This is point of inquiry for Monday, June 4th, 2012.
Welcome back to a point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. In late April, a study came out in the esteemed journal Science that really got the secular blogosphere hopping. It was a paper showing that, you know, something we’ve long suspected may actually be true, a.k.a. less critical thinking is associated with more religiosity. In fact, having a cognitive style where you’re less analytic and more intuitive promotes faith and vice versa. Now, it turns out this paper is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we’re learning about the religious mind. So to get deeper into the topic, I invited on Wiltja Vé, who is lead author of the current paper and of much other work besides Wiltja. Vais is a P.H. de candidate in social psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Next year he will be an associate professor in psychology at the University of Kentucky. His research studies the cognitive, evolutionary and cultural reasons why people entertain supernatural beliefs or why they don’t.
Which to me, is at least as interesting. Will Jouvet. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thanks for having me.
You bet. I want to discuss and I think a lot of people have already heard about your recent paper in science, which is about the relationship between being religious and tending to practice what you might call analytical thinking. And also, I want to talk about the broader research program this represents, which is really fascinating. So to dove in. You’re using this framework that I think has been kind of made famous by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. And he divides the way we think into two systems. So maybe you can explain that first and then and then tell us about the experiment.
Yeah, sure. So there’s this really old idea in psychology. You can trace it back at least to William James. And the idea is that we have two kind of independent systems for processing information in the world. So we have one system that uses fast and frugal heuristics and delivers what we could think of as intuitive responses. And then we have this separate, distinct system that’s more about deliberative, effortful, analytic thinking. And depending on the situation, sometimes we rely more on intuitions versus analytic thinking. But given time and cognitive resources, we know that a lot of times analytic thinking can override our intuitions and analytic thinking.
Basically, you said cognitive research. I mean, it takes more energy. Right. I mean, then the reason we have the two systems is basically, you know, so that the brain can operate efficiently.
Yes, exactly. So analytic thinking is generally a lot more effortful than relying on our intuitions. So in a lot of situations, if you really need a fast response, your intuitions are going to be a lot more useful than sitting down and effortful thinking things through.
And so then what you do is you go and say, hey, this impacts whether you’re religious or not. You make religiosity into a matter of what people would call cognitive style. And that’s something on which individuals can differ. And so. So this is what you wanted to test, right? Is that, you know, if you rely more on the intuitive style than it tends to promote religiosity versus the analytical style tends to detract from religiosity.
Yeah. In our research we were building on, there’s been a lot of recent research looking at the psychology of religion. And one sort of recurring theme is a lot of people have argued that it’s largely various intuitive processes that promote religious belief. So if it’s intuitions that are promoting belief and we know that sometimes analytic thinking can override our intuitions, we are curious what would happen if, you know, we were interested in investigating the possibility that analytic thinking would actually reduce people’s religious beliefs. So we had one study where we adopted a correlational approach. Basically, we gave people at Hask with a number of questions. And for each question, there is sort of an easy, intuitive answer. Or you could come up with a different answer if you thought it through analytically. And we found that people who tended to provide more analytical answers also tended to report reduced levels of religious belief.
And actually, let’s tell people about the test. This is a test that it seems to me people are using a lot in psych studies. It’s called the cognitive reflection tests. And I just want to tell one of their three questions. One of them is and there they are, these kind of math questions, you know, like S.A.T. style a bit. And one of them is a bat in a ball cost a dollar 10. In total, the bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much is the ball cost? And the intuitive answer, people just quickly say 10 cents. The right answer is, is five cents, because if you stop to think about it, the ball is five cents. That’s a dollar. Five cents. That adds up to a dollar 10. But people mess this up all the time, I guess.
Yeah. Even fairly high functioning students tend to do poorly on this type of a task. There’s a second item in that same test thread. He said, you know, there’s some really pads on a pond. And each day there are twice as many lily pad on the 48 day. The pond does fall. On what day was it? Half full. And people want to intuitively say it must be the 24th. But you have to realize that the lily pad to doublings has to be the 47 seven. So it’s not necessarily that this is tricky math involved. They’re not computationally difficult. It’s more about sort of overriding that initial impulsive decision to go with 24 or 10 cents, for example.
