Field of Science

Bad fonts decrease belief in God

So, do you believe in God? OK, well how about if I ask it like this: Do you believe in God?

Surprisingly, according to a new study by Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia in Canada,simply changing the font used to write the questions (to make them more difficult to read) can actually make you more likely to answer 'No'.

The explanation, they think, is that when the text is hard to read, we have to concentrate harder. We step our analytical brain up a gear, and quash our instinctive reactions.

In fact this effect, known as cognitive disfluency, has been shown in other studies to trigger analytic thinking strategies. 

There's good reason to think that triggering analytic thinking might reduce religious belief. Two recent studies (one last year and one last week)  have shown that people who are stronger in analytical thinking are also less likely to believe in god - even after controlling for basic intelligence.

But what's new in Gervais and Norenzayan's study is that they showed that you can manipulate this. They found that subtly encouraging people (well, Canadian students) to think critically also encourages disbelief.

For example, showing them a picture of Rodin's "The Thinker" (on the left) versus one of Discobolus, reduced reported belief in God by around one third.

Doing a word puzzle which featured words like "analyze", "reason", "ponder", and "think" had a similar, although somewhat smaller, effect (reducing belief in supernatural agents and also reported religiosity by around 20%).

And, in the font study, they found that simply using a greyed out, italic font was enough to have the same effect. Students who were made to read the questionnaire in a difficult font were around 20% less likely to report belief in God, the Devil, and angels.

So, has anyone else noticed that newspapers are a lot easier to read than they were at the beginning of last century? I wonder what effect that has had!

Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan. Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. Science 2012 336, 493-496.

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

Are secular alternatives to religious gatherings any good?

It's often suggested that religion benefits people by bringing them together and helping to create and bind communities. Since most humans are highly social, having a mechanism to strengthen social groups could be expected to have psychological and even health benefits.

Indeed, this has often been shown to be the case. People who go to church more often seem to be happier on average, and any health benefits of religion are related to church going, rather than religious beliefs.

Now, there are complex cause and effect problems here – perhaps it’s simply that people go to church are happier and healthier to start with. These issues are hard to untangle.

However, given the controversy over Alain de Botton’s proposals in his recent book (that atheists should form secular ‘Churches’, to provide that social service provided currently by religion), it’s worth taking a look at whether secular alternatives to religion actually have any measurable impact on happiness.

The most obvious secular parallel to religion is organised sport – and in particular membership of clubs that support particular teams.

Gaelle Encrenaz, at the Universitié Victor Segalen in Bordeaux, France, and colleagues have looked at the suicide rate in France during the Football World Cup of 1998. In that competition, which was held in France, the French team came through against the odds to win an unexpected victory.

They found that the suicide rate decreased significantly as the world cup progressed. In fact, the day after the French team played a match, the suicide rate dropped by 20%.

Encrenaz explains this by the increased social integration that the matches brought about:

… the level of social integration considerably rose during the 1998 World Cup in France. People spent more time with friends and others watching matches at home, in bars, or in front of giant television screens. Each French winning game was followed by gathering on the streets to celebrate

… Moreover, a rise in solidarity among French people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds was observed. The concept "black-blanc-beur" (Black-White-Maghrebi) was created on the pattern of the national colors to describe the multi-ethnicity of the team and the nation’s unity in diversity

… Watching games might increase a sense of belonging, allow for release of tension, and induce positive mood …

These results back up findings from elsewhere in the world: the incidence of suicide in the United States is lower on Super Bowl Sundays compared with other Sundays (Joiner et al., 2006), suicide rates among young, single males in Canada is higher after the early elimination of the local hockey team from the Stanley Cup (Trovato, 1998).

Singing as a group also seems to provide a happiness boost. Stephen Clift and Paul Camic (Canterbury Christ Church University, UK) and colleagues surveyed 1,124 people in Australia, England and Germany, all of whom took part in choral singing groups.

They found that people who took part in the singing felt that it gave them social benefits, emotional benefits, and also added meaning and purpose to their lives. These benefits were widely reported, irrespective of nationality, sex, age or mental well-being. A previous study has shown that the simple act of singing as a group can increase group cohesion.

What these studies demonstrate, albeit in a provisional way, is that secular group activities seem to have tangible effects on mental well being. Is that an argument for secular churches? I don’t know, but I think it certainly boosts the case for atheists and humanists to actively promote the kind of open-admission, group activities that churches currently provide.
Livesey, L., Morrison, I., Clift, S., &; Camic, P. (2012). Benefits of choral singing for social and mental wellbeing: qualitative findings from a cross-national survey of choir members Journal of Public Mental Health, 11 (1), 10-26 DOI: 10.1108/17465721211207275

Encrenaz, G., Contrand, B., Leffondré, K., Queinec, R., Aouba, A., Jougla, E., Miras, A., & Lagarde, E. (2012). Impact of the 1998 Football World Cup on Suicide Rates in France: Results from the National Death Registry Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 42 (2), 129-135 DOI: 10.1111/j.1943-278X.2011.00076.x

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

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.

