Field of Science

Inequality drives everyone, but especially the poor, to support religious politicians

It's now widely recognised that social and economic inequality is an important factor related to how religious a given society is. But what's less clear is whether inequality actually increases support for religious politicians - and whether this affects the rich as well as the poor.

Ekrem Karakoç (Binghamton University, USA) and Birol Bașkan (Georgetown University, Qatar) used data from the 2000 World Values Survey to test this relationship. They found that older, less-educated, poorer people, and women, all tended to favour politicians with strong religious beliefs. They also preferred leaders who allowed their religion to influence their decisions.

People affiliated to one of the major religions also supported religious influence in politics. That's not surprising, but what is surprising is that there was almost no difference among the religions. Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Hindus all wanted religious leaders - the only exception was Protestants.

Even after taking all these factors into account, they found that people living in the more unequal societies tended to be more in favour of religious leaders.

Now, the interesting thing is that this was the case for both rich and poor, confirming something similar that has previously been shown. However, the effect was somewhat stronger for the poor, meaning the gap attitudes between the rich and poor does increase slightly as you go from equal to unequal societies.

That's what you would expect, of course. In unequal societies the poor have less security and so turn to both God and religious organisations to try to obtain that security.

This, then helps to explain why unequal nations are more religious. What is not known, and rather more controversial, is the extent to which this is a reinforcing phenomenon. To what extent does voting for religious politicians actually increase inequality?

Karakoc, E., & Baskan, B. (2012). Religion in Politics: How Does Inequality Affect Public Secularization? Comparative Political Studies DOI: 10.1177/0010414012453027

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

Why are religious people so fertile?

On average, religious people have more children than non-religious people. Now, that's a sweeping generalisation, of course. However, statistically it seems to hold good, to different degrees, for all the societies that I've seen examined.

But why? It's an important question. A common answer is that this is evidence that religion is evolutionarily advantageous. The idea here is that religious belief in some way facilitates having lots of children (perhaps by making you a nicer, trustworthy person), which gives you a head start in the race to pass on your genes to the next generation.

It's a view that I think is plain wrong.

I think the link is not with religious belief and fertility, but rather with conservative family values and fertility. And, crucially, I think that link is a recent innovation.

Here's some new research to back that up.

Markus Jokela, at the University of Helsinki, has analysed the changing relationship between personality traits and fertility in people living in the USA who were born in the decades 1920 to 1960 - a period of huge cultural innovation, especially with regard to women's rights.

He looked at the conventional "5-factor" model of personality, which rates individuals on their extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openess.

He found that three of these traits (extraversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness) were consistently related (either positively or negatively) to fertility over time.

However, conscientiousness, and in particular openess, were linked to lower and lower fertility rates as the decades rolled by. That was the case for both men and women.

What this means is that the declining fertility rates seen in the younger groups of people was largely driven by dwindling fertility among people who were highly open to new experiences (as Wikipedia says, these people are "inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious").

So cultural conservative were more likely to retain high fertility but - and this is the crucial bit - this is a new phenomenon. Among people born in the early part of the 20th century, fertility was no higher among cultural conservatives than among the inventive/curious.

So, while high fertility among the religious may have implications for the future distribution of 'religion genes' (if such a thing even exists), it does not explain the current genetic distribution.

There's another recent paper that backs this up, albeit in a somewhat more tangential way. Joseph Stanford and Ken Smith, at the University of Utah, have shown that, among Mormons, what we have come to regard as a 'normal' link between higher income and lower fertility is reversed.

In other words, Mormons with high income actually have higher fertility than Mormons with lower income. To me, that's surely a sign that cultural conservatism, which restricts the employment options for women, is a core reason explaining the modern link between religion and fertility.

In the past, of course, everyone was old-fashioned. And so everyone, religious or not, had high fertility rates!

Of course, most children back then died young, but that's a different evolutionary process at work...
Jokela M (2012). Birth-cohort effects in the association between personality and fertility. Psychological science, 23 (8), 835-41 PMID: 22722269

Stanford JB, & Smith KR (2012). Marital fertility and income: moderating effects of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Utah. Journal of Biosocial Science, 1-10 PMID: 23069479

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

Thinking about your soul makes you want to eat junk food

Mind-body dualism is the belief that the mind and the body are separate - usually, that the mind can exist independently of the body. This kind of thinking is quite common among the religious, of course.

But what are the implications, from a psychological perspective, of a belief that mind and body are independent? That's what Matthias Forstmann and colleagues, at the University of Cologne in Germany, wanted to discover.

They ran some studies in which they implanted thoughts about mind-body dualism or about 'physicalism' (i.e. the idea that mind and body are closely connected). For example, in one study they asked their subjects to read a passage that, they said, was from a textbook they wanted them to review.

The textbook passage on dualism concluded that "In sum, the term ‘mind-body dualism’ describes the proposition that a person’s mind and body are two distinct entities." The passage on physicalism concluded, "In sum, the term ‘physicalism’ describes the proposition that a person’s mind and body are both rooted in the same physical substances."

When they later asked the students about their attitudes to a range of health behaviours (eating, exercise, hygiene, and going to the doctor's for checkups), they found that those who had been given the dualism passage were significantly less health conscious.

In another study, the subjects were offered a cookbook of their choice as compensation for completing the survey. Those primed with dualism were more likely to choose books on barbecuing or desserts, rather than the books on vegetarian and organic food.

A third study took this to another level. This time, university students were primed either with dualism or physicalism. They were then given some filler tasks, and then told to come back to the lab after lunch to get the results.

Bizarrely enough, those students who had been primed with dualism ate a lunch that was significantly less healthy than students primed with physicalism (by about 1 point on an arbitrary 9-point scale)!

Even more extraordinary is that this effect appears to work both ways. When subjects in another study were shown pictures of unhealthy food, they later reported holding significantly stronger dualistic beliefs than those shown pictures of healthy food.

Forstmann thinks that this is because people are less concerned about taking care of their bodies if they think that their minds exist independently. But they also suspect that dualism might be a defensive response to threat.

So, when shown pictures of unhealthy food, we are reminded of our limited lifespan - and react by believing more strongly in the soul!
Forstmann M, Burgmer P, & Mussweiler T (2012). "The Mind Is Willing, but the Flesh Is Weak": The Effects of Mind-Body Dualism on Health Behavior. Psychological science PMID: 22972908

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

Sceptics subconsciously repress supernatural thoughts

Cognitive inhibition is an important mental skill. Stopping or overriding mental processes, whether conscious or unconscious, is often needed - to suppress unwanted or irrelevant thoughts, to suppress inappropriate meanings of ambiguous words.

In other words, it's a vital part of staying focussed.

Decreased cognitive inhibition is associated with creativity, but also with with anxiety and neuroticism, feelings of threat and uncontrollability, altered states of consciousness, intuitive thinking and biases in logical reasoning. And this led Marjaana Lindeman, at the University of Helsinki, Finland, to wonder whether a lack of cognitive inhibition also plays a role in supernatural beliefs.

So, along with her colleagues she took a group of 23 sceptics and believers in the supernatural, and put them in an MRI scanner (AKA brain scanner). While in there, they were given some short stories to read, and then a picture to look at - you can see some examples in the graphic on the right.

They were asked to imagine that they were walking along, thinking hard about the particular issue highlighted in the story, then they looked up to see the picture shown. What thoughts would the picture provoke?

Both groups showed brain activity in a region called the left Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG). That's a part of the brain that plays an important role in processing various signs and their meaning, including spoken and written language, sign languages, pantomimes and gestures and other communicative symbols.

However, although the left IFG was activated the same in both groups, the right IFG light up more strongly in the sceptics than in the believers. That's important, because the right IFG is an area of the brain that is associated with cognitive inhibition.

As you might expect, the believers were more likely than the sceptics to say that they saw the pictures to be sign of some kind - an indication of how the situation was going to turn out. This suggests that the initial associations, made in the left IFG, were not suppressed by the right IFG.

As a result, says Lindeman, this "supports the argument that the skeptics suppressed the potential idea of a supernatural sign in the pictures as irrelevant, while believers did not. This interpretation is in line with previous findings showing that skeptics perform better on inhibitory tasks than supernatural believers do."

It also fits with earlier research by Lindeman suggesting that supernatural believers get confused when thinking about how the world works.

And she goes on to conclude that:
Although people’s general inclination toward supernatural beliefs may be understood as a form of natural information processing, weak cognitive inhibition may explain why supernatural beliefs are not typical of everybody but especially of, for example, children, old people, creative individuals, intuitive thinkers, people in distress and with mental disorders, as well as during decreased sense of control and altered states of consciousness

In other words, although we are born with hyperactive brains looking for signs and signals, we are not all born believers - because many of us are also born sceptics!
Lindeman M, Svedholm AM, Riekki T, Raij T, & Hari R (2012). Is it just a brick wall or a sign from the universe? An fMRI study of supernatural believers and skeptics. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 22956664

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

A love-hate relationship between religion and democracy

According to a new analysis by Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom and Gizem Arikan, political scientists at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, religious believers don't think much of democracy.

However, they found that religious behaviour (belonging to a religious group and participating in group activities) was linked to increased support for democracy. The reason for the difference is that both these factors are linked to more fundamental social attitudes, and that these are the real influencers on support for democracy

What they found was that strong religious belief was linked to a rejection of secular/rational values, in favour of traditional values, and also to rejection of self-expression, in favour of 'survival values' (a hotch-potch of insecurity, desire for hierarchical authority, and intolerance). These, in turn, lead to a rejection not just of overt support for democracy, but also a rejection of the values that make democracy work (things like civil rights and support for democratic procedures).

Social religious behaviour, on the other hand, increases both interest in politics and confidence in institutions. Although religious participation doesn't seem to increase support for democratic procedures, nor does it dampen it. Overall, strong religious networks contribute to increased trust in institutions and thereby more support for democracy.

Now, the data they had available didn't allow them to decide which effect was stronger with much certainty. However, they did conclude that, all other things being equal, "the total negative effect of religious belief on support for democracy is stronger than the positive effect of religious social behavior," and that "the effect of religious belief on values is typically the strongest in the models, while the effect of religious social behavior on confidence in institutions and political interest is relatively weaker."

Overall, religion is bad for your democratic health.

What's more, they found a similar effect regardless of the religious tradition. On the face of it, this conflicts with other research showing that Catholics and Muslims want democracy - but for different reasons. However, this discrepancy might be explained if, for example, Muslims have stronger religious beliefs.

Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom, & Gizem Arikan (2012). Religion and Support for Democracy: A Cross-National Test of the Mediating Mechanisms British Journal of Political Science : 10.1017/S0007123412000427

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