Field of Science

I'm gonna wash that god right into my hair!

There's an interesting link between physical disgust and moral disgust. Not only do we pull the same faces in response to both, but there is evidence that washing your hands can make you make you feel better about past transgression, and judge the transgressions of others more harshly (Lee and Schwarz, 2011).

Jesse Lee Preston and Ryan Ritter at the University of Illinois have previously shown that hand washing can reduce the sense of disgust felt by religious people towards atheism. Now they have taken a look at how cleanliness relates to religion.

Recruiting subjects through the Mechanical Turk, they found that subjects primed with religious concepts tended to complete ambiguous, incomplete words by filling in the blanks to make a word related to cleanliness (e.g., they completed W_ SH as WASH, rather than WISH).

In another study, they found that subjects primed with religion rated cleaning products as relatively more desirable than other products. As with the first study, this effect seemed equally strong regardless of how religious the subjects were to begin with.

But the third study was the most interesting. This one looked at the reverse effect: whether a feeling of cleanliness can make you more religious.

In this study, the subjects were asked to copy out and mentalize a paragraph - either describing being grubby or being clean.The ones made to think about cleanliness later reported that religious beliefs were more important to them.

In other words, just thinking about being clean made these people feel like they were more religious!

Preston and Ritter conclude that:
The present findings may suggest another important function of religion, to foster hygiene and cleanliness among its followers.

However, they do also point out that there might be other factors at work:
... purity rituals demonstrate commitment to the faith that can enhance group commitment Cleaning and grooming behavior have also been linked to social connection, and so the regimented hygiene reinforced in religious ritual could also promote prosocial behavior and large-scale cooperation within that group
But I wonder if there is another association. Cleanliness is hard work - the default, lazy option is to be dirty. It's partly for this reason that cleanliness is a socially desirable trait - it's a way of marking yourself out to be diligent and hard working.

In most societies, religion similarly is a marker of a diligent, person who values social approval. It's not a coincidence that evangelicals are often the epitome of clean-cut goodness. Grunge is for outsiders!

Perhaps, then, the psychological link between religion and cleanliness is a purely social one - and a modern one at that.

After all, while the conquistadors were astonished by the public hygiene to Aztec cities, Aztec priests were, notoriously, forbidden to wash for religious reasons!

Jesse Lee Preston, & Ryan S. Ritter (2012). Cleanliness and godliness: A mutual association between two forms of personal purity Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1365-1368

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

Under pressure, even scientists say things exist for a purpose

Promiscuous teleology is the natty term given to the tendency many people have to see purpose in the world around them. Teleology just means an explaining things in terms of goals or function, and it's not always wrong. It's perfectly correct, for example, to say that children wear mittens to keep their hands warm.

But whenever you hear someone say something like "The sun shines on us to keep us warm", or "Plants make oxygen for us to breath", that's promiscuous teleology.

These kinds of explanations are particularly attractive to children, but earlier research by Deborah Keleman at Boston university has shown that even adults succumb to these ideas, particularly when put under time pressure.

Maybe, though, this is just because  a lot of adults have dumb ideas about how the world works. What about hard-headed, rational, scientists? Say, physicists - if any group of people in the world knows about cause and effect, it would be them, right?

So Kelemen tested 79 active, publishing physicists at high-ranking US universities, and compared their results with 73 actively-publishing humanities scholars, 49 age-matched Bostonians who had bachelor's degrees, and 179 Boston undergrads.

The set-up was straightforward. A series of statements were flashed up on the computer screen, and the participants had to say if the statements were true or false. The statements they were shown included:

  • True, causal explanations, e.g. "Conception occurs because sperm and eggs fuse together"
  • True, teleological explanations, e.g. "Children wear mittens in the winter in order to keep their hands warm"
  • False, causal explanations, e.g. "Snowflakes are white because they are symmetrical", and
  • False, teleological explanations "Window blinds have slats so that they can capture dust"

In each group, half the subjects were given as much time as they wanted to come up with the right answer. The other half were put under pressure - they each had 3.2 seconds (carefully calibrated to be just enough time for almost everybody to read the sentences, but no more).

So, on to the results!

Well, the good news is that the physicists did better than the undergrads or the local Bostonians. They were significantly less prone than the others to say the false teleological statements were true.

Score 1 for the physicists!

But hold on a moment. Just like everyone else, the physicists were more likely to think that the promiscuous teleological explanations were correct when they put under time pressure. Even though they still did better than the other groups, they were much more likely to get it wrong if they didn't have time to stop and think.

Why is that? They didn't have this problem with the causal explanations - they got them right pretty much regardless of the time pressure.

This suggests that even physicists have a sneaking feeling that teleological explanations are right. Even though they know better.

However based on these results, you might conclude that maybe all those years spent studying science and physics have paid off. They've given the physicists a better, intuitive understanding of how the world works.

Except that they were no better than the humanities scholars!

Kelemen assessed the scientific knowledge of both groups, and the physicists scored much higher. So, whatever it is that made the scientists better judges than the non-scholars of the true nature of cause and effect, it wasn't their scientific training.

Perhaps simply being in the habit of spending your time thinking through problems is enough, or maybe it's down to innate intelligence. Who knows!

But what this does suggest is that there is some kind of 'default' predisposition to fall for this kind of dodgy thinking. Even the most hardened rationalists are susceptible, at least to some extent.

Kelemen did discover one other thing. Across all the groups, people who believed strongly in God or who believed that "Nature is a powerful thing" were significantly more likely to be taken in by the false teleology statements.

And that gives us another pointer to why some people believe in god and others do not. And it fits in with earlier research which found that people who have faulty ideas about cause and effect were also more likely to believe in the paranormal.
Kelemen, D., Rottman, J., & Seston, R. (2012). Professional Physical Scientists Display Tenacious Teleological Tendencies: Purpose-Based Reasoning as a Cognitive Default. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0030399

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

Hare Krishna devotees are prone to jump to conclusions

Suppose I were to tell you that I had a jar, hidden behind a screen, filled either with 85 red and 15 blue marbles, or with 15 red and 85 blue marbles.

Now suppose I take out a marble at random and show it to you, before putting it back in the jar. If that marble was red, would you feel confident in saying that there were 85 red marbles in the jar? What about if I pulled out another red, and another red? And what about if I then pulled out a blue marble?

This is the game that Michelle Lim (Washington University in St. Louis) and colleagues from two Universities in Melbourne, Australia, played with different groups of people: 25 people with full-blown psychosis, 29 Hare Krishna devotees from the International Society of Krishna Consciousness temple in metropolitan Melbourne, and a control group comprising 23 Christians and 40 nonreligious individuals.

What they found was that, while the control group asked on average for 7 marbles before they were confident enough to say whether the jar was filled with mostly red or mostly blue marbles, the psychotic patients asked for only two.

The Hare Krishna devotees were halfway between the two. They asked for around 4 marbles before making their minds up.

Lim and colleagues ran several similar tests. One in which there were 60 marbles of one colour and 40 of the other. And two tests in which they gave their subjects words to describe an individual (purportedly from a survey of that individuals acquaintances), and asked them to say if the individual was mostly liked or disliked. These words were either positive or negative, with a similar distribution to the red/blue marble task.

All of these tests gave the same basic results. Psychotics required little evidence before coming to a conclusion, while Hare Krishna devotees required more, but less than the control group.

In other words, the Hare Krishna devotees were prone to jump to conclusions.

Lim believes that this is evidence that psychosis runs on a continuum, from psychotic to normal, and that members of new religious movements (like the Hare Krishna devotees studied) lie somewhere on that scale - not psychotic, but with some characteristics that are similar.

The main differences between psychotic individuals and members of new religious movements, she suggests (based on detailed analysis of the results) are that psychotic individuals find it especially hard to weigh evidence related to emotions (the survey task in this study), they have more delusional distress, and have more severe hallucinations and delusions.

But she concludes that the tendency to jump to conclusions based on limited evidence is a real contributor to both having and maintaining delusions. And that probably explains why these people are attracted to new religious movements.
Lim MH, Gleeson JF, & Jackson HJ (2012). The Jumping-to-Conclusions Bias in New Religious Movements. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 200 (10), 868-75 PMID: 22996398

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

Faces, faces everywhere

Of all the many human irrationalities, our hyperactive drive to pick out faces in the world around us is one of the most fun. There are whole blogs devoted to it.

Like most abilities, this one varies across individuals. Which lead Tapani Reiki and colleagues, from the University of Helsinki, to wonder whether it is connected to beliefs about the world, in particular paranormal and religious beliefs.

So they recruited 47 people (40% students) who were either strong believers or strong sceptics of the paranormal (e.g., astrology and telepathy).

The paranormal believers were also more likely to be religious, although there was not complete overlap. So they analysed the data after dividing the group (according to paranormal belief and religious belief).

They showed them a series of photos that had previously been judged to either contain faces (for example, the top row in the figure) or not (bottom row). They tried to make the "face" photos as ambiguous as possible - which was, apparently a tough task. A testament to just how strong the drive to face recognition is in humans!

Their subjects had to point to the faces (using a mouse), or say that there was no face in the picture. In a separate study, they were asked to rate how face like a series of pictures were.

They found that  paranormal believers (and religious believers) were more likely to see faces (although the difference was not huge) and rated the faces as being more face like.

Not only that, but believers were more likely to see faces overall - even in pictures where independent raters had concluded there were none!

Rieki points out that this result is in line with previous research showing that

...paranormal believers are more prone to find patterns in noisy or ambiguous stimuli than other people are and that paranormal beliefs are associated with a tendency to jump to conclusions on the basis of inadequate evidence

But what this study adds is that it shows that they are also better at locating the face in a picture (as well as just saying whether or not there is one). Reiki suggest that this effect might be related to social perception and empathy, and that:

...these beliefs, like anthropomorphism, stem from the capacity to recognize and understand human beings. Theoretical arguments and empirical findings suggest that paranormal and religious believers stretch universally and early developing human attributes, such as beliefs, desires, and intentional purpose, to inappropriate realms.
While that's a possibility, it doesn't explain why paranormal believers also pick up on non-human patterns.

So these data also fit with the view that believers in the paranormal are just confused in general about how the world works - a hypothesis supported by earlier research from the University of Helsinki.
Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., Aleneff, M., Halme, A., & Nuortimo, A. (2012). Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2874

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