Religion facilitates learning about omniscience – but it still has to be learned

Recently, the New Scientist published a special ‘God’ issue(behind pay wall) arguing that religion is natural and beneficial to society. All very interesting, but several of the articles gave quite a one-sided view of several issues (properly speaking, they were opinion pieces written by leading scientists advocating their particular view point).

Take, for example, the article by Justin Barrett, arguing that children have an innate understanding of omniscience. That’s an important question, because if we have a built-in appreciation of the thorny concept of omniscience, then this suggests that religious, and in particular Judaeo-Christian, beliefs are intuitive.

Barrett cites research by himself and others that supports this view. Broadly speaking, the idea is that young children start off by thinking that everyone has god-like powers of omniscience, and that they have to learn that mortals (like their mum) have in fact only limited knowledge.

However, there are actually just as many studies that conflict with this idea. In particular, one I covered on this blog before suggests a more complex picture. What this research, by Jonathan Lane at the University of Michigan, suggests is that in fact very young children simply assume that you know everything they know.

When they get older, they learn that others don’t know everything they know. However, crucially, they make the same assumption about God. It’s only later, when they’ve learnt about omniscience, that they can correctly ascribed these powers to God.

Lane’s most recent work basically replicates the original, with the interesting twist that the second study was done in children who had attended religious Protestant Christian preschools.

The results they got were basically the same as the first study, with one key difference (the previous study is at the top, the new one underneath). The kids who had been to a religious preschool were able to correctly say that Mr Smart can know things that you (and in fact no ordinary human) can not.

In short, they understood omniscience at an earlier age.

Intriguingly, they didn’t spontaneously attribute omniscience to God, only to ‘Mr Smart’. That’s probably because they were specifically told that Mr Smart “knows everything”, whereas they weren’t told anything about god.

What that means is that they understood the concept of omniscience, even though they hadn't yet learned to automatically associate that idea with god.

When quizzing the children further, Lane also found that those who had more sophisticated knowledge of God’s abilities actually were more likely to understand the extraordinary powers of the other agents (Heroman, Mr Smart). It seems that the training about god they received from an early age does help them to understand the idea of extraordinary powers – but these ideas still have to be developed (they’re not innate).

Lane concludes: "…data from the current study provide compelling evidence that when children begin to understand the cognitive limitations of humans, they typically attribute those same limitations to God, and this applies even to religiously exposed children.
Only later, at around age 5 years did religiously exposed children reliably differentiate between humans’ fallible mental abilities and inaccurate mental states versus God’s less fallible abilities and states.
These results suggest that in their everyday reasoning, even children who are raised in religious settings often initially understand God’s mind as constrained and fallible, very similar to their understanding of ordinary human minds."

So children have to develop an understanding of omniscience, even if they are raised in a religious environment. However, when raised in a religious environment, they seem to understand omniscience earlier - evidence of the importance of learning, as well as brain maturation.
Lane, J., Wellman, H., & Evans, E. (2012). Sociocultural Input Facilitates Children’s Developing Understanding of Extraordinary Minds Child Development DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01741.x
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

How fear and anxiety leads to more religion - a presentation

On Saturday I gave a presentation in Bournemouth to the Dorset Humanists, on the topic 'Fear and God'. In the talk I review many of the studies I've covered on this blog, looking at how and why fear and anxiety provoke religious responses, and the link between unstable and dangerous societies with greater levels of religion. I also look at some of the consequences of the anxiolytic effects of religion on behaviour.

The talk is aimed at a general, non-scientific audience (although it does cover a lot of science), so if you're looking for an easy to digest introduction to this topic, then you might find this interesting! The talk itself runs for 50 minutes, with another 20 minutes of questions at the end.

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

Religious people believe in a just world

Believers in a just world think that things happen for a reason. In particular, they are more likely than other people to think that victims of crime are in some way responsible for what happened to them, that the poor are poor because of their own actions, and that sick people have done something to cause their illnesses.

You might expect that people who believe in an omnipotent, purpose-giving god might might also be 'just world' believers, but in fact there is not a lot of hard evidence. A couple of studies have found that highly religious Catholics and Protestants do tend to blame victims, but another study found no evidence of this relationship among Germans.

A new study, by Molly VanDeursen and colleagues at St Louis University, Missouri, has added to the evidence, but with some twists. They interviewed 86 undergraduates, and put the following scenario to them:

Ms. Brown, a woman in her mid 30’s, had to work late one night. On the way to her car, she was approached by a man with a gun who commanded that she give him her purse, keys, and cell phone. He took everything from her and then forced her to show him where her car was parked. He proceeded to get in her car and drive off with all her possessions, keeping the gun pointed on her the entire time and leaving her stranded in the parking garage.

They ended the story in two different ways. Half the students were told that the mugger was caught and punished. The other half were told that he was never caught.

This last option was designed to really pump up their 'just world' feelings. Sure enough, those who were told that the mugger was not caught were more likely to blame Ms Brown for what happened.

