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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.

Religious people often seem to have strong taboos. Think of any religion, and there is usually some proscribed activities or objects, and an emphasis on purity. Maybe religion is connected to a heightened sense of disgust?

Uri Berger and David Anaki, at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, were looking to see how one questionnaire often used to measure disgust, the Revised Disgust Scale (DS-R) functioned across a diverse group of Israeli citizens. Most studies in the past have used students (and mostly women), but the 1427 participants in their study had an average age of 33, and only half were women.

The DS-R has 27 questions and, like others, Berger and Anaki found that they fell into three groups of closely related questions.

  • Core disgust: related to disease and eating
  • Animal reminder: related to sex, death, and hygiene
  • Contamination: related to, well, contamination

Overall they found that religion doesn’t really explain why some people are more easily disgusted than others. It only explained 1.4% of the variation – gender was ten times more important (women were more easily disgusted than men).

What was interesting is the relationship between religion and different types of disgust. Religious people were actually less disgusted by contamination than the non-religious, and only a bit more disgusted by ‘core disgust’.

But this was more than made up for by the disgust felt by the religious over reminders of our animal nature.

So it could be that religion changes the things that disgust us. Certainly it seems to affect the broad domains of disgust, but there’s probably more to it than that. As Berger and Anaki comment:

[It] may be that demographic elements do not modulate levels of disgust per se as much as they impact the context in which disgust is activated. For example, the dietary differences in Jewish and Hindi religions caused the variation in subjective disgust evoked in devotee’s response to a potential consumption of ‘‘forbidden animals’’; Jews who consume beef are repelled from pork consumption, while the vice versa applies for non-vegetarian Hindus. However, the level of religious devoutness may only slightly modulate the intensity of that subjective disgust.


ResearchBlogging.org
Berger, U., &Anaki, D. (2014). Demographic influences on disgust: Evidence from a heterogeneous sample Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 67-71 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.016

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

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And so to this thorny topic again! This time with a batch of new studies – but what light do they shed on this complicated topic?First up is a straightforward analysis of data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III)…

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In Scotland, they’ve been following a group of people ever since they were born in 1921 (the Lothian Birth Cohort). Cohorts like this are great to see what factors early in life affect how people turn out as adults – so long as you ask the right questi…

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In Scotland, they’ve been following a group of people ever since they were born in 1921 (the Lothian Birth Cohort). Cohorts like this are great to see what factors early in life affect how people turn out as adults – so long as you ask the right questi…

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If you read the last post you’ll know that the relationship between religion and happiness is complicated. When you look around the world, religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people. However, it’s not straightforward. The effect is b…

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Last week I highlighted a failure to replicate a study on women, fertility and religion. Here’s another study that sought to replicate an earlier one, but didn’t.

Steven Pirutinsky (Columbia University, USA) was interested in a study that I reported on back in 2012. In that study, the researchers found that religious people were only more happy than average in countries where most people were religious. In other words, the effect was culture-dependent.

That earlier study was based on data from internet dating site members. Pirutinsky looked at a more conventional data source – the European Social Survey.

He found a very slight hint of an effect of national culture on the relationship between personal religiosity and life satisfaction, and no relationship at all to happiness or health.

Are these ‘failures to replicate’ evidence of a problem in the way research is done? Possibly. There is increasing concern that many – perhaps the vast majority – of published research can’t be replicated.

It’s a well known problem. The in-house magazine of the Massachusetts General Hospital just ran a really nice article on the problem as seen from a medical perspective. And there’s now a whole organization dedicated to getting funding for researchers to try to replicate key scientific research.

According to a recent paper in Personality and Social Psychology Review, there are a few basic steps that could be taken to reduce the problem:

Specifically, we argue that an inflation of false-positive rates would diminish, sometimes to a substantial degree, when researchers (a) have explicit a priori theoretical hypotheses, (b) include multiple replication studies in a single paper, and (c) collect additional data based on observed results.

But perhaps this is being unfair in this case. As Pirutinsky points out, there undoubdedly is a complex relationship between culture and the personal attributes linked to happiness. It’s just that it’s probably quite nuanced.

These conflicting findings point to the nuanced nature of the religion–health relationship and suggest that this correlation is unlikely to be solely due to social valuation … Thus, while the broader point raised by Gebauer et al. (2012)—that social context matters—is important and under-appreciated, unraveling these complex mediators and moderators requires a contextual approach that carefully explores the particular religious processes relevant to the area under study.

And in fact, other recent research has indeed explored this area and found some support for Gebauer’s hypothesis. Touch wood, I’ll cover that in my next post.


ResearchBlogging.org
Pirutinsky, S. (2013). Is the Connection Between Religiosity and Psychological Functioning Due to Religion’s Social Value? A Failure to Replicate Journal of Religion and Health, 52 (3), 782-784 DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9739-5

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

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About this time last year I wrote about an interesting study that found that single women were less religious when they were most fertile, while women in a relationship were more religious.
Christine Harris (University of California, USA) and Laura Mickes (University of London, UK) also thought the results were pretty remarkable – and they set out to see if they could reproduce them.

So, repeated the study by Durante and colleagues, but with with a larger pool of responders. Like Durante, they recruited them using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – 1,200 women, interviewed before the 2012 US presidential election.

The results, shown in the figure, were clear: stage in the ovulatory cycle had no effect on religiosity or on social attitudes (or on fiscal attitudes, which was included as a kind of control).

