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Turning to God for reassurance in the face of wonder

‘Agency detection’ – seeing purposeful minds at work behind seemingly random events – is a powerful human instinct that is thought to play an important role in the generation of religious beliefs.

There’s quite a body of research that shows that a persons ‘agency detection’ can be turned up in circumstances where they are made to feel uncertain or confused. Piercarlo Valdesolo (Claremont McKenna College, USA ) and Jesse Graham (University of Southern California) reckoned that giving people a sense of awe might just unsettle them enough to start detecting agents at work in the world around them.

They ran a series of experiments, all of which involved showing their subjects videos that induced feelings of awe or other emotional states.

For example, to induce awe they showed a dramatic footage from the BBC nature documentary ‘Planet Earth’ or (just in case ‘Planet Earth’ made people think of God, rather than awe) an advert for an LCD TV with amazing imagery, such as waterfalls tumbling through city streets.

As controls, they showed a light-hearted BBC nature documentary (Walk on the Wild Side) or, bizarrely, a 1959 interview conducted by Mike Wallace (this latter was expected to induce zero emotional reaction).

In some experiments, they then simply asked directly about their subjects’ belief in supernatural control. In others, to ensure that they were measuring agency detection rather than belief in god, they showed their subjects series of random numbers and asked them to pick out the ones that had been put together by humans rather than computer (none of them had been).

What they found, repeatedly, was that watching an awe-inspiring video increased the tendency to see agents at work. So, for example, they were more likely to believe that the strings of random numbers had been put together by humans (see Figure).

They also measured their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”. What they found was that watching the awe-inspiring videos did indeed increase their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty.

Watching these videos also affected other emotions (like joy, contentedness, and gratitude). But, running a statistical approach known as ‘mediation analysis’, they found that the balance of probabilities strongly suggested that awe increase agency detection both directly and through increasing intolerance of uncertainty.

They point out an interesting observation from other studies. It seems that in individuals who are prone to feelings of awe , this emotion doesn’t trigger intolerance of uncertainty. If you feel awe a lot, you get used to its effects.

And this lead them to conclude that what they unveiled here is a short-term, immediate response to awe-inspiring events:

Although the chronic relation between experiences of awe and uncertainty tolerance (Shiota et al., 2007) suggests that uncertainty tolerance can be strengthened over time, the present results suggest that in the moment of awe, some of the fear and trembling can be mitigated by perceiving an author’s hand in the experience

Valdesolo P, & Graham J (2014). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological science, 25 (1), 170-8 PMID: 24247728

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

It’s a fairly well-attested fact that religious people tend to be happier, to be more socially engaged, and to have more social support. Well, there are nuances depending on the country you look at, but that’s the general picture.

But is it cause or effect? Is it that religion helps people to be socially engaged (by encouraging them to take part in community events, perhaps, or by making them feel part of a group), or is it that religion attracts a certain kind of person? There’s been a few studies into that in the past, and they’ve come up with mixed results.

James Benjamin Schuurmans-Stekhoven (Charles Sturt University, Australia) has tried a different approach. He’s looked to see whether the personality of religious people might explain their social support.

He recruited 219 Australians (70% women, average 45 years) and asked them about their spirituality (questions like: “I believe in a universal power, a god”, “In the last 24 h, I have personally spent 30 min in prayer, meditation or contemplation,” and “I have a set of principles that govern my life”. It’s a bit more vague than your regular religion questionnaire, but it was chosen in order to pick up religiousness of all types and creeds, as well as to pick up on the importance of a shared world view in making social connections.

He asked them about their perceptions about the social support they got from friends, family and ‘others’, and also about their personality (specifically their agreeableness and conscientiousness).

What he found was that, after correcting for age, gender and education, their spirituality was a significant predictor of social support. However, he also found that conscientiousness and, especially, agreeableness, were also good predictors of social support.

In fact, personality was a better predictor of social support than spirituality. What’s more, when Schuurmans-Stekhoven put both factors into the model, the contribution of spirituality became insignificant.

What that suggests is that it’s personality, not spirituality, that explains why religious people have more social support. That conclusion is reinforced by Schuurmans-Stekhoven’s additional finding that many non-spiritual people were also highly conscientious and agreeable, and reported high levels of social support.

Now, Shuurmans-Stekhoven is quick to point out that this is just an observational analysis. That means the correlation could be spurious, or could be due to some other, unidentified factor. But his point is that most of the other studies done have exactly the same flaws (and worse). He’s tested the claim that spirituality leads to increased social support (based on correlations), and found it wanting.

Even so, what these results suggest is that spirituality, far from being a cause of sociability, actually attracts sociable people (or at least, a subset of them).

