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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.

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.

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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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