Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Thinking Style and Belief In God

What factors drive a belief in God?

There is no doubt that the human mind is prepared to believe in the divine.  All over the world, cultures have created belief in one or many gods. These beliefs are common in societies regardless of levels of technological advancement and scientific achievement.

Because of the prevalence of religious beliefs in cultures throughout the world, psychologists have explored why a belief in God is so common. It is clear that there are many different factors that come together to support a belief in God. For example, people tend to view even random events as having a cause, and God provides a good explanation for these seemingly random events. The belief in God may also reduce people’s anxiety when faced with events that would be hard to explain otherwise.

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 An interesting paper by Amitai Shenhav, David Rand, and Joshua Greene in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that people’s thinking style may also influence the strength of people’s belief in God. 

Many different theories propose that there are two inter-related systems of thought.  One is a more intuitive system that helps people to make fast judgments.  The second is a more reflective system that allows people to reason through complex problems. 

A classic example of these systems in action involves a simple math problem:  You go to the store and buy a bat and a ball. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. Together they cost $1.10.  How much did the ball cost? 

Many people have an immediate intuition that the ball cost ten cents. After thinking about this problem further, though, you may realize that the ball actually costs five cents with the bat costing one dollar more ($1.05). Even after you realize the correct answer to the problem, though, you can still see the appeal of the incorrect answer that the ball costs ten cents. The fact that the wrong answer is still appealing even after you know the correct answer is an indication that there are two distinct systems of reasoning that are giving you different answers to the question.

Shenhav, Rand, and Greene suggest that an intuitive style of reasoning may also increase people’s belief in God. They explored this question in two ways.

In one study, they gave people a series of problems like the ball and bat question. They measured how often people gave the intuitively appealing answer to the problem. They also asked people to rate the strength of their belief in God. The researchers also had participants’ scores on tests of intelligence. In this study, measures of intelligence did not predict the strength of people’s belief in God. Instead, people were more likely to believe in God the more that they gave the intuitive answers to the problem. 

Of course, this study is just correlational. The authors also provided an experimental test of the relationship between reasoning style and belief in God. In this study, participants either wrote a brief essay about a time that they used their instinct to solve a problem or a time that they used their reasoning ability to solve a problem.  The essay either had to describe a situation in which the problem solving had a good outcome for them or a bad outcome.  After writing this essay, participants rated their degree of belief in God as well as whether they felt they had experiences in their life that convinced them that God exists. 

When people wrote an essay about using intuition to solve a problem, their rated belief in God was significantly higher when they wrote about a good outcome for themselves than when they wrote about a bad outcome.  When people wrote an essay about using reasoning to solve a problem, their belief in God was lower when they wrote about a good outcome than when they wrote about a bad outcome.  A similar pattern was observed for people’s agreement that they had experiences that convinced them of the existence of God.

Why would reasoning style influence the strength of people’s belief in God?

One reason why people believe in God is that this belief helps people to deal with situations that have no obvious explanation. God provides an intuitively appealing explanation. Often, when you think deeply about a situation, though, you can also generate other explanations for the same situation. Those other explanations can undermine a belief in God.

Before closing this blog entry, I should say that in my view this research does not (and should not) tell anyone what to believe. The field of cognitive science is interested in the psychological mechanisms that support people’s belief in God. The more we understand about these factors, the better we can understand ourselves as humans. But, these data will not provide definitive answers to any of the difficult theological questions that have been debated for millennia.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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