Field of Science

Religion boosts self control

Kevin Rounding (Queen's University, Ontario, Canada) has run a series of experiments which suggest that religious beliefs can actually boost your ability to stay focussed and resist temptation.

For example, they found that students primed with religious thoughts were able to drink more cups of a disgusting orange juice/vinegar blend (they were offered 5c for every 25 mL they drank).

Religiously primed students were also more likely to put off receiving a reward of $5 now, in order to receive a larger reward in the future. This is known as 'delayed gratification', and is an important indicator of whether people can achieve goals and carry out long-term plans.

In another study, they wore out their students brains by giving them a typing task for which they had to concentrate very hard - while loud music was pumped out at them! Those students who were subsequently primed with religion kept plugging away longer at the next task.

In the last study, they get their students to do the Stroop Test. This is a test where the subjects are shown colour words ("red", "blue" etc) that are themselves written in different colours. The challenge is to say what the colour of the text is, and ignore the actual word.

The idea behind this test is that quicker answers suggest more focused control. And this test also gets away from one possible criticism of the previous studies - that they are measuring adherence to some kind of social expectation, rather than self-control per se.

Sure enough, priming with religion decreased response times, while priming with moral concepts or with death concepts had no effect (as shown in the graphic).

Now, all this chimes with previous research which found that priming with specific god concepts (a controlling god, rather than a more hands-off god) can increase the ability to resist temptation while decreasing the drive to actually achieve important life goals.

And other research has shown that priming with god concepts can drive people to keep working away at impossible tasks.

However, I'm less convinced by the Stroop test in this study. Michael Inzlich (University of Toronto) has previously found that religious prompts make people less anxious about making mistakes on this test.

Perhaps in this study all that was happening was that people primed with religion made faster responses because they were less anxious about getting it wrong?

So are we seeing genuine effects on self-control, or just enhanced  drive to fulfil social expectations? I don't know, but either effect is pretty interesting!

Rounding, K., Lee, A., Jacobson, J., & Ji, L. (2012). Religion Replenishes Self-Control Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611431987

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

Repetitious magic rituals are thought to be more effective

Magical rituals - routines designed to bring about a real-world effect, like curing disease or cursing a rival - have been part of human society since as far back as anyone can tell. So, as a species, we've had plenty of time to sort out what works and what doesn't.

But the question is, do people have a gut feeling for what makes a good ritual? To find out, Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin) headed to the city of Belo Horizonte, located in the south-eastern region of Brazil. Brazilian culture is suffused with all sorts of magical rituals - they call them simpatias. Here's an example:

“Buy a new sharp knife and stick it four times into a banana tree on June 12th at midnight (i.e., Valentine’s day in Brazil, Saint Anthony’s day is on the 13th). Catch the liquid that will drip from the plant’s wound on a crisp, white paper that has been folded in two. The dripping liquid captured on the paper at night will form the first letter of the name of your future partner”

Working with a colleague, she created a large number of variations of real simpatia. Each was modified so as to accentuate one of nine different characteristics:

  1. specificity of time
  2. specificity of place
  3. specificity of material
  4. repetition of procedures
  5. number of procedural steps
  6. number of items used
  7. edibility (presence or absence of edible items)
  8. digestibility (presence or absence of any sort of ingestion)
  9. religious icon (presence or absence of a religious icon).

Then she asked the locals which of these rituals was the most effective. It turned out that varying most of these characteristics had no effect on the perceived efficacy of  the rituals.

However, she find that simpatia that insist on a specific time, or that have more individual steps and more repetitions of those steps, or that specify the involvement of a supernatural agent, were thought to be more effective.

But perhaps this is just about simpatias in that cultural context, and not about magical rituals in general?

So Legare tested these same simpatias on US college students, and found pretty similar results. At least, all the trends were the same, although statistically it wasn't as robust because the US students were less likely to think that any of the rituals would have any effect. College education does pay off after all!

Legare thinks that the the problem with magical rituals is that it's very hard to know whether or not they work. So, in the absence of evidence, we tend to go for ones that intuitively seem more likely to work. And that means ones with more steps and more repetitions.

After all, if doing something once has some effect, then repeating it has to have a greater effect - and so we prefer rituals that hyper-activate our instinctive understanding of cause and effect.

And appealing to a supernatural being has surely got to help, too!
Legare CH, & Souza AL (2012). Evaluating ritual efficacy: Evidence from the supernatural. Cognition, 124 (1), 1-15 PMID: 22520061

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

For less-religious Americans, compassion is a significant factor in prosocial behaviour

Apologies if you saw this one when it came out last month, but it's an interesting study that really deserves a closer look!

Laura Saslow (University of California at San Francisco) and colleagues wanted to know whether compassion influenced the prosocial tendencies (altruism, generosity, trust etc) of the religious and non religious. So they ran three different studies - different groups of people, and different tests.

In the first, they found that across the USA (looking at data from the 2004 General Survey), religious people were slightly more likely to say that they did prosocial things like giving food or money to a homeless person, returning money after getting too much change, allowing a stranger to go ahead in line, volunteering time for a charity, etc. They were also more likely to say that they were compassionate (for example, that they often have tender, concerned feelings for less fortunate people, or that when they see someone being taken advantage of, they feel kind of protective towards them).

Now, that's not too surprising - it's been known for a long time that religious people report being more prosocial (although whether they are is another matter!). However the interesting finding is that the difference between compassionate and non-compassionate people was much bigger for the less religious than for the more religious.

In a second study, they asked American adults to watch one of two videos. The first was about child poverty, the second was just a clip of two guys talking. Then they were asked various apparently non-related things - like how much salary should be spent on charity, or how much they would donate in the Dictator Game.

Once again, the more religious participants said that they were somewhat more prosocial, but they were not not affected by the video. The result was that less religious who had watched the video reported being more prosocial than the more religious (regardless of whether they had watched the video).

In the final study, they brought a group of students to the lab and asked them how compassionate they were feeling right now. Then they got them to go through a battery of games designed to test prosocial behaviour - basically these are all variants of the "Prisoners Dilemma", in which the subjects have to give money, or bet money in the hope that their anonymous co-players will reciprocate.

As you can see in the graphic, for the less religious Americans prosociality was much higher in those who said they were feeling compassionate. For the more religious Americans, prosociality was pretty much the same - or maybe even a little less.

The authors think these results suggest that the less religious are bound to others by emotional connection. They go on to say that:
 The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.
That seems likely. In fact, I think there's probably an additional factor here - because these studies took place in the USA,  where religion is the social norm.

It could be that religious people assume that the recipients of their generosity are co-religionists - in most US communities, that's a pretty strong likelihood. Therefore pro-social behaviour is less about pure altruism and more about group norms of back scratching and favours being returned - reciprocal altruism.

Atheists, on the other hand, may feel like outsiders, and so be less inclined to be pro-social - unless they are in a compassionate frame of mind for some reason.
Saslow, L., Willer, R., Feinberg, M., Piff, P., Clark, K., Keltner, D., & Saturn, S. (2012). My Brother's Keeper? Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612444137

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

Distrust of atheists is reduced if people have confidence in law and order

If you read this blog regularly, you'll have come across work by Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Previously, they've shown that atheists in North America are are disliked because they are distrusted, and that untrustworthy people are often assumed to be atheists.

Why the distrust? Well, it's partly because they are an unknown quantity - many Americans never come across an open atheists - but also partly because people who think they are being watched at least claim to be trustworthy. Probably they think that other people will be trustworthy too, if they think they are being watched by a supernatural agent.

In new research, they've shown that the distrust that religious people have of atheists can at least partly be eased by subtly persuading them that the police are effective in stopping crime.