But I think what’s really provocative about this is you say or at least is the subtext of the paper, is that this is something kind of inherent about the way people process, because some people privilege the intuitive style and some people privilege the analytical style. I mean, it’s sort of sort of part of who you are, right?
Yeah, we do know that everybody has both systems. It’s not the case that they’re strictly analytic people out there and strictly intuitive people across situations. People might rely more on one than the other. So what we are hoping to capture in that study is we trying to capture sort of stable tendencies to think more analytically versus intuitively.
And where do you think that those come from in this the product of education? Could someone say that you’re basically testing, you know, intelligence here or would you not say that?
I don’t know if I’d call it intelligence per say so we know that performance on this task is sort of modestly correlated with IQ, but it’s not that strong of relationship. So one way to think of it as IQ may be like your raw processing power. Where’s this analytic thinking? It’s it’s more of a style of processing the information rather than just sort of brute force.
So, I mean, if you take a lot of philosophy classes, do you, you know, sort of learn to learn to flex this muscle more, you think?
I mean, yeah, I’m not aware of any research specifically looking at that, but it certainly sounds plausible. There are some lines of work or educational practices that really are all about training your analytic thinking and strategies.
Well, so you find, first of all, that if you have this more analytic style, that tends to decrease your religiosity. But then what’s cool about the experiment is you do these crazy. You call them priming, where basically you trick people into being more reflective. And you do this by you showed them a picture of Rodin’s The Thinker. I think everybody knows that sculpture. And who knew that? That makes people process things analytically. And then you had them read the questions you’re asking them in hard to read fonts, kind of like, you know, the fonts a computer gives you to make sure you’re an actual human being and not a robot. I guess. I guess. And that makes them think more critically, too.
Yeah. So after we ran the correlational study, we we wanted to get after causation. So one nice thing with analytic thinking is it’s relatively easy to sort of experimentally nudged people to think more analytically. Yeah. So we had one experiment where people would look at artwork and have them looked at the image of the thinker. And then the other half looked at images of the famous statue of the guy throwing a discus. Obviously, that second artwork has nothing to do with analytic thinking, but we found that people viewing the thinker tended to provide more analytic answers on one task. And they also reported lower levels of belief in God.
So this is like the nerds versus the jocks experiment, basically.
Yeah, the nerds vs. jocks of classical sculpture.
So then that was, I guess, a good a good first step in terms of getting at this experimentally. But we wanted to make sure that this is about analytic thinking generally, not just some quirk of looking at certain pieces of artwork. So our strategy there was to then try to get at the same effect in different ways. So we had a second task that we use to prime analytic thinking where people basically played a little word game, where they’re rearranging words in our experimental condition. Some of these words would trigger analytic thinking so they’d see words like think, ponder rational. And participants in that condition tended to provide more analytic answers on one task. And they reported lower levels of religious belief. And then our final experiment was the most subtle of them all. So there’s some previous research out there looking at what cognitive psychologists were called cognitive disfluency. So the general idea is that sometimes you’re going through life and something in the world just seems difficult to process. And when you experience that momentary disfluency, they found that that triggers analytic thinking. But disfluency can come from lots of things. So some Reacher’s researchers found that just giving people questions printed in a difficult to read font that was sufficient to trigger analytic thinking strategies. So in our final experiment, we just asked people about their religious beliefs. And half of the participants received a questionnaire that’s just sort of your typical easy to read font. And then in our experimental condition, half of the participants received the exact same questions about their religious beliefs. But it was just in a tricky to redefine. And we found that participants reported lower levels of religious belief that they were asked in matricular redefine.
So religious belief by this metric comes to seem a little arbitrary. Among other things.