Schuurmans-Stekhoven, J. (2013). Spirit or Fleeting Apparition? Why Spirituality’s Link with Social Support Might Be Incrementally Invalid Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9801-3

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

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Self control is a depletable resource. Struggle to maintain your self control in one task, and you’ll find it harder to resist temptation in the next one.

There are things that you can do to blunt this effect, so that you can maintain your self control for longer. Get yourself motivated, do some meditation, or simply knock back some glucose.

But what about prayer?

Malte Friese (Saarland University, Germany) and Michaela Wänke (University of Mannheim, also Germany) recruited 79 students to find out. Half were Christian, 14 atheists, 10 agnostics, 14 were adherents of other religions.

Basically the set up was that their subjects were asked to spend 5 minutes either to pray or to think freely about anything they wanted. Then, after an hour, they did a task designed to deplete their self control.

This task involved watching a 5-minute funny video. Half of them were asked to suppress all emotions and control their facial expressions. The other half just laughed away.

Then they did a Stroop colour-word test. This is where you see colour names written (e.g. blue, red) but the text is the ‘wrong’ colour. In other words, the word ‘blue’ is written in red ink. You have to say what the ink colour is, not the word.

It’s something you have to concentrate really hard on to get right, and exert self-control to damp down your instinctive response.

So, what happened?

Well, as the graphic shows, people how laughed freely made fewer errors. So did people who suppressed laughter – so long as they prayed first. But the error rate shot up in those who suppressed their laughter and didn’t pray before hand.

The odd thing was that the effect was the same in atheists as it was in believers.

It’s a really peculiar result. My first thought was that those who prayed first found it easier to suppress their laughter (maybe they were more tranquil). But in fact the two groups found equally difficult to  suppress laughter, and reported similar moods.

The investigators speculate that it might be that prayer encourages a deeper kind of social interaction – participants in the prayer group were more likely to say that they had tried to get in touch with or talk to someone else.

Alternatively, it could be that people who prayed were motivated to work harder at the task (perhaps to live up to the expectations or others. Other research has found that subliminal priming about ‘god’ makes people work longer trying to complete impossible tasks.

Whatever the explanation, as Friese and Wänkepoint out, it’s probably not related to supernatural belief per se.

We would like to stress that the point this study tries to make is that praying can at least temporarily prevent self-control depletion to unfold. The point is not that praying triggers a process that only praying can trigger. Quite the opposite, plausibility and the mediation analysis suggest that various other activities could lead to similar findings (e.g., talking to a human being).

So, if prayer does improve self control, it’s seems as though it does it by hooking into a regular activity. Quite what, that activity is, we don’t know!

Friese, M., & Wänke, M. (2014). Personal prayer buffers self-control depletion Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 56-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.11.006

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

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Stop sniggering there at the back. I’m serious!

This is a study on nearly 25,000 Norwegians conducted over 10 years (the Nord-Trøndelag Health Survey (HUNT)). The purpose of HUNT is to track changes in health in the whole population over several decades – and one of the things they measured in the latest survey round (HUNT 3, conducted 2006-2008) was religious attendance.

After controlling for other factors related to headache (age, gender, educational level and chronic musculoskeletal complaints), they found that those who had headaches in 1995 were more likely to be frequent attenders at religious services in 2006 (by frequent religious attenders, they mean in the Norwegian sense – i.e. at least once a month!).

Now, this was entirely down to migraines (rather than regular headaches), and the effect was quite large. Those who had migraines more than 7 days a month were 50% more likely to be frequent religious service attenders 10 years later than those who were migraine free.

What was really interesting was that there was no relationship to current headache levels. So it’s headache in the past, rather than current headache, that’s associated with current religious service attendance.

And it was something particular about religion, too. There was no relationship with visiting concerts, cinema and/or theatre.

Now, they didn’t measure religious service attendance in the earlier surveys. So there’s a little bit of ambiguity here. But on the whole, it’s pretty good data and it fits with some theoretical expectations.

The study’s authors point out that other research has found that patients with chronic pain often report that they turn to religion.

Indeed, in the HUNT study itself they have previously found that regular churchgoers had lower blood pressure. And one of the symptoms of raised blood pressure is… you guessed it – headache!

I’m not entirely convinced, however. In particular, why does current headache not link to religious service attendance?

I’d like to see how headache changed among individuals between 1995 and 2006. Some people stopped having headaches – was that linked to frequent religious service attendance?

If not, then why would people with headaches turn to religion?

Erling Tronvik, Torgeir Sørensen, Mattias Linde, Lars Bendtsen, Ville Artto, Katarina Laurell, Mikko Kallela, John-Anker Zwart, & Knut Hagen (2014). The relationship between headache and
religious attendance (the Nord-Trøndelag health study- HUNT) The Journal of Headache and Pain, 15 (1)

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Hell and happiness

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Believing in hell seems to make people unhappy. That’s the conclusion that Azim Shariff (University of Oregon, USA) and Lara Aknin (Simon Fraser University, Canada) have come to as a result of a series of studies. Now, that’s actually more surprising t…

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So, posting has been infrequent of late. But on the plus side, that means I have a huge backlog of fantastic research to share with you. To get it cleared, I’m going to try a new approach – mixing in  brief summaries of several studies in one post, as well as the usual, more in-depth articles.