Broadly speaking, the more religious students also tended to think Ms Brown's personality and behaviour was at least partly responsible for the mugging, that she would get some benefits from being mugged (presumably, learning a valuable lesson). They were also more likely to say that they would be willing to help her by giving her money, and that the mugger was a bad person.

However, this was really only true for the so-called "extrinsically" religious. These are the people who view religion as a tool to achieve their goals in life (people who go to church to be seen, because it is the social norm in their society, conferring respectability or social advancement).

For the intrinsically religious (those for whom religion is an end in itself, who are internally motivated), were more likely to say that Ms Brown would benefit from being mugged, and were more likely to vilify the mugger and offer Ms Brown money - what's more, this effect got stronger if they were told the mugger wasn't caught. But they weren't more likely that then non-intrinsically religious to attribute the mugging to Ms Brown's personality and behaviour.

With such small groups, it's hard to read too much into this study. After all, the so-called 'extrinsically religious' may differ from the intrinsics in other ways - social class, or background, for example. And this study didn't compare the non-religious with the religious, so we can't say this is actually an effect of religion.

Nevertheless, it does point to the  likelihood that, although religion on average ends to be linked to just world beliefs, there are likely to be a lot of nuances.
VanDeursen, M., Pope, A., & Warner, R. (2012). Just world maintenance patterns among intrinsically and extrinsically religious individuals Personality and Individual Differences, 52 (6), 755-758 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.12.028

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

Religion, but not spirituality, helps protect against post-earthquake trauma

On the 6th of April 2009, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the town of L'Aquila, in central Italy. The result was at least 309 deaths, with more than 1,000 people injured and 66,000 displaced. (After the earthquake, 6  scientists were put on trial for failing to predict it).

Some time after the earthquake, Paolo Stratta and colleagues from the Department of Mental Health in L’Aquila, along with colleagues from the University of Pisa and the University of L'Aquila, interviewed 410 people who had experienced the quake and another 491 from nearby districts that were not directly affected by the

Overall, those who had experienced the event reported that they had fewer spiritual experiences and beliefs. You can compare that with two other recent studies. Religious beliefs of Norwegian tsunami survivors did not changes in any systematic way (although they were more likely to change), while people bereaved in 9-11 terrorist attacks tended to become less religious. Overall, I would say that people change their beliefs in response to a traumatic event, and in religious countries (USA, Italy), that probably means becoming less religious.

This study also found that people who had directly experienced the earthquake also reported suffering more post-traumatic stress. That's not surprising, but they found something interesting when they divided the respondents according to whether they they said they were religious, spiritual, both or neither.

In general, the difference in stress levels between those who were exposed to the event and those who were not was smaller for religious people than for spiritual people or those who were neither.

This only reached statistical significance on two of the many subscales they looked at - assessing whether people had anxious flashbacks (shown in the graphic), and whether they were affected emotionally (things like dulled emotions, feeling cut off, or changed personality). But overall the effect seems to be robust.

The "Re-experiencing" subscale of the questionnaire they used asked whether, since the event, their subjects had ever:
  • …had recurrent bad dreams or nightmares about the loss or event, or awakened terrified?
  • …suddenly gotten bad feelings when you were around certain places, odors, sounds or people?
  • …felt or acted as if the events were happening again?
  • …had distressing thoughts, feelings, or images related to the loss or event?
  • …become more distressed at the time of year when the loss or event occurred?
  • Did you notice that other people avoided talking about the loss or event because you got so upset?
While the "Arousal" scale asked whether they had:
  • …have trouble concentrating or paying attention, for example, following the story line of a TV program or book or remembering what you had read?
  • …feel like you just couldn’t relax or let your guard down?
  • …startle easily at the sound of sudden noises, or when someone touched you, spoke to you, or approached you unexpectedly?
  • …feel more irritable, have outbursts of anger or rage, or lose your temper over minor things?
  • …have more difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep than before or need a light on to go to sleep?

But if you look at the graph, you can see that something more complex is happening. The reason that there is no difference among religious people is not just because between those who experienced the event have fewer ill effects. It's also because those who did not directly experience it have more flashbacks.

It seems that religious people who did not directly experience the event were still affected by it, while those who did experience it were less affected. Perhaps this is because they are plugged into a wider social network, which allows the burden of distressing events to be shared.
Stratta, P., Capanna, C., Riccardi, I., Perugi, G., Toni, C., Dell’Osso, L., & Rossi, A. (2012). Spirituality and Religiosity in the Aftermath of a Natural Catastrophe in Italy Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-012-9591-z

Dell'Osso, L., Shear, M., Carmassi, C., Rucci, P., Maser, J., Frank, E., Endicott, J., Lorettu, L., Altamura, C., Carpiniello, B., Perris, F., Conversano, C., Ciapparelli, A., Carlini, M., Sarno, N., & Cassano, G. (2008). Validity and reliability of the Structured Clinical Interview for the Trauma and Loss Spectrum (SCI-TALS) Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1745-0179-4-2

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