Well, yeah, it’s interesting. So we’re not the only team out there who’s been taking an experimental approach to looking at religious belief. So we know from previous research, for instance, that if you remind people of the death, then they report greater levels of religious belief. If you make people feel out of control, they report greater levels of religious belief. If you make people feel lonely, they report greater levels of religious belief. If you have people read about evolution, they report lower levels of religious belief. So people feel like that that religious belief has some really core beliefs that set in stone and doesn’t change over time. But instead are actually finding that across the life span and across different situations, people who sort of moment to moment levels of belief might fluctuate quite a bit.
Well, let me let me move on. Let’s try to put this in a broader context, which you’ve already started to do, this tendency towards cognitive reflection is not the only difference among people. That seems to affect your religiosity because you show me some of your papers. You had one on something called mentalizing, which is stronger in women than men. It’s especially weak in people who are autistic. And if you’re not a good good at mentalizing, this makes you less religious, right. Or conversely, being good at mentalizing promotes religiosity. So tell us more about that.
Tell us what it is first. Actually, what is Malya?
The recent science paper was, I guess, one set of studies in this larger project that I’ve been involved with, trying to figure out what are the different factors that influence people’s levels of religious belief. And so far, I’ve kind of been working in a rough framework where we have around three different factors that we’ve been looking at. So one way to think of this is in order for a given person to believe in a given God at a particular point in time, you need three things. So first, you just need to be able to form stable mental representations of the God in question. So if you can’t imagine God, you’re probably not going to believe in God. Second, you need some sort of cultural learning. And that seems fairly obvious, right? It’s easy for us to mentally represent lots of different gods, but most people tend to only believe in one or a few. And it’s largely a culture that might determine that. And then finally, the person needs to maintain their belief over time. So what this means potentially is that if you in some way disrupt any of those three processes, that will lead to lower levels of religious belief. So for the first one, what does it take to mentally represent a god? If you look across religious traditions, people generally think of their gods as sort of intentional agents. You can interact with them and they have more or less humanlike minds. And we know from other research that in order to represent other people’s minds. So in order to think about other people’s mental states and beliefs and desires, it requires the capability called mentalizing or theory of mind. So we predicted in a separate paper that individual differences in people’s mentalizing abilities would actually influence their levels of religious belief. So across four studies, we found, for example, that autistic participants who tend to have impairments and mentalizing autistic participants end up reporting lower levels of belief in God relative to neurotypical controls and also autism. It kind of exists along a spectrum. So they call it the autistic spectrum. Women tend to score lower on the autism spectrum than do men. And you also find a gender difference in religious belief where men tend to be less religious than women. So we found that it’s that specific mentalizing capability that actually explains a lot of the gender gap in religious beliefs.
And, well, this one is this one is tricky because if I understand the research properly, mentalizing is related to also, you know, empathizing. Right. I mean, isn’t that you know, in order you need to see someone else’s point of view. You need to put yourself in in their head. You need to figure out, you know, a theory of why they’re engaging in particular actions. Is that right?
Yeah. You can take a mentalizing. It’s just sort of like folk mind reading ability to guess what’s going on in other people’s heads.
OK. So in other words, we do the same thing for gods. That’s why God seems so human. That’s why the the Greek gods are always engaging in this sort of passion play. That’s effectively what people are doing when they believe in gods.
Exactly. These same mentalizing tendencies have kind of left their fingerprints all over people’s religious beliefs. And we even find that mentalizing people have certain biases in how they reason about other minds. So, for instance, people tend to have an egocentric bias. If I believe something, I’m I’m like me to think that other people believe the same thing. So Nick Epley and his colleagues at the University of Chicago actually recently found that people have an even bigger, egocentric bias if they’re thinking about God than they do if they’re thinking about other people. So generally, it’s these same biases that shape how we think about other minds. Those are also evident in people’s religious beliefs.
So based on this kind of stuff, can we essentially build the perfect religious person? I mean, if you got someone who’s really good at mentalizing and you’ve got somebody who’s really intuitive, what other things you put in the mix and basically you’ve got someone who’s going to just easily be a religious believer.
Yeah. And potentially you could imagine that most people on Earth there are sort of that ideal religious believers. And most people have ever lived. Do you have these religious beliefs?
