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What does the latest research say on religion decreasing the risk of suicide?

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)…

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.

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!

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!

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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‘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.

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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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