To kick us off, here’s three good ones on religion and mental health.

Does prayer stop brain ageing?
A door-to-door survey in Northern Israel, older Arabic women who had their intellectual faculties fully intact tended to report praying more when they were younger than women who had Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment. Now, you can’t really get cause and effect from memories of 20 years ago (doubly so from people who aren’t firing on all cylinders), but that does link in with other research. Interestingly, almost all the men they talked to reported praying a lot when they were middle aged, regardless of their brain functioning.

The religious delusions of schizophrenics
A study of schizophrenics has found that their religious delusions were different in nature from their regular delusions – they tend to have more grandiosity and be linked to anomalous mood states. The researchers think that this might be why they are more difficult to treat.

A mystery to medical science?
Patients with ‘medically unexplained symptoms’ have symptoms and complaints with no apparent cause – at least as far as their doctor can discern. In a survey of doctors in the USA, two thirds thought that these unexplained symptoms probably reflect a disease that simply is not understood by medical science (i.e. they have a physical explanation). But the remaining one-third believe they reflect spiritual problems. Interestingly, psychiatrists are the least likely to resort to spiritual explanations – perhaps because they tend to be less religious than other physicians

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

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Using standard assessments of national corruption, Hamid Yeganeh & Daniel Sauers of Winona State University, USA, have found that countries with the most religious people also have the highest levels of corruption.

Now, in itself this is not a new observation (I pointed out as much back in 2008), given that some of the most religious countries are also the most corrupt. But what is new is that the relationship holds even after controlling for the effects of socioeconomic development. And they showed that religious denomination doesn’t matter – all religions are the same.

Religion, of course, is supposed to promote good behaviour. So what gives? Well, the authors give several potential explanations.

It might be that religion provides a solace to those on the receiving end. But they point out that religious societies are hierarchical, where the elites end up with a lot of power that goes unchallenged. That’s linked to the tight alignment of religious organizations to political and governmental ones in less developed countries.

It also might be the case that religion increases by discriminating between the faithful and unfaithful, thereby encouraging cronyism and nepotism.

They conclude

“Considering the variety of corruption measures, the reliability of data, and the large number of included countries, we have to conclude that religiosity not only does not
impede corruption but tends to promote it… Based on the above-mentioned arguments, we may conclude that while religiosity provides guidance on morality, some of its characteristics practically promote corrupt business behavior.”

Hamid Yeganeh, & Daniel Sauers (2013). A Cross-National Investigation into the Effects of Religiosity on the Pervasiveness of Corruption Journal of East-West Business, 19 (3), 155-180 DOI: 10.1080/10669868.2012.760027

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Well folks, another year wrapped up. That’s the sixth New Year that this blog has seen in – so thanks to everyone who still keeps coming back to read it! Here’s a wrap up of this year.One of the highlights for me was the trend towards research conducte…

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Studies of religious belief that step outside of the Western bubble are rare, but particularly interesting for that very reason.There’s a lot of great work done that leaves you with a nagging doubt, because you can never be sure that it applies to the human race as a whole (although you can usually surmise that it does not!).

One particular gripe I have is with the idea that we invented gods to keep society functioning nicely by getting everyone to believe in a supernatural policeman. Sounds plausible, and yet when you look at many cultures outside the major monotheisms seems that their gods don’t really care much about morality. They’re interested in you giving them gifts, or looking after their waterhole, or whatever. But they don’t really care whether or not you love your neighbour.

Benjamin Purzycki, from the University of British Columbia in Canada, has been out and about among the people of the Tyva Republic in southern Siberia. Their religion is based around a mixed bag of animism, totemism, shamanism, and Buddhism. One ancient part of their religion involves the Cher eezi, the supernatural lords of resources (e.g., lakes, rivers, trees, etc.) and regions (e.g., kinbased territories, regions that are off-limits to human exploitation, and political districts).

Purzycki began by asking them simply to describe what makes a good or bad person, and also what angers or pleases the spirit masters. By way of a benchmark, he also interviewed anthropology undergraduates from the University of Connecticut – all of them believers in an omniscient god.

Overall, he found, the students were pretty clear and consistent – their God knows everything, but He cares only about the moral information (He knows what colour your shirt is, but he doesn’t care about such things). By contrast, Tyvans gave much more varied answers – suggesting that there’s no consensus about what the spirit masters know or care about.

The idea that the Spirit Masters are watching out for good behaviour just doesn’t seem to be part of their culture.