And so you’re saying that these traits are I mean, you’re saying that the opposite of these traits is what’s what’s rare. In other words, you know, it’s it’s it’s being less good at mentalizing or being really highly intuitive that that sort of sets you out.
Yes. So in terms of scientists trying to study religious belief, it seems like for a while people would be running experiments in coming up with theoretical models saying, well. Where does religion come from? So where does belief come from? But if you’re trying to explain religion at all, you need to take into account differences in religious belief. And if you’re looking, you know, across generations and even in the world today, it’s the atheists here are the outliers. They’re the exceptions to the rule. So I think you can gain a lot of traction in understanding religious belief by studying the factors that might lead people to not adopt religious beliefs.
Fair enough. Well, I want to talk about a couple more papers of yours, they also fit into this picture, although in a bit of a different way.
And this is where you’re talking about, you know, just thinking about God. If you believe in God, it makes people, you know, sort of more willing to socially conform and more willing to support the group. And you say it’s basically because they think God is watching over them and they got you know, they’re being judged. So they act in the way people expect them to act. Is that am I getting that right?
Yeah, that sounds about right. So researchers have known for a while now that certain types of religious beliefs are linked with within group cooperation. So religion can act kind of as a social glue to bring communities together. It’s an interesting question as well. What might the mechanism be that’s in place? And one possibility is if you’re imagining a God who is morally concerned and I’m Nishan and knows what you’re up to. We know that if people feel like they’re being watched, they’re more likely to be cooperative and put their best foot forward. So it could be that just thinking about God is producing that same sort of experience of, oh, no, I’m being watched. I better be on my best behavior. So we did have some experiments where he found that for strong religious believers, if we could suddenly prod them to think about God, they’d react in the exact same ways that they act. If, for instance, you put him in front of a video camera or have them think about what their friends are, how their friends view them.
So in effect, this is making people be I mean, I don’t know if this is this is the right term, but kind of more high minded, because if if all the eyes are watching you, you’ve got to behave like one of the other members of the hive.
Yeah, I guess in my research, I haven’t looked at it in terms of conformity, per say. But yeah, we do know that, say, priming religious concepts can lead people to be more cooperative and generous. Mm hmm.
Okay. But and then and so then you go on to say that this is this is why people don’t like atheists, if they’re religious is because they think that atheists won’t be part of the hive because they think no one’s watching over them and that they don’t think anyone’s watching over them. And so therefore they won’t conform.
Yeah, exactly. So if some people are viewing this sort of belief in God as a necessary component of moral cooperative behavior, then suddenly that makes atheists look like a really big threat. So not only do these people not believe that God is watching. They don’t even think that God is real. So what’s Keeping Them Honest? What’s Keeping Them Cooperative? So we found across a number of studies that the antipathy towards atheists was really driven by the sort of moral distrust rather than other types of negative attitudes.
And and also you say, right, that this is not how people feel about people who are gay.
It’s not how people feel about women. It’s not how people feel about African-Americans. So there’s something different here in terms of how they feel about atheists.
Yeah, exactly. So that kind of is built out of. If you take sort of an evolutionary approach to trying to understand prejudice and stereotyping, the idea is that prejudice isn’t a one size fits all phenomenon. So people’s attitudes towards atheists or gays or Muslims or women, they’re driven by different types of feelings. So, for instance, Steve Newberg and his colleagues at Arizona State found that their white undergrads in Arizona experience fear if they were thinking about black men, but discussed thinking about gay men. So in terms of atheists, we were really interested in trying to figure out what’s sort of the key, the key threat. And it looks like it’s this cooperative threat where if atheists don’t feel that God is watching, how can you trust them? So we found, for instance, more pronounced distrust of atheists than of Muslims or feminists or gays, for example.
OK. There’s distrust of an emotion that goes along with it like fear or disgust, just so we can get all of it on the table. Or is this a different thing?
It seems a bit different to me. So some groups might provoke a really pronounced emotional reaction. And it doesn’t really seem to be the same for atheists. So there’s not a particular discrete emotion that seems to be triggered when people are thinking about atheists.
Well, let’s let’s now talk about what the big picture is of all that all this essentially means or implies. I mean, what it’s doing, it seems to me, is it’s certainly taking religiosity significantly out of the realm of conscious choice. I mean, I don’t know, would you go so far as to say some people, more than others are in effect, born religious?
Oh, interesting, I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. Yeah, I would say for various cognitive and cultural reasons. Some people are going to be way more likely to end up adopting religious beliefs and maintaining those beliefs over time.
But you would also probably say that if you’re end up in a culture where for some reason there’s no religion, religion’s repressed. I don’t know, suppressed, then it won’t it won’t play itself out that way. I mean, it’s got to be completely culturally contingent to.
Yeah, absolutely. Culture plays a huge role. So, for instance, you can look in Western Europe or Scandinavia in particular, it looks like right now there’s a generation that’s more or less atheistic. So most people don’t actually believe in gods. And when the story for that is that this generation grew up without having cultural models who were sort of publicly displaying their religiosity. So if you’re if you’re growing up in a culture, you kind of look to others to find out what you should believe. And if other people don’t seem to believe in God, then why should you?
Well, so in a culture like that, what are people who are good at mentalizing and good at intuiting and good at what we might call high mindedness? I mean, what do they do instead? Is there something that gets displaced onto. Yeah, I’m not sure I’d really be fascinated to try to conduct more studies looking at, say, cultural atheists, because, you know, there’s also research and I’m I’m assuming you probably know it, suggesting that there is a heritable or genetic component to religiosity. Would you say that that fits your research program?
Yeah, definitely. Yes. There is evidence that religiosity, like all kinds of things we get so far, tends to be heritable. It runs in families. And it’s it’s people’s sort of strength of religious conviction tends to be heritable. And we also know, for example, that mentalizing is heritable. And I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised at analytic thinking was heritable. So it could be these other cognitive factors that explain the heritability of religious belief.
So how are these things being inherited? I mean, you know, obviously so clearly I’m a Catholic is inherited in this in only in the sense that that’s what your parents culturally adopt. But these styles of thinking or ways of representing others. I mean, that’s operating through, you know what your personality. How is it how is it operating?
I don’t know if I’d use the term personality for it. So I know people in tied mentalizing. It’s just a specific cognitive faculty. Some people are better at it. Some people are less good at it. And that difference seems to be heritable.
So is this just. I mean, maybe the phrase that we’ve been using throughout cognitive style is better than personality. Yeah. Cognitive styles, cognitive styles are inherited. I guess you would say.
Yeah, exactly. So cognitive styles, for instance, had a tendency to think more analytically or intuitively that could potentially be heritable. We know that the basic cognitive capability to reason about other minds mentalizing or theory of mind. We know that that’s heritable as well.
And this is all, you know, sort of twin study research to mission to test the heritability of these. That you mean just you give the standard questions that you give normally in these studies, but you just do it to twins?
I take it is happiness is unknown. Studies, adoption studies.
Well, so the the big picture question is, what is the what does it say about evolution? We had Jonathan Hyde on the show. He argues that people are naturally group ish because that, you know, at some point in evolution, it was good to be group ish. It helped us survive. And so religiosity is one of the ways in which we exercise are our group business and bind ourselves together. And he says that we are naturally selected to be that way. What what is what is your take on that? I mean, I know this is something that the field is still debating, but it’s obviously lying in the background here.
Yeah. So there’s been a lot of debate in the field on, you know, what what’s the evolution of religion? How come our species has other species? Don’t. And I think there’ve been a couple of different approaches. So the approach we’ve been working with in our lab lately is sort of that the general capacity to say mentally represent gods. That might be a byproduct of other specific sort of genetic adaptations. But once you have sort of beliefs in various types of supernatural agents, then you can have Cultural Evolution Act on that. So we know that, for instance, groups that believe in moralizing God who can monitor people’s behavior. Those groups actually tend to do better in in cooperative terms. So I’d say that you could see religion as sort of a cultural evolutionary adaptation for promoting within group cooperation.
