and those who did not.

Even more interesting, Princess Alice did seem to make a difference for the older kids. If they thought Princess Alice was watching, they took twice as long to summon up the courage to peek.

Now, it has to be said that this difference was not statistically significant using the test that King used. However, the magnitude of the difference is large, and I suspect that if the data from the 7 and 8 year olds had been pooled, a difference would have been clear.

So this supports the earlier studies by Jonathan Lane, which found that only older kids really get the idea of omniscience. Younger kids assume that supernatural beings have more ordinary mental capabilities.

In other words, it seems that this aspect, at least, of our beliefs about gods does not come naturally. It has to be learned.
King, A. (2011). Development of Inhibition as a Function of the Presence of a Supernatural Agent The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 172 (4), 414-432 DOI: 10.1080/00221325.2011.554921

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

Religious people want religious leaders - of any religion

A lot of people think that the Muslim world is just fundamentally different from the Christian world. That's the basis for the idea that we're facing a clash of civilisations (a theory put forward by the American political scientist Samuel Huntingdon back in 1993).

One aspect of the theory says that religion is more tightly integrated into the political structure in Muslim countries. The idea is that the power structures of Christian religious institutions are separated from the secular power structures, which makes it easier to separate Church and State.

A team of social scientists lead by Nate Breznau at the University of Breman set out to test this idea by seeing whether Muslims really are more likely to want religious leaders, and to do this they used data from the World Values Survey.

When you look at the raw data, it turns out that yes, if you average out across the word then Muslims are quite a lot more likely to want religious leaders. However, it turns out that that's partly to do with the relative poverty of many Muslim countries, and also that Muslims tend simply to be more devout.  Other important factors include the high level of corruption in many Muslim countries.

The graph to the right shows the relative importance of all the different factors they unearthed.

You can see clearly that religious devotion is one of the most important factors driving support for religious leaders, and that this doesn't really differ between Christians and Muslims.

So far so good. Religious people prefer religious leaders - which is, after all only what you might expect. What you might not expect, however, is that religious people prefer religious leaders of any religion!

So, for example, devout Christians living in Muslim majority countries still want religious leaders - even though those leaders would almost certainly be Muslims, rather than Christians.

What's more, Christians in Muslim countries are as likely to want religious leaders as Muslims in Muslim countries. Which just goes to show that it's the characteristics of the country, and not the religion, that's the driving factor.

It seems that this aspect, at least, of the 'Clash of Civilizations' theory is a fantasy. The clash here is not between two different religions, but rather between the religious and the non-religious.
Breznau, N., Lykes, V., Kelley, J., & Evans, M. (2011). A Clash of Civilizations? Preferences for Religious Political Leaders in 86 Nations Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50 (4), 671-691 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01605.x

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

People say they're good if they think God is watching

If you subliminally remind people about God, it can change their behaviour in all sorts of interesting ways. It can make people more honest, more obedient, more punishing, and even more persevering against impossible odds. And although it's not certain, it seems to work for atheists as well as the religious.

Nobody really knows quite how this effect works, but one possibility is that reminding people about God creates in them the sensation that they are being watched. If people feel like they're being watched, their behaviour changes markedly (even simply stick a photo of a pair of eyes in their peripheral vision, and they cheat less and condemn more).

Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, wanted to test this theory. One way they did this was to prime undergrads with thoughts of god - explicitly, not subliminally. They primed others with thoughts of other people, or nothing in particular.

Then they asked them questions about how self-conscious they felt ("Right now I am self-conscious about the way I look," "Right now I am concerned about what other people think of me," “Right now, I am concerned about the way I present myself.")

As you can see in the graph, the results they got were different for believers and non-believers.

Believers had low self-consciousness in the control condition, and their self-awareness was increased by both the People and the God priming.

Non-believers had higher self-consciousness in the control condition, which was unaffected by the people prime and actually went down with the God prime!

They also ran another experiment, which looked at something called 'socially desirable responding'. That's the tendency we all have to say the 'right thing'.

For example, if you ask people if they are "sometimes irritated by people who ask favours of me" they will usually say no - whereas, in reality of course, any normal person is sometimes irritated in that situation. We know we shouldn't be, but we are.

What Gervais found in his undergraduate subjects was that believers tend not to give socially desirable responses, unless they get primed first with thoughts of God. Non-believers, on the other hand, were more likely to give the socially desirable response without priming, and priming didn't have any affect on them.