For example, in the study shown in the graphic, they showed students a video about police effectiveness and then, in a follow up survey, asked how distrustful they were of atheists and whether they disliked gays, Muslims or Jews. After they watched the video, their distrust of atheists dropped away.

Their prejudice towards other didn't change, however. In other studies, they also showed that distrust of gays was also not improved by this kind of manipulation, suggesting that it was specifically distrust of atheists that was being affected.

So this suggests that while religious people think that belief in god makes a person trustworthy, they're also open to the idea that secular authorities can also be a source of order and safety.

This puts me in mind of some other research by Aaron Kay and colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. They showed that, by pumping up belief that the government is in control, the desire to believe in a controlling god is weakened.

All more good evidence that one important factor that draws people to belief in God is fear and anxiety, and that stable social systems that are common in wealthy countries are contributing to the increasing numbers of non-believers.
Gervais, W., & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Reminders of Secular Authority Reduce Believers' Distrust of Atheists Psychological Science, 23 (5), 483-491 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429711

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

Jesus shares your political views - but is more extreme

Lee Ross, a Psychologist at Stanford University in California, and colleagues have polled over 1,200 Americans about their political views, and also what opinions they thought Jesus held.

Unsurprisingly, liberals thought Jesus was generally a pretty liberal guy, while conservatives thought he was rather conservative. How can this be, when they read the same Bible?

Well in fact, liberals did think that Jesus was a shade more conservative than they were, and the conservatives did think he was a shade more liberal.So there was some meeting of minds.

But still the gap was huge. American Christians tend to think that Jesus shares their political persuasion.

Now, you won't be too surprised about that. However, it does make you wonder how they manage to have such radically different ideas.

After all, they are presumably fairly aware that others in their society have radically different ideas about Jesus' opinions.So how do they reconcile that with their own beliefs?

Well, when you drill down into specific political issues, the picture gets a bit clearer.

You see, liberals are more in favour than conservatives of taxing the wealthy and easing the burdens on illegal immigrants. And both liberals and conservatives think that Jesus is more liberal than them on these issues.

In other words, liberals think that Jesus is even more liberal than they are on their core issues of fellowship and compassion.

In contrast, conservatives are more in favour than liberals of banning gay marriage and limiting access to abortion. And both liberals and conservatives think that Jesus is more conservative than them on these issues.

So conservatives think that Jesus is even more conservative than they are on their core issues of morality.

What's happening here is that both groups seem to have come to an understanding that Jesus is liberal on fellowship issues and conservative on moral issues. Liberals feel tension (cognitive dissonance) because they are not living up to Jesus' conservative views on morality. Conservatives feel similar tension about Jesus' fellowship views.

So, to reduce this tension, the liberals have convinced themselves that they are failing to live up to Jesus' liberal views, and the conservatives have convinced themselves that they are failing to live up to Jesus' conservative views.

And so, both groups can carry on believing that that they are doing their best to fulfill Jesus' edicts, even if they occasionally fall short!
Ross, L., Lelkes, Y., & Russell, A. (2012). How Christians reconcile their personal political views and the teachings of their faith: Projection as a means of dissonance reduction Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (10), 3616-3622 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1117557109

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

Non-religious more likely to donate their bodies to science and organs to other people

Here's a simple, but compelling study. Jon Cornwall (University of Otago, New Zealand) and colleagues from Ireland and South Africa surveyed 200 people who had registered to donate their body to science in those three countries.

They found that body donors mostly (80%) cited a desire to aid medical science as the main reason for wishing to
donate their body. They tended to be older (over 60), and to have been in long-term partnerships (either currently or previously). They were also more likely than the general population to report giving time or money to charity, and to be blood donors or organ donors.

And they were more likely than the general population to report no religious affiliation. As the graphic shows, the percentage of body donors without a religious affiliation, although less than 50%, was much higher than expected in each country (the difference is statistically significant in each case).

Now, there could be all sorts of reasons for this - there was no attempt to adjust for the other differences between donors and the rest of the population. However, in general you'd expect older people with a history of giving to charity to be more likely to be religious, not less likely.