Well, if that’s true, Alkon, we still have all these dissidents out there. I mean, what. Why is. And everybody part of the hive.
One interesting possibility for him, for instance, if if religion is such a good tool for building cooperative groups, then how do you explain societies like, say, Sweden, Denmark, where so many people aren’t religious? So there’s some work by North and England are a great book called Sacred and Secular. And they’ve argued that you can find some societies with basically secularized institutions for guaranteeing cooperation. And, you know, you have things like health care and education. And when you have secular institutions performing the same functions that religion used to in other contexts, then religion kind of dries up and goes away.
So in other words, despite the fact that, you know, some more have we have heritable things that promote religiosity and we have, you know, basically what you’re talking about, individual differences between people that promote religiosity. Nevertheless, it’s not impossible to have religiosity go away. I mean, is that is that true? Because we have a lot of, you know, atheists, the new atheist today actually saying they want to live in a world without religion. I don’t know how realistic that is. But you’re saying that it may be, you know, all these, you know, tools or, you know, mental processing systems can, you know, be displaced somehow?
Yeah, it certainly is possible for for their. Exist nice, cooperative, healthy societies that don’t have religion. Phil Zuckerman also has has a great book about that, looking at, you know, what is life like in Scandinavian countries or there isn’t religion. And you actually find that these are some of the most peaceful, cooperative societies on Earth in the big picture.
Then what is.
What is the world of religion going to do in relation to this body of research? Are they ignoring it or are they attacking it or are they just saying, huh? I mean, I suppose the Dalai Lama is fine with it, but I mean, what about everybody else?
Yeah. In terms of how the research has been received so far, for the most part has been positive. I’ve obviously gotten a few odd e-mails from people out there, but I don’t I don’t think necessarily people should be threatened by scientific approaches to trying to naturally understand religious beliefs and where it comes from and and how human minds create religious systems.
Well, but surely some Biegler threatened Amena. You know, the reason I found out about your paper was because basically it was doing a little number of going viral on. The reason it was going viral was because people are reading. It is essentially religious people don’t reflect on things. And they were like, score a point for us atheists.
Yeah, I think even in that in the clothes of our paper, we have kind of a paragraph at the end where we caution people not not to read too much into this. So we’re not saying that religious people are incapable of analytic thinking. Everybody has these two systems. Everybody uses them all the time. And overall, we’re we’re just interested broadly in what are the types of factors that influence people’s religious beliefs. We’re not taking a stand on whether we think religion is true or rational or anything else.
Yeah, but I mean, let’s look, let’s face it, it doesn’t sound good for religion to say that it’s more of an automatic response.
What does it say? That base, it is making it out to look like something that’s more automatic and that if he is essentially a probe promoted to stop and think, it tends to go away.
Yeah, it is interesting that this is showing. So one interpretation would be that this is showing that religious beliefs are intuitive and easy to think. And it’s not even necessarily a new idea in sort of the broader intellectual landscape to ask questions about what role does, you know, effortful analytic thinking play in religion. You could turn back to, say, Saurian Kirkegaard, where he said, you know, reason can only get you so far. But then you need to take that leap of faith. And that wasn’t necessarily an idea that’s threatening to religion.
You know, but but spudded stickier, her guards say, just trust your gut. I mean, that’s basically what a start in some like, you know. I mean, what feels right? Not don’t trust too much logic.
Yeah. That’s kind of how he put it, his budget can get you so far. But then the rest of it’s up to faith. Would you like a fairly old idea in religious circles?
So I guess we then we know what argument faith will use to respond to this argument about why why faith is only the first step in reasoning.
Yeah. Yeah. I’ve certainly had some e-mails where people say, oh, this isn’t even all that surprising. I know that religions about faith.
Mm hmm. Okay. Well, they will always have faith to rely on. And Will’s your vaisse. Thank you so much for being with us on Point of Inquiry. Thanks for having me.
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