What these studies show is that god primes really do seem to trigger responses that you would expect if people felt they were being watched. That's certainly the case for believers, although perhaps not so for non-believers.
Gervais, W., & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (1), 298-302 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.09.006

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

Religion and health - a double edged sword

Long-time readers of this blog may remember a post from 2009 on religion and health. It summarized the findings of nearly 60 studies, and concluded that while going to church seemed to be linked to better health, religious beliefs per se were unimportant.

Studies that have been published since seem to support this notion, but what nobody's been quite sure of is why church going should be linked to better health at all. Two recent studies have shed some light on the issue.

The first used data from a survey of 35,000 Norwegians, and found that regular churchgoers had lower blood pressure - after taking into account other factors that can affect blood pressure, such as age. Blood pressure is a good general indicator of your overall cardiovascular health, and so picks out those people most at risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Now, there have been a lot of previous studies that have found similar things, but this is the first large study in a mostly non-religious country. Given that only 4% of Norwegians attend church regularly, it's fascinating that the link between church and blood pressure still holds.

The second study is even more interesting.

Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University, and Ben Moulton (a data analyst), wanted to find out how religion, health, and education interact. They used data from 22,000 Americans who participated in the National Health Interview Survey in 1987, and whose deaths were recorded over the next 20 years.

What they found (after crunching the numbers through a model to account for a host of other factors) is best understood by taking a quick squint at the graphic below. Higher bars indicate greater likelihood of dying.

You can see that, for the less well educated, the risk of dying goes down as church attendance goes up. As you would expect.

Surprisingly, however, for the educated the effect is exactly opposite! Educated people who go to church often are actually more likely to die young!

Sherkat puts this down to the double-edged effects of religious teaching on healthy behaviour.

On the one hand, it encourages abstinence from harmful drugs like tobacco and alcohol. That's great for the ill-educated who may not know any better (or be motivated to abstain). But not so much use for the educated, who have had the risks drummed into them and who are unlikely to overdo the booze and fags in the first place.

On the other hand, it tends to undermine science and evidence-based medicine. That might be particularly a problem for the educated, who might otherwise be expect to know better.

Overall, because there are more ill-educated people than educated ones, religious attendance has a beneficial effect. But the benefit really accrues to the ill-educated. For the educated, religion (at least, the kind of religion widely practised in the USA) might actually be harmful.
Sørensen, T., Danbolt, L., Lien, L., Koenig, H., & Holmen, J. (2011). The Relationship between Religious Attendance and Blood Pressure: The Hunt Study, Norway The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 42 (1), 13-28 DOI: 10.2190/PM.42.1.b

Moulton, B., & Sherkat, D. (2012). Specifying the Effects of Religious Participation and Educational Attainment on Mortality Risk for U.S. Adults Sociological Spectrum, 32 (1), 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/02732173.2012.628552

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

How your genes can affect your response to religion

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that carries a signal across nerve junctions. You might know of it because of its links to Parkinson's disease, but it's actually pretty widespread in the brain and does a number of interesting things.

Variants of one particular molecular receptor for dopamine, the D4 receptor, seem to have interesting links with risk taking and novelty seeking. But the links are not at all straightforward, and recent research suggests that what it actually does is tweak your susceptibility to environmental influences.

Joni Sasaki, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wanted to know if this could help explain the mixed responses to religious priming that have been reported before. As regular readers of this blog will know, giving people subliminal religious prompts seems to make them more prosocial, but the effect doesn't seem clear cut.

So what Sasaki and colleagues did was to run a straightforward religious priming experiment. The subjects (all undergraduates) had to unscramble words to form sentences. Half the subjects were given sentences that had a religious theme, the other other had non-religious sentences. The idea is to get people thinking about religion without realising what they are doing.

Afterwards, they measured their subjects willingness to volunteer for a bunch of actual organizations and clubs around the college.

The top line results were similar to other studies. Overall, religious people were no more willing to volunteer than the non-religious, but people who had been primed with religion were more willing to volunteer - regardless of whether or not they were religious themselves.

But not everybody responded to the priming. As the graphic shows, the response depended on the variant of the D4 gene. People with one particular variation (2-/7-repeat allele) got a really big prosocial boost from the religious prime. People with the other variant were pretty prosocial without the prime, and their prosociality actually decreased with priming!

All this goes to show that the relationship between genetics and religion is not at all straightforward (something I've touched on before. This particular gene variant seems to make people more susceptible to environmental influences - whether religious or otherwise.

If you looked at these people in a religious environment, then you would say that this is a gene 'for' religion. Put these same people in a non-religious environment, and you would say that is a gene 'against' religion!
Sasaki, J., Kim, H., Mojaverian, T., Kelley, L., Park, I., & Janusonis, S. (2011). Religion priming differentially increases prosocial behavior among variants of the dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) gene Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsr089

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

Who thinks Britain should be a Christian country?