But he also asked both groups some specific questions – on questions of morality  (for example, things like “e.g., Does the cher eezi of this place know if I stole from another person here?” or “…if I lied to someone when I am at home in America?”) as well as and also simple factual questions (e.g. “…that my eyes are blue?).

As well as asking the Tyvans if the spirit masters knew about these things, he also asked them if they cared (as you can see, he was interested to know if the Spirit Masters were only concerned with local misdeeds or whether they are omniscient, like the Western god).

The aggregate numbers were convincing. Take a look at the graphic. It shows how concerned are the Western god and the Tyvan Spirit Masters about moral transgressions.

For the Westerners, god is concerned about all moral acts wherever they are committed. The Tyvan’s spirit masters  are not only less concerned about moral transgressions, but that concern ebbs away with distance from their sacred place. Unlike the western gods, the Tyvan just aren’t omniscient.

So it seems that although Tyvan’s don’t really seem to think of moral concerns as a defining feature of the spirit masters, they still, when asked, think that they are concerned about moral behaviour.

Which is a little odd, if you think about it.

Maybe, Purzycki speculates, it’s just that Tyvan’s naturally attribute moral concerns to their Spirit Masters because that’s how other supernatural agents they know about think (e.g. “Buddha”).

To add to that, it strikes me that perhaps they just think the Spirit Master are a bit like people. Most people would not define themselves as being preoccupied by morality – though isf asked you would take a dim view of shoplifting, say.

Regardless, the implication is that nonmoral gods could provoke us into more moral behaviours – similar to the way people cheat less if they think there is a ghost in the room.

Which is intriguing but I wonder about the practical effects. Most people who lie or cheat usually believe that their behaviour is justified. It’s a small step from there to convincing yourself that the Spirit Master is on your side – especially if the terms of moral behaviour are not rigidly defined.

So, as Purzycki concludes:

…the ultimate question of whether or not various explicit conceptions of gods’ minds have particular behavioral and fitness effects requires further investigation. Is there variation in levels of prosociality for populations who explicitly moralize their deities?

Really, the problem depends a lot on the cultural context. And there’s going to be interplay between the cultural context and how the local gods come to be seen and defined. Maybe there’s more than one way to skin the “complex society” cat.

Purzycki BG (2013). The minds of gods: a comparative study of supernatural agency. Cognition, 129 (1), 163-79 PMID: 23891826

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

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Imagine yourself walking on your own through a dark forest. Each and every movement that you perceive will result in the feeling that another person or animal is present. From an evolutionary point of view, incorrectly assuming the presence of another agent while there is none (i.e. a false positive) is associated with only little costs, whereas the false belief that no other agent is present while in fact there is one (i.e. a false negative) can cost one’s life.

I’ve lifted that from the introduction to a new paper by Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam), because it rather beautifully describes a phenomenon that is often cited as contributing to religious belief.

Now, previous studies have already shown that believers in the paranormal are also more likely to see patterns, such as faces, in a jumble of stuff. But they haven’t looked at moving objects – i.e. things that are ‘agents’, actively doing stuff. So previous studies don’t directly support the theory.

what van Elk did was to show a group of subjects (a mix of local students or people visting a paranormal fair some moving point images of a person. You can see the kind of thing they saw in the graphic – although what they actually were shown was animated dots representing a person walking on a treadmill.

The walker could appear at different places on the screen, and was sometimes obscured by clouds of random dots. Sometimes there were random dots and no noise.

He found that perceptual sensitivity – the difference between ‘hit’ rates (when the viewer accurately spotted a real figure) and false alarm rates (when the viewer saw a figure that wasn’t there) went down as background noise levels increased (that’s what shown in the left-hand graphic). But overall, it was higher among the skeptics than among paranormal believers.

Skeptics also had lower response bias (shown in the graphic on the right) – that’s the tendency to say there is  figure there when there is none (taking into account the average hit-and-miss guesswork of the group as a whole).

What was most interesting was that the difference in response bias between the paranormal believers and the skeptics was highest when background noise levels were in the mid-range.

van Elk has this to say about that finding:

paranormal believers show a stronger response bias than skeptics for stimuli that in principle could afford agency-detection (i.e. if a human agent is present, it should be detectable) but not for stimuli that are obviously too noisy (see also: Blackmore & Moore, 1993). In other words: illusory pattern perception seems limited to stimuli that in principle could be meaningful.

That fits in with other research that shows that paranormal believers tend have their ‘signal gain’ turned up to high. They strain to find evidence of agents at work – but only in circumstances where that could plausibly be the case.

Given that non-believers in the paranormal also tend to turn up their signal detection when they are distressed or anxious, this could help to explain the link between religious belief and tough environments.

van Elk M (2013). Paranormal believers are more prone to illusory agency detection than skeptics. Consciousness and cognition, 22 (3), 1041-6 PMID: 23933505

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