There is an exception, however. Religious people are no more likely to be blood donors than the non-religious, and they seem less likely to sign up to be organ donors.

But it's not just about giving. A recent study in the Netherlands also supports the idea that the non-religious are the most likely to buy into the idea of being an organ recipient, as well as an organ donor.

So is there something special about donating body tissue? Well I suspect there might be. Maybe what is affecting judgements here is essentialism - the idea that all things (especially living things) have some kind of soul or essence that defines them.

After all, if a kidney transplant can make you speak a foreign language, or a heart transplant make you commit suicide, then you need to be a bit cautious!

And perhaps, despite the theological teachings that say a dead body is empty, perhaps ordinary folk-religion takes a different perspective.
Cornwall, J., Perry, G., Louw, G., & Stringer, M. (2012). Who donates their body to science? An international, multicenter, prospective study Anatomical Sciences Education DOI: 10.1002/ase.1278

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

International religion league tables - who's up, who's down? And why.

You may have seen the recent splurge of news stories about how religious different countries are. Depending on where you looked, you may have come away thinking either that belief is in decline worldwide, that Catholic countries are the most religious, or even (and this one is quite bizarre) that people get more religious as they get older. Unless you were reading carefully, you may not even have realised they were talking about the same report!

In fact, the report (which you can read yourself here) shows a pretty fragmented picture with no clear worldwide trends - which is probably why time pressured journalists are finding it tough to get a handle on what it actually says (or alternatively: reading into it what they want to see).

So what is this report anyway? Well, Tom Smith (University of Chicago) has analysed the latest religion survey from the International Social Survey Programme (done in 2008) and compared it with similar surveys done in 1998 and 1991.

Now this survey mostly looks at Europe, which has become less religious over that time. But there's only a few non-European countries, so it doesn't tell us much about the rest of the world. China, India, Nigeria, Egypt, Brazil - none of these major countries are included.

But it does tell us some interesting things about why different countries are heading in different directions. Take a look at the graphic, where I've picked out a few interesting cases.

Starting on the left, you can see that Australia and Ireland now have fewer people who are certain that god exists, Israel and Russia have more, while the USA has pretty much held constant.

Population changes in religious belief can happen for three reasons: conversion, fertility rates, and immigration.

So take a look at the next panel. This shows how many people said “I believe in God now, but I didn’t use to.”
minus those who said “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to”. In Australia, more people have converted to atheism, whereas in Russia, more people have converted to belief. Overall, there does not seem to be much net conversion in the other countries.

Now take a look at the next panel. This illustrates the ages of people who say that they have always been an atheist. In Australia and Ireland, they tend to be younger. What this shows is that increasingly, people are being born into atheism as a result of conversion of previous generations (the absolute percentage points are small for Ireland, because there aren't many atheists - but the trend is there).

Now look at people who say they are lifelong believers. In Australia and Ireland, they tend to be old. That supports the idea that the religious culture is becoming a thing of the past.

In Israel, however, you see the opposite effect. There, lifelong atheists are older, and lifelong believers are younger - even though there is little net conversion. It seems likely that this is happening because of the high birth rates among orthodox Jews in Israel.

The USA basically follows the pattern of Australia and Ireland (and Europe), and so I think the future for the USA is in the same direction as these countries.

Russia, however, is showing an upsurge in religion due to conversion over the 20 years since the collapse of communism. Lifelong atheists and lifelong believers both tend to be older, reflecting the state of flux in this country as people dabble with different life stances.

Interestingly, the other ex-communist nations surveyed show different trends. Although there tends to be net conversion to religion (except the Czech republic), East European countries tend to have a preponderance of older lifelong believers and younger lifelong atheist - so a non-religious future seems likely for these countries.

But overall, I think what we are seeing here is a balancing out. Non-religious countries are becoming more religious, while religious Europe is becoming less religious. Israel, meanwhile, is going its own way!

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