In a speech just before Christmas, the British Prime Minister David Cameron declared that "We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so." He did go on to accept that it's OK to have a different religion or even no religion at all, but even so it's an interesting turn of phrase.

He's a politician, of course, so it's clear that he sees some political advantage in making the statement - but just who is he appealing to? After all, religion is pretty unimportant for most British - even the 60-70% who claim to be Christian in some way.

By happy coincidence, recent research by Ingrid Storm at Manchester University has done a neat job in clarifying why some people regard 'Britishness' and Christianity to be linked.

She used data from the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey of over 2,200 people, and grouped the responders according to whether they were non-Christian (a mixed bunch of other religions and also non-believers), nominally Christian (those who said they were Christian but also said they went to Church less often than monthly), and observant Christians (those who go to Church at least monthly).

The survey also asks a bunch of questions related to ideas about national identity. Storm use a statistical technique factor analysis) to group these into three categories:
  • Civic-symbolic national identity (people whose sense of national identity is linked to cultural symbols, like the national anthem, sport or ceremonies).
  • Cultural-aesthetic national identity (people whose sense of Britishness is triggered by thoughts of the countryside, or of music, poetry or paintings).
  • Ethnic national identity (people who believe that immigration is a threat to national identity, or that a non-white person cannot be English, Welsh or Scottish).
The first thing that Storm did was to look at how nationalistic each of the three religious groups were. You'll see from the graph that the non-Christians were the least nationalistic, and the observant Christians were the most nationalistic, at least when it cam to civic and cultural nationalism. Nominal Christians were in between.

The exception was ethnic nationalism. Neither observant Christians nor the non-Christians scored high on this measure, but the nominal Christians did.

In other word, the group most likely to see britishness through an ethnic/racial lens are the people who claim to be Christian, but who don't actually go to church. The cultural Christians, if you will.

Storm then look at the relationship between these three kinds of nationalism and the belief that "Christianity is important for being truly British".

The only kind of nationalism that was linked to this belief was ethnic nationalism. This link held even after controlling for factors like belief in god, authoritarianism, and the belief that Muslims do not want to fit in.

What this suggests is that the people who believe that "Christianity is important for being truly British" are also the people who define Christianity in ethnic, rather the spiritual terms. Storm says:

... thinking religion is important for nationality may be more a function of associating religion with ethnic background than of any nostalgia for the cultural heritage of religious symbols, morals and institutions associated with civic-symbolic or cultural-aesthetic national identity. In other words the more one regards immigration as a threat to national identity and thinks of race and ethnicity as important for belonging to the nation, the more one is likely to see Christianity as important for being British.
In other words, by emphasising the importance of Christianity for British identity, Cameron is appealing to the racists, rather than the religious, in his constituency.
Storm, I. (2011). Ethnic nominalism and civic religiosity: Christianity and national identity in Britain The Sociological Review, 59 (4), 828-846 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.02040.x

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

That was the year that was 2011

So, farewell 2011, and hello 2012! Happy Gregorian New Year, and welcome to the wrap up of all the great science covered in Epiphenom over the past year.

Let's start with what we've learned about why people believe. Are we born religious, or do we learn it? This year there was more evidence that kids are not really innate believers in the supernatural, but on the other hand we saw some evidence that even atheists have a kind of intuition that dead people can still think. Intriguingly, the magic in religious stories seems to be tailor made to be weird, but not so weird as to be outrageous.

There was more evidence that the link between education and the strength of religious beliefs is really quite complicated, although atheists are more likely to be grammar Nazis! Perhaps more important than education is the type of thinking - it seems that deep thinkers are more likely to lose their faith.

There were some interesting studies on the link between psychiatric disorders and religion. People with religious or paranormal beliefs are also more likely to be psychotic, perhaps because they form part of a reinforcing world-view, prompted by a failure of rational thought. On the other hand, autistics are more likely than average to be atheists, perhaps because they don't have the same social drives. Dope smokers are more religious than booze drinkers, although I'm not sure what that tells us!

Your environment clearly influences how religious you become. The need to belong can increase the desire to be part of a religion - but if you fulfil that need in other ways, religious feelings decrease. Pakistani students who have been exposed to terrorism are likely to be more religious. In Europe, both financial and physical insecurity can lead to more religion. Although fear of death can make people more religious, it seems that this is really down to the associated uncertainty, rather than the idea of dying itself. In Taiwan, the risk averse are also more likely to be religious.

However, although fear and uncertainty predisposes to religion, people who have had bad stuff actually happen to them seem to be less religious. People who have sustained nasty head injuries are less likely to believe in a caring god. Similarly, the friends and families of the 9-11 dead are also less likely to be religious.

