Field of Science

Hearing the Islamic Call to Prayer encourages Muslims to cheat less

People placed in religious environments tend to act more morally - but what, exactly, triggers this behavioural shift? There’s been a few recent studies which I think are really interesting, because they begin to reveal the importance of culture.

In the first set of studies, Mark Aveyard at the (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) tested Muslim students on their cheating behaviour.

The students were asked to undertake a computer-based maths quiz. Unfortunately, the computer program had a bug, so that it would automatically show the answer after a few seconds had passed -  unless a key was pressed. They were alone in the room, so Aveyard had to rely on their honesty to press the key and so not see the answer.

This was all a set up, of course. In fact, Aveyard really wanted to see if religious priming would affect how honest the students were.

What he found was that a priming task involving words (the subjects had to unscramble a sentence with either religious or secular meaning) had no effect on honesty.

Then he tried something different. In a follow-up study (shown in the figure), Aveyard played the students an audio recording of a busy street before they took the maths test, asking them to count the number of car horns they heard.

For half the students, the recording also had, in the background, the Islamic call to prayer (athan).

Listening to the call to prayer dramatically increased honest, as shown in the figure.

Why should a call to prayer work as a religious prime when a word task did not? One possible reason, Aveyard says, is that the religion and context matters. Maybe word primes work in the post-Christian West, but not in the Islamic Middle-East.

In the next post, we'll take a closer look at that from a Western perspective


ResearchBlogging.org
Aveyard, M. (2014). A Call to Honesty: Extending Religious Priming of Moral Behavior to Middle Eastern Muslims PLoS ONE, 9 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099447

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

Supernatural believers see minds at work behind random patterns

“Theory of Mind” is the term used to describe the mental ability to put yourself inside the mind of someone else – to imagine what it is that they are thinking. Recently, there’s been some evidence that people who do not have a strong theory of mind are more likely to be atheists.

For example, studies have found that autistic-spectrum people are more likely to be non-believers, and maybe also atheists' preferences for video games could be connected. The basic suggestion is that belief is a natural extension of our ability to recreate minds in our own head.

But it seems unlikely that atheists as a whole are weak at figuring out what others are thinking. Perhaps they just don’t fire up those mental circuits at inappropriate times. Which is what Tapani Riekki and Marjaana Lindeman (University of Helsinki), along with Tuukka Raij (Aalto University, Finland) wanted to investigate.

They took 12 believers and 11 sceptics and strapped them into an MRI machine to watch some animations.

These animations showed geometric shapes either moving randomly or acting with some kind of purpose towards each other. For example, they could be moving around as if they were children playing a game of tag.

Both groups tended to correctly rate the ‘intentional’ animations as having a purpose behind them, and tended to spot the random ones.

But believers were more likely to see purpose at work in both sets of animations – both intentional and random. You can see this at work in the brain scans. These show the brain circuits involved in Theory of Mind at work.

For the sceptics, watching the random animations drew a virtual blank , while the believers brains were firing away (the intense orange in the bottom image).

What was particularly interesting was when they contrasted brain activation in the two conditions. They found that for sceptics, Theory of Mind activation was stronger to intentional than to random movements, but for supernatural believers, this difference was missing and there was even a hint towards a reverse pattern.

The believers had a ‘hyperactive’ Theory of Mind.

What may have been going on is that, once they came to a belief that there was intention behind the movements, the believers may have begun searching to understand it – thus activating the neural circuits associated with the Theory of Mind.

All this suggests is that it’s not just ability to develop a Theory of Mind that’s linked to supernatural beliefs. Rather, what’s critical is the ability to apply it appropriately.


ResearchBlogging.org
Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., & Raij, T. (2014). Supernatural believers attribute more intentions to random movement than skeptics: An fMRI study Social Neuroscience, 9 (4), 400-411 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2014.906366

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

Children with a religious upbringing have difficulty telling fantasy from reality

There’s a long-standing debate over whether we humans are naturally predisposed to believe in the supernatural, or whether it’s learned. Well, here’s a study that shows the importance of young children’s environment in determining credulity.

The basic set-up was simple. Kathleen Corriveau (Boston University) and colleagues recruited 33 kindergarten kids in the USA (that’s 5-6 year olds). Half went to state-run schools, which are mostly religion free, while the other half went to schools run along Christian lines. The state-school kids all came from non-churchgoing families, whereas the kids from religious schools all came from churchgoing families.

Then they read them a series of stories, loosely based on magical stories from the bible, but carefully disguised. They varied these stories so that sometimes they referred to magic, sometimes not.

Just to be sure of it, sometimes they changed the story a bit so that it was unfamiliar, and not recognisably biblical. For example, here’s the variants they told of the ‘Moses parting the red Sea’ Bible story:

Familiar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his magic stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Familiar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his magic stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

The point was to try to see what cues lead these children to decide if the story was fantasy or reality. Importantly, at no point did any of the stories mention God or divine intervention.

As you can see in the graphic, the secular kids were much less likely to say the stories were real. They could pick up on the cues in the story, and figure out that it must be fantasy.

And they could do that at aged 5-6!

It’s critical to realise that both groups of kids – religious and secular – knew the difference between fact and fantasy. Both groups could recognise real versus fictional characters.

And although this was a small group, it mirrors what they saw in an earlier study, in which religious kids (whether churchgoing or non-churchgoers attending a religious school) said religious stories were real and also were more likely to say that non-religious, fantasy stories were real.

The authors conclude that the reason the religious kids were more likely to believe that these stories were real is that they “have a broader conception of what can actually happen”.

Now, what this study doesn’t tell us whether a religious upbringing makes kids more credulous, or a secular upbringing makes them more sceptical.

But it does show that critical thinking is crucially influenced by environment, and from a very early age.


ResearchBlogging.org
Corriveau, K., Chen, E., & Harris, P. (2014). Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds Cognitive Science DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12138
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.