Field of Science

In West and East, it's easier to remember things that are a bit weird

Look around the world, and you'll find that most gods and magical entities are surprisingly similar to regular people, but with one or two magical powers. The same goes for most works of fiction - your typical superhero is, in most respects, a pretty regular guy.

At first sight, the Judaeo-Christian god seems to be an exception to this rule. But if you look at how Christians often relate to their god, never mind how it is portrayed in the Bible, it's not really such an anomaly.

Back in 2002, Pascal Boyer proposed that this was not an accident.  He suggested that mundane, everyday objects are instantly forgettable, and that really weird stuff is just to hard to remember. What really stands out, and what our brains intuitively latch onto, are things that deviate only a bit from the normal. He called these 'minimally counterintuitive ideas' (MCI).

Over the past 10 years, research into this idea has produced some support, but also some experimental results that didn't fit the predictions.

The most recent experiment has taken advantage of the virtual reality world of Second Life. By using a virtual environment, they able not only to create a set-up that would be impossible in the real world, but to study people from different cultures and people who don't typically participate as subjects (i.e. people other than students).

The experimenters, Ryan Hornbeck at the University of Oxford, UK, and Justin Barrett (now at the Fuller Theological Seminary in California) created a kind of virtual museum containing 18 objects. Half of these were everyday (such as a ball hitting a wall) and half had something weird about them (such as a parrot that disappears).

They lead their study subjects (50 native-English speakers living in the West and 50 native-Chinese speakers living in Asia) round this museum, and let them briefly view each object. Afterwards they tested them on how many they could remember. After a while (up to 15 days later) they were invited to be tested again.

As shown in the graphic, the Westerners were more likely to remember the 'minimally counterintuitive' objects than the intuitive objects - whether tested immediately or after a period of days. For the Chinese speakers, there was no difference in immediate recall, but there was a difference in the delayed recall.

They found that the longer the period until the second test, the more likely it was that the intuitive items would be forgotten. That's what you would expect - but that's not what they found for the MCI objects. For these, memorisation seemed to be constant, whatever the delay.

That suggests that MCIs that actually get remembered are less likely to be forgotten, compared with intuitive memories.

Intriguingly, they also found that age had an effect.The older participants were equally good at remembering MCI and intuitive objects. Younger participants, however, were significantly better at remembering the MCI objects.

The researchers were intrigued by why that might be. What they end up suggesting is that, for young adults who are still learning about the world, it pays off to devote a lot of mental energy to memorising and assessing things that deviate from the expected.

By later adulthood, however, "the most important exceptions are likely to have already been encountered". As a result, anything that turns up that looks weird and out of place to an older person is likely just to be a one-off aberration, and so not worth paying too much attention too.

A sobering thought!
Hornbeck, R., & Barrett, J. (2013). Refining and Testing “Counterintuitiveness” in Virtual Reality: Cross-Cultural Evidence for Recall of Counterintuitive Representations International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 23 (1), 15-28 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2013.735192

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

Iconic religious images affect the attitudes of Protestants, but not Catholics.

The Christian God comes in different flavours. Most notably, while it's sometimes portrayed as a benevolent, forgiving entity, at other times the imagery is of a vengeful, retributive god.

We already know that how Christians view their god is related to other aspects of their psychology (for example, fear and anxiety). But is this cause or effect? It's hard to say, because what hasn't been much investigated is whether implanting different ideas about God can change attitudes.

Kathryn Johnson and colleagues from Arizona State University showed religious imagery (like the pictures above) to 363 Christian students (120 Catholics). One quarter of them were shown images of a Authoritarian God (like the leftmost one above, described in an earlier pilot study as "punishing"or angry) while one quarter were shown images of a Benevolent God (middle image, described as "loving", "compassionate", and "forgiving"). The others were shown spiritual images (llike the one on the right) or abstract art.

They students were told that they were taking part in a memory test, and that while they were waiting for the recall challenge they would be doing a 'filler' task. In this filler task, they were given a couple of scenarios to read, and then asked about anger and forgiveness. For example, in the first they:
...were told to imagine themselves at a party at which a same-sex student carelessly spills a drink on them without apologizing. They were asked to rate (on a 7-point Likert scale) the likelihood of engaging in eight aggressive behaviors toward this person.

And a second one,

in which a friend offers, but then carelessly fails, to deliver an important package to the post office, resulting in the loss of a job for the participant. Three items measured willingness to forgive, forget, and help the friend in the future (e.g., how likely would you be forgive your friend)

They were also asked about their "willingness to conserve water when taking showers", their "willingness to sign up immediately after the survey to package personal hygiene items for distribution to natural disaster victims", and their "willingness to ship blankets to natural disaster victims in Israel" (a religious outgroup).

Unfortunately the researchers don't reveal whether Catholics or Protestants were the most angry or forgiving. But they do say that the Catholic responses were basically the same regardless of the kind of god they had been shown.

Among the Protestants, however, it was a different matter.

Protestants shown an authoritarian god were more aggressive and less altruistic (see graphic). On the other hand, showing the benevolent god, or spiritual images, to Protestants seemed to make them more forgiving.

This is one of only a few studies to use religious imagery to provoke a psychological response, so the fact that Catholics and Protestant responded differently is very interesting. The authors suspect that the difference occurred because Catholics are regularly exposed to such imagery, and so they may have become somewhat immune to it.

They do also point out that, because there were fewer Catholics in their study, the power to detect an effect was lower - they may have just lucked out. And they float the suggestion that maybe other images would maybe have more effect on Catholics - images of the Virgin Mary, for example (that's what was used in a 2008 study of religiously-inspired pain relief in Catholics).

In other studies they showed that people who hold beliefs about a vengeful god were also more aggressive towards offenders, and that those who held beliefs about a loving god were more forgiving. Interestingly, these beliefs were independent - so a single person could hold both beliefs and be simultaneously more aggressive and more forgiving, depending on the scenario.

So, coming back to the original point, regarding cause and effect. Well, it seems that for Protestants at least, yes - the particular kind of god they believe in seems to be fairly easily manipulated!
Johnson, K., Li, Y., Cohen, A., & Okun, M. (2013). Friends in high places: The influence of authoritarian and benevolent god-concepts on social attitudes and behaviors. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 5 (1), 15-22 DOI: 10.1037/a0030138

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

Calvinists can wait, but Catholics live for the moment

OK, here's the deal. I'll give you £5 right now - but if you can wait till next week, I'll give you £6. Which offer would you take?

It's the sort of dilemma that mirrors a host of real life problems, and how people react to questions like this reflects their approaches to these challenges. It's called temporal discounting.

Researchers in Rome, Bologna and Leiden ran these kinds of tests on 40 Dutch Calvinists and 49 Italian Catholics. Ninety Atheists from both countries formed the control group.

What they found is shown in the graphic on the right.

Atheists, on the left, showed pretty much the same rate of temporal discounting whether they were Italian or Dutch.

The Dutch Calvinists, however, showed low temporal discounting, while the Italian Catholics showed high temporal discounting.

That means that the Calvinists were more likely than the Catholics to say that they were prepared to wait for a larger reward. The Catholics were more likely to take the money and run.

Now, they did find that Italians as a group tended towards high temporal discounting, but that this didn't explain the difference between the two religious groups (because the atheists from the two countries were so similar).

The authors reckon this is probably something to do with the differences in religious teachings. They point out that both Catholic and Protestant teaching encourage asceticism, but Protestantism only teaches against immediate enjoyment and consumption - not against long-term accumulation.

More interesting to consider is the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Calvinists believe that our fate is already decided, and therefore our actions are not so much the cause of our afterlife fate, but rather should be taken as evidence of God's pre-planned fate for us.

Because there is no hope of 'forgiveness' in this way of thinking, Calvinists are going to be strongly motivated not to slip up even once. They write:

The protestant view of predestination gives a strong reason to behave virtuously not only in general but also in the specific context of intertemporal decision making: insofar as the short-term option is conceived as a form of impulsive self-indulgence, whereas the long-term alternative is seen as indicative of moral fibre and self control, Calvinists will have a much stronger incentive to opt for the latter than Catholics, thus showing lower time discount rates

Now, I don't know enough about Calvinism to judge whether it is likely. And I wonder if it is, in practice, any different from the concepts of forgiving versus unforgiving gods (and an unforgiving God is, of course, also a feature of many Catholic and Protestant sects).

But certainly food for thought!
Paglieri, F., Borghi, A., Colzato, L., Hommel, B., & Scorolli, C. (2013). Heaven can wait. How religion modulates temporal discounting Psychological Research DOI: 10.1007/s00426-012-0473-5

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

In Burkino Faso, traditional beliefs encourage trust and fair-play in the small-business community

Village life in sub-Saharan Africa is governed by a moral code enforced by customs, regulations, and taboos. Because communities are close-knit, large discrepancies in wealth are frowned upon, and the accumulation of private wealth is regarded as anti-social.

Locals believe that spirits and ancestors enforce this moral code, and that transgressors will be punished by misfortune, business failure, and severe illnesses or accidents. But does this actually have any effect on behaviour?

Myriam Hadnes and Heiner Schumacher, at the University of Frankfurt, recruited a bunch of 'micro-entrepreneurs' from the villages around Ouagadougou and asked them to play an economic transaction game, to see how generous and trusting they were towards others.

The game has two players - both anonymous, both given 1000 West African Francs (worth just over 2 dollars - about a day's pay at minimum wage levels). Player A could either keep his money (in which case both went home with their 1,000 Fcfa) or give it all to Player B.

If Player A chose to send the money, then it was doubled so that Player B now had 3000 Fcfa. Player B could then send back as much as he or she wanted. After that, they went home.

Before playing the game, the players were interviewed about their businesses. For half the participants, the interviewers asked about jealousy and traditional rules about conduct, and deliberately steered the conversation towards supernatural topics. For the other half, they focussed on practical issues of business - and deliberately avoided anything related to supernatural topics.

They found that, in the group that avoided supernatural topics, 69% of 'Player A' participants handed their 1,000 Fcfa to Player B. In the group that did discuss the traditional beliefs, that figure rose to 87%. That suggests that these players were more trusting that Player B would play fair.

Then they looked at what Player B gave back in return, and found that they were significantly more likely to give higher amounts (see graphic). In fact, while the group that did not discuss the supernatural returned on average 1,261 Fcfa (or 42 percent), those primed with traditional beliefs returned 1,471 Fcfa (or 49 percent).

That suggests that, in both groups, the A players' trust was well placed - but that this was particularly so in the group primed with tradition. That difference was statistically significant, even after adjusting for other differences between the groups.

The authors point out that this is unlikely to be simply due to increased trust (because they found that the A players didn't actually expect more in return, and also that doesn't explain why the B players were more generous). Nor was it because they were less risk-averse (again, that can't explain the B-players response).

Instead, they say that:

... our results suggest another factor as the driving force of both the A- and B-players’ behavior.

In the postexperimental questionnaire, one-third of all participants explicitly cited illness, accidents, or death as direct consequence of dishonest behavior. In the interviews of the treatment group, participants shared their experiences with supernatural forces intervening into worldly life to punish those who did not respect the ancestors’ will. Almost half of the participants stated having witnessed a case of supernatural punishment aftermisbehavior.

Also, we learned that participants trust witch doctors to influence their business success, and fear the neighbors’ and competitors’ envy if they are successful without caring for their kith and kin.

In line with these observations, we argue that A- and B-players’ behavior was driven by the combination of prevailing sharing norms and the belief in supernatural punishment whenever these norms are violated.

Because of the design of this study, we can't tease out whether this was a direct effect of supernatural fears or not. The interviews of the A players covered both social norms and supernatural topics (they couldn't use the more usual priming technique of asking the participants to do a word game, because most were illiterate), so either or both could be affecting the result.

But as the first evidence that reminders of traditional moral beliefs, coupled with supernatural threats, can result in behaviour that's significantly more pro-social!
Hadnes, M., & Schumacher, H. (2012). The Gods Are Watching: An Experimental Study of Religion and Traditional Belief in Burkina Faso Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 51 (4), 689-704 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2012.01676.x

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