What about the effects of religion? One thing it seems to do is induce a certain amount of fatalism. For example, religious  people are better able to resist temptation, but they are also less willing to work to achieve their goals. What's more, people who have faith in god are less likely to take their prescribed medicine, are less likely to get vaccinated, and more likely to have unprotected sex. Perhaps this is why neighbourhoods in the USA with a lot of Pentecostals also have the highest infant mortality.

On the plus side, religion does seem to reduce stress. Religious people who are in it (at least partly) for the external show are less likely to get stressed out by unfortunate events. Religious people who trust in God are also less stressed.

Reduced stress could be linked to better social integration, and it brings real health benefits. The brains of people who follow a mainstream religion (mainline Protestantism in the USA) degrade slower than those of others, perhaps because they experience less social stress. In America, the reason the non-religious have a shorter life expectancy is probably because they are less socially integrated.

This social integration is more properly called social capital, and research from the US has found religion and social capital to be closely intertwined. But research this year from the less religious Europe showed that the two are not necessarily linked, because in Europe social capital is increasing, despite the decreasing importance of religion.

There was a lot of new research this year into the pro- and anti-social effects of religion. Religious people, at least, don't think much of atheists. Christians are more disgusted by The God Delusion than by the Koran, and think atheists are as untrustworthy as rapists. Readers of this blog will know, however, that you don't need god to be good. Stuart West, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University in the UK, explained the many interesting ways in which seemingly 'pure' altruism can evolve. Indeed, religious people's distrust of atheists can be reduced if you convince them that atheists are actually quite common.

Subliminal religious primes do seem to have some interesting effects on behaviour. They stop fundamentalists from telling white lies, and even atheists given subliminal religious prompts became more altruistic. The sensation of being watched makes people more censorious. Indeed, Christianity may have invented the idea of thought crime. The good news is that self-inflicted pain seems to reduce feelings of guilt.

Whether this has any meaningful effect outside the lab is hard to say. Religion seems to have no effect on dodgy company accounting, which is perhaps because belief in god can both discourage and also encourage cheating, depending on the kind of god you believe in. The precise brand of religion also matters. For example, Protestants in Germany are more trusting than Catholics.

However, there was more evidence this year that it seems to be religious service attendance, rather than beliefs, that are a crucial factor in charitable giving. And speaking of churchgoing and trust, Americans say they go to church about twice as often as they actually do - a gap between claim and reality that's much bigger than for other countries.

This year saw more evidence that income inequality increases the support for religion. But this year there was also quite a lot of evidence on the reverse effect - the link between religion and a right-wing political stance.

For example, Christians in Europe are opposed to government welfare programmes. In the USA, religious people are more likely to support torture, due to the link between religion and right-wing politics. In Europe, the link between nationalism and religion is strongest in those nations that have a dominant national religion. However, other research showed that religious fundamentalism is a different beast to right-wing authoritarianism, based on which groups are the subject of hatred (although many people have both delightful traits). Religious nations are more sexist, and of course evangelists love Walmart - probably because the company sets out to align itself with their values.

Nations that believe in tighter social control are more religious, and revolutionaries in Muslim countries actually want countries that place greater restrictions on personal freedoms - an ominous portent for the future of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Research out this year suggested that the rich use religion to keep the poor in their place - certainly, legal protections of property are weaker in more religious nations.

In fact, although religious divisions don't seem to be a particular cause of civil conflict, it does seem that governments use these divisions as a way of clamping down. In the Gaza strip, religious aggression in young boys is linked to higher testosterone levels, and so seems to be fundamentally different to antisocial aggression. Perhaps that's why societies marked by religious divisions don't seem to have higher murder rates, although they do seem to be unhappier.

The alleged connection between religion and happiness came under a lot of scrutiny this year. Religion doesn't make the English happier, and in fact the world over highly religious people are only happier than the non-religious when they live in very religious countries. However the countries with the most religious people are not happier on average, perhaps because non-religious nations have a higher quality of life. In fact, moderate believers could benefit from less, not more religion.  Perhaps all this helps to explain why some countries have high levels of non-belief - it's simply that these non-believers are among the most contented.

And lastly, what is the future for religion? Well, a mathematical model predicted that religion is on the road to extinction - at least if a few key assumptions hold! On the other hand, projections of birth rates and immigration suggest that the secularisation of Europe will stop in the next few decades, and Europe will start to become more religious.

So that's it for 2011. If you want to check out previous wrap-ups, well here's 2010 and here is 2009. Roll on 2012!

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