So women, at least the ones interviewed for this study, do not turn to religion and social conservatism when they are at their most fertile. Social attitudes do not change on a whim.

The results did confirm that women in established relationships tend to be more religious and more socially conservative, which is pretty much would you’d expect from other data (but: is it cause or effect?).

So, two studies, with basically the same design, with different results. Should we be concerned?

Well, Harris and Mickes point out that this study is just one of “a growing number of failures to
replicate several menstrual cycle effects on preferences and attraction, which invites concerns that this literature as a whole may have a false-positive rate well above the widely presumed 5%.”

They suggest that the problem may be due to “data analysis flexibility”. Researchers often play around with the data, refining their analyses until they get something that clearly demonstrates the effect they’re looking for.

It’s a common temptation, but it renders any statistical analyses meaningless. The only way around this problem is to declare in advance exactly what you will do, and then follow that plan to the letter.

But this approach, while rigorous, means that you can’t go digging in the data to try to unearth useful stuff. The solution is to do an exploratory analysis, and then run another full study to confirm what you’ve found. But who has the time and money to do that (especially when academics are under immense pressure to pump out new study results, in order to keep their job).

Talking of which, Harris and Mickes did make one interesting finding. High-fertility women in established relationships were much less likely to say they intended voting for Obama than low fertility women or high fertility single women (around 58% of the high-fertile, paired women, versus around 77% of the other groups).

But when it came to actual voting (they ran the study again after the election), paired women voted for Obama at equal rates (about 68%), while single women were more likely to vote for Obama if they were highly fertile (90%) than if they were at a low-fertility stage of their cycle (75%)

Perhaps this has nothing to do with attitudes, though, and everything to do with whether they found Obama attractive (physical attractiveness is well known to influence the voting behaviour of both men and women).

Well, maybe. I guess someone will have to run another study to see if that’s true!


ResearchBlogging.org
Harris, C., & Mickes, L. (2014). Women Can Keep the Vote: No Evidence That Hormonal Changes During the Menstrual Cycle Impact Political and Religious Beliefs Psychological Science, 25 (5), 1147-1149 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613520236

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

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This is a story that has been circulating recently, so I thought I’d  fact check it! The study, by Allen Downey, a Professor of Computer Science at  Olin College of Engineering in the USA, hasn’t yet been formally published – but you can read…

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Religion, at least in many people’s minds, is linked to prosocial behaviour. There’s some evidence that that’s true – at least in certain circumstances – but it’s a little equivocal

But at least, we can agree that religious people believe they are more moral. When asked, they are more likely to say that they they will do the right thing (regardless of whether or not they actually do). It’s straightforward self-affirmation bias.

Or so I thought, until I saw the recent research from Olga Stavrova University of Cologne, Germany) and Pascal Siegers (GESIS Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences, Germany).

They did a total of four studies, digging into different social survey datasets, basically showing that that whether religious people said they were more ethical depends on whether or not they live in a ‘religious’ country.

For example, the more religious people there are in a country, the less likely it is that religious people will say that they go to religious services or are a charity member. When religion is common, religious people are relatively less likely to condemn liberal morals, or to disapprove of lying in one’s own interest.

OK, so what this is basically saying is that, in countries where most people are religious, your average religious person is pretty normal. In countries where it’s easy to opt out of religion, those people who stick with it tend to really be into it.

But actually the results showed some interesting details to ponder. Take a look at the graphs (click on them for a larger version).

They show how people respond to various questions on unethical behaviour – the further you go to the right on each graph, the more religious are the responders.

In general, the trend is that more religious people are less likely to say they do bad things – the graphs slope downwards to the right.

The different lines indicated different kinds of countries. The thick lines are countries with lots of religious people, the thin lines are countries with few religious people.

Two things jump out at you.

First is that, in countries with few religious people (thin lines), even the most religious are more likely to justify lying and admit traffic offences than the least religious people in highly religious countries (top two graphs).

Second is that, in highly religious countries (thick lines), everyone – religious and non-religious – is more likely to say that they would buy stolen goods and commit insurance fraud.

This second observation helps to explain another fact – that religious countries tend to be more corrupt. The data in those graphs have been corrected for socio-economic factors (wealth, education, etc). So they suggest that religious countries tend to have a more corrupt culture – everyone, regardless of how religious they are, is more likely to see corrupt behaviour as acceptable.

In the less religious countries, highly religious people are much less likely to condone corruption. And less religious countries are less corrupt. Is it the guiding light of the highly religious that is reducing corruption? I doubt it. Remember, in these countries there are hardly any highly religious people, so their it’s the behaviour of the non-religious that dominates the average.

More likely, it seems that people are not being entirely honest in their answers. Which brings us to the top two graphs.

What’s interesting about these is that, in the least religious countries, even the highly-religious are more likely to endorse lying and traffic offences than most people in more religious countries.

It seems that the cultural norms in less religious countries allow people to freely confess that they commit traffic offences and occasionally lie. But does that mean that they’re really doing it more?

And does it mean that the religious really tell fewer lies and commit fewer traffic offences? Well, other research has shown that the highly religious tell fewer ‘white’ lies. So maybe they do!


ResearchBlogging.org
Stavrova O, & Siegers P (2014). Religious prosociality and morality across cultures: how social enforcement of religion shapes the effects of personal religiosity on prosocial and moral attitudes and behaviors. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 40 (3), 315-33 PMID: 24218518

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

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