Field of Science

In Iran and the USA, the "religious person" has a similar personality

There have been quite a few studies over the years into personality differences between the religious and non-religious. They tend to use the well-known "Five-factor" model of personality, and they typically find that religious people are more likely to say they are agreeable and conscientiousness.

But these studies are mostly done on Western Christians. And anyway, there are other models of personality, ones which probably are more valid in non-Western cultures.

Naser Aghababaei, at the University of Tehran (in Iran), along with Jason Wasserman and Drew Nannini at the University of Kansas (USA), used the HEXACO model to study the personalities of 156 American and 165 Iranian university students.

The HEXACO model is basically the same as the five-factor model (emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness), but it includes an extra personality factor (Honesty-Humility) which relates to sincerity, fairness, greed avoidance, and modesty.

So, they got these undergrads to fill in the personality questionnaires and also to rate how religious they were (rating statements such as "I try hard to live my life according to my religious beliefs" and "I enjoy reading about my spirituality and/or my religion").

The Iranians and Americans had similar personalities overall, except that the Iranians reported significantly less emotionality (although this was because there were fewer women in the Iranian sample) and conscientiousness.

Once they adjusted the results to take into account the different proportions of women, they found that religion was linked to similar personality traits in both the USA and Iran.

In particular, religious people scored significantly higher in Honesty-Humility, and lower in openness, in both locations. They were also more agreeable and extroverted, although this was a little less clear cut since it wasn't quite statistically significant in the Americans.

However, in America religiosity was correlated with conscientiousness, while in Iran it was not. And in America, there was a hint of a connection between emotionality and religion, although again this was absent in Iran.

Now, this was self-reported personality, so we don't know if there was some self-flattery going on here. And it didn't compare religious with atheists, but rather dutiful religious with the, ahem, less so. And of course these were students, not real people.

But even so, it's fascinating to see that religion in both nations was linked to similar personalities. At the very least, it shows that religious people conceive of themselves in similar ways in both places.

However, it does seem to show that the idea that conscientiousness is characteristic of religion may be a Western conception.

And it's interesting that the link to agreeableness was less strong among Americans than among Iranians. Based on other studies, the link seems to be weaker still in Europe. Which suggests that, as religion becomes less important, being religious is more and more a characteristic of disagreeable people.

Or, alternatively, while those few people who are atheists in religious countries are also pretty disagreeable (i.e. argumentative), that's less the case when non-religion becomes more normal!
Aghababaei, N., Wasserman, J., & Nannini, D. (2012). The religious person revisited: cross-cultural evidence from the HEXACO model of personality structure Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-6 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2012.737771

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

Atheists prefer video games over board games

Chris Burris, at St. Jerome’s University in Canada, has been quizzing students at "a southwestern Ontario university" about their interests in video games and board games. He's found that atheists were more likely to prefer video games, and his hypothesis as to why this should be is really rather interesting.

So, along with Elyse Redden at the University of Guelph, here's what they did. They asked 228 students to complete an online survey that asked, among other things, about their liking for four different kinds of video games (strategy, role-play, a narrative [i.e., a story or world to discover], and simulated violence) and the same types of board games.

There were 51 students who said they had "no religion" and the 31 outright atheists. Everyone else (Christians Jews, Muslims, whatever) went into the "religious" bucket.

All groups preferred video games over board games, but for the atheists the gap was much larger. Also worth noting is that the atheists liked both kinds of game more than the religious did - although the difference was pretty marginal for board games.

But Burris noticed something else. Alongside game preferences, he also asked questions that sought to uncover their imaginative involvement and the tendency to become mentally absorbed in everyday activities (the Tellegen Absorption Scale).

As illustrated in the graphic, what he found was that religious people had the same interest in video games and board games regardless of their tendency towards absorption. (The graphic shows the results after controlling for overall interest in gaming.)

For atheists, however, video games were more attractive and board games less attractive to those who easily become absorbed in what they're doing.

What Burris thinks is happening is that atheists are less capable of "generating emotionally evocative internal simulations of experience" - they are less imaginative, at least when it comes to imgaining mental states and situations. This follows on from previous research he did which found that, when asked to recall emotionally-laden events in the past, "atheists’ experiences appeared to be less vivid and less emotionally evocative relative to those of religious individuals."

They conclude that:

Even in a play context, atheists showed a much greater preference for the WYSIWYG virtual environment compared to the tabletop format wherein imagination is more central. Like tabletop gaming, many articulations of religion require that an individual behave “as if” a set of propositions concerning an unseen realm is true. If the “atheist brain” and the “religious brain” have different processing strengths and weaknesses, as Burris and Petrican (2011) suggested, then rejecting the unseen may be a logical outcome of atheists’ relative inability to generate “as if” experiences in the absence of multisensory “proof” of the sort provided by immersive, externally imposed virtual environments. Indeed, based on the results of the present research, we suspect that if Doubting Thomas were alive today, he would be an avid video gamer.

It's a really interesting idea, and plausible, but I have a few niggling doubts. Why, for instance, does "absorption" not play a role in the preferences of religious people? And why do atheists have a greater liking for board games than religious people, if they are less capable of imaginative play?

And most importantly, I'm wondering if the preference for video games is linked to the well known phenomenon that North American atheists are more likely to be loners, and less likely to engage in group activities. I can well imagine that, among those 31 atheistic undergraduates, there were more than a few who like to shut themselves away and immerse themselves in an alternate reality provided by an online video game (Word of Warcraft, anyone?) - especially those who can become almost hypnotised by such things (which is what the Tellegen Scale measures).

In other words, religious affiliation might actually be preventing this kind of behaviour from manifesting. Or, alternatively, those who have these tendencies may shun religion.

I'm old enough to remember the good old days of Dungeons and Dragons - a kind of fantasy role playing game which involved creating imaginary worlds and acting out quests. And I also remember tat it was wildly popular among my non-religious friends (Christians hated it, of course).

ResearchBlogging.orgBurris, C., & Redden, E. (2012). No Other Gods Before Mario?: Game Preferences Among Atheistic and Religious Individuals International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22 (4), 243-251 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2011.638606

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

In Mauritius, religious locations increase generosity

Several studies have found that subconsciously priming people with religious concepts can encourage them to be more altruistic.The strange thing is, this seems to work just as well on atheists.

But most of these studies have been done in labs, and with Westerners. What about the real world?

Back in 2009, Dimitris Xygalatas (at the Religion, Cognition and Culture research unit (RCC), Aarhus University, Denmark) spent some time conducting ethnographic research with the people of Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius. Mauritius is one of the most socially diverse societies on Earth, with a population entirely derived from immigration over the past 300 years and now comprising a mix of people with Asian, African and European ancestry and a mix of religions (50% Hindu, 30% Christian, 17% Muslim).

While he was there, he conducted a simple game of bargaining trust with the participants.

Along with collaborators, he told pairs of people (31 pairs in total) that they had a pot of money (500 rupees, equivalent to five days’ minimum pay of an unskilled worker). Each player could draw however much they wanted from the pot, and whatever was left over would be increased by 50% and split between the two players.

The catch is that, if the players together withdrew more than 500 rupees, they went bust and neither got anything. (At this point, it's fun to consider how much you would withdraw from the pot!)

Now, the cunning part was that one of the pair was sat in a restaurant, while the other was in a Hindu temple. Each was just recruited off the street, and led on a short walk to either location - the experimenters communicated the results to each other over the phone.

As you can see from the figure (left side), the people who were sat in the temple withdrew less from the pot than those who were sat in the restaurant.

Now, the people in the two different locations were basically the same - a random mix of ages, sexes, ethnicities, and religions. And, even more intriguingly, both parties expected to receive the similar amounts in return (as you can see on the right hand side of the graph).

What this means is that simply putting someone in a temple makes them want to give more. But even more important is finding that they don't expect more back.

When asked to justify their decision, Xygalatas says that:

... those who played in the temple tended to evoke fairness related terms more frequently (48.4%) than those in the restaurant (19.4%). Conversely, those who played in the restaurant explained their choice in terms of strategic thinking terms (typically referring to ‘‘strategy’’, ‘‘tactics’’, or ‘‘logic’’) more frequently (67.7%) than those who played in the temple (48.4%).

So it seems that simply being in a temple, rather than a secular meeting place, triggers altruistic behaviour.

There's several possible explanations for this result. It might be that a religious setting might trigger thoughts about  fairness and cooperation, or maybe the Hindu statues make people feel like they're being watched. Xygalatas explains that both effects could work together.

Whatever the reason, this fits nicely with previous hints that the results you get from experimental studies of religion are exquisitely sensitive to the setting (see here for another example).

And it's good to know that you get the same kind of effects among passers by in Mauritius as you do among college students in the USA!
Xygalatas, D. (2012). Effects of religious setting on cooperative behavior: a case study from Mauritius Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/2153599X.2012.724547

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 2012

So, how was it for you? For me, 2012 was quite a tough year, for personal reasons, which is why the blog has been a bit sparse of late. On the plus side, that means only 70 posts to recap this time!

But that’s still quite a haul of great research into religion and non-belief, and one that shows some interesting changes in research focus. In particular, we’re now seeing more research than ever into non-belief, and also into the nuances of how particular ways of thinking are linked to different kinds of belief.

So let’s get going!

How thinking styles affect belief – and non-belief

One of the big stories of 2012 was the finding that instinctive thinkers more likely to believe in a personal god – and less likely to be atheists. In other words, conventional intelligence (problem solving, understanding words) was a less important factor than having a considered, deliberative approach to problem solving. We also learned that simply being made to use our brains is enough to decrease reported belief in god. In a similar vein, ambidextrous people are more likely to reject magical thinking and accept evolution.

There were several studies into the psychological biases that predispose some people to see magic in the world around us. For example, believers in religion and the paranormal are more likely to see faces in pictures of everyday objects, and Hare Krishna devotees are prone to jump to conclusions. We also learned that repetition makes magical rituals seem more effective, and that just thinking about being clean can make people feel more religious!

What’s more, although scientists are more rational than the average person, under pressure even they are likely to say things exist for a purpose (rather than as a result of causes) – showing just how widespread these biases are. What seems to make the difference is not so much that sceptics don’t have these psychological biases, but more that they subconsciously repress supernatural thoughts.  Your genes play a role too – research this year showed that people with a particular gene variation have a bigger response to religious primes.

Researchers are also becoming increasingly sensitive to the reality that religion is a very diverse beast. Take hyperactive agency detection (HAD), which refers to the way we are prone to see invisible spirits at work in the world around us. Research this year showed that the link is not to religion in general (since people with low HAD are equally likely to be religious), but specifically to a sense of connection or oneness between self, God, and/or the physical world. Meanwhile, other research has shown that there is no such thing as a 'god spot' in the brain. Instead different parts of the brain linked to religious practice, spirituality, and fundamentalism.

So how do people become religious?

Upbringing also makes a difference. We learned in 2012 that kids have to be taught about the supernatural, and also that children brought up in a religious background understand the concept of omniscience earlier.

On an international level, education may be one of the most important factors explaining the falling away of religion – although once a high level of disbelief has been achieved, it seems that the main effect is to change the kind of god people believe in.

Anxiety and death!

There was more evidence that people turn to religion when reminded about death is that it’s part of their ‘world-view defence’, rather than increased belief in the supernatural.  For the non-religious, this means that they actually become more hostile towards religion (although it does ratchet up their superstitious instincts).

In the US, belief in life after death is linked to belief in a just world and lower anxiety. But believing in god does not necessarily make you more relaxed about death. For example, fear of death is highest among Muslims – probably because they are more likely to believe in the afterlife, and in a demanding and vindictive God.

An interesting study found that people given a pill which they thought caused anxiety did not become religious when stressed – a strange result which actually suggests that people turn to religion when they anxious but don’t know why.


There were three studies on how disasters affect believers and belief. Although Norwegians who lived through the terrifying events of the 2004 Tsunami did not change their religious beliefs in any meaningful way, those who were most traumatised were more likely to change their religious beliefs - although the effect could go either way.

After the 2009 earthquake in Italy, people with stronger religious beliefs suffered less distress. After 9/11, however, religious believers were more distressed!

Effects of religion

Things we learned this year: that religion boosts self control, people say they're good if they think they are being watched (and for religious people that includes being watched by a god), people who eat junk food are subsequently more likely to believe in an everlasting soul, and praying reduces how much pain people report, but doesn’t seem to ease the physiological stress of being hurt.

Religion seems to be something of a double-edged sword when it comes to health. Data from Norway found that regular churchgoers had lower blood pressure. But data from the USA educated people who go to church often are actually more likely to die young!

Religious people are less likely than the non-religious to donate their bodies to science and organs to other people, and they’re also less likely to want a donated organ. And when it comes to financial charitable donations, although religious people do tend to give more that’s only because they give more to charities that promote religion.

Crime and punishment

We also learned that belief in a compassionate god is linked to higher murder rates, and that people who believe in God are inclined not to put punish offenders – they prefer to let god do it for them!

Evidence suggests that moralising gods emerged alongside the development of complex, stratified societies, but the effect on behaviour probably was not straightforward - cuckoldry among the Dogons of Nigeria is less common among those who follow their traditional religion than among Christian converts  (perhaps because the Christians believe in letting God do their punishment for them!).


It turns out that there is something of a love-hate relationship between religion and democracy, and that’s because religious belief and religious involvement have opposite effects. What’s more, although both Catholics and Muslims want democracy – they want it for different reason.

When financial inequality increases, support for religious politicians rises, especially among the poor. However, another study revealed that Christians tend to believe that Jesus supports a more extreme version of their own core beliefs.


There was a lot of research this year into the links between religion and so-called ‘in-group favouritism’. For example, religious students have fewer interracial friends, and simply being near a church makes people more hostile to outsiders.

Even Christian children have an implicit pro-Christian bias – although, unlike adults, they’re happy to admit it!  Strangely enough, it seems that Christians find it harder than atheists to recognize their own faces, perhaps because they had a relatively low opinion of their own specialness.

To some extent, religious identity and national identity are interchangeable. Perhaps this explains why hostility to migrants in Europe is strongest among the 'culturally Christian, and that British citizens who believe that "Christianity is important for being truly British" are also the people who define Christianity in ethnic, rather the spiritual terms.

It also appears that religion and ethnicity reinforce each other to create distrust.

In the second half of the 20th century, wars have become increasingly religious in nature. However, this is not a result of some clash of civilisations, but rather due to the importance of Islamic ideology in civil strife.

Being atheist

There’s also been an uptick in research into what life is like for atheists. We learned that in highly religious countries, religious people tend to have higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment. Another study found that, in almost every country, being religious leads to more social recognition, in turn leading to more happiness - and that this effect is much stronger in the more religious countries.

The good news is that distrust of atheists is reduced if people have confidence in law and order.
Also the apparent link between depression and non-religion is probably simply due to the fact that depressed people stop going to church. And there was a couple of studies showing that secular alternatives to religious gatherings (sporting events and choirs) can improve well being.

Interestingly, for less-religious Americans, compassion significantly affects prosocial behaviour (for religious Americans, compassion is less influenced in this way)

Is the world getting more religious?

Analyses of worldwide opinion polls suggests that there’s no overall trend. What there does seem to be is a balancing out, with highly religious countries becoming less religious, but with a trend towards more religion in the highly secularized West.
 It also seems that there has been a rise in state support for religion in the West, especially increased state funding for religious enterprises.

And lastly, research into fertility rates in the USA suggests that the drop seen in recent decades is largely driven by dwindling fertility among people who were highly open to new experiences, rather than among cultural conservatives. This might well explain the higher relative fertility of the religious that we see today.

Stand by for 2013!

Well, that was 2012, and you can find summaries here for 2011, 2010, and 2009.
So here’s to 2013. I have a number of great studies already lined up to blog about, when I get the time. Hopefully, I’ll be posting at least once a week from now on, more often if I can. So stay tuned!

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