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Opening the Mind: Where Skepticism and Superstition Meet

Openness to experience is associated with both rationality and mystical beliefs.

This post is in response to
Reason Versus Faith? The Interplay of Intuition and Rationality In Supernatural Belief

As noted in a previous posting, a number of recent papers have found that religious and paranormal beliefs were positively associated with “intuitive” thinking and negatively associated with “analytical” thinking. One of these studies (Shenhav, Rand, & Greene, 2011) investigated personality traits and found that openness to experience had a moderate negative correlation with belief in God, suggesting that the more open to experience people are, the less likely they are to believe. Interestingly this correlation was larger than the correlation between analytical thinking and God belief, indicating that openness to experience may have a stronger impact on belief than thinking style. Shenhav et al. found that priming intuitive thinking could increase reported belief in God, whereas priming analytical thinking could decrease it. Subsequent studies confirmed that priming analytical thinking reduced both religious and paranormal beliefs (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012Pennycook, Cheyne, Seli, Koehler, & Fugelsang, 2012). This raises an intriguing possibility that priming openness to experience could have an influence on supernatural belief, although due to the ambiguous nature of openness to experience the results could encompass both increased scepticism or increased superstition.

Sceptical scientists and believers in the occult alike tend to be high in openness to experience

Openness to experience is a broad feature of personality associated with intellectual curiosity, artistic interests, questioning of traditional values and authority, and willingness to explore new experiences and activities. Openness to experience is positively related to a construct called need for cognition, which is associated with analytical thinking. A survey conducted by the Center for Inquiry found that openness to experience was the personality trait that most strongly distinguished between those who considered themselves religious and those who did not, with the latter scoring higher on this trait (Galen, 2009). However, openness to experience is also positively correlated with paranormal beliefs (Smith, Johnson, & Hathaway, 2009), magical thinking (DeYoung, Grazioplene, & Peterson, 2012) and mystical experience (MacDonald, 2000). Paradoxically perhaps, openness to experience thus encompasses a rather diverse set of characteristics, some of which would seem to support disbelief in religion, whereas others seem to support mystical and spiritual ideas. 

It has been argued that these diverse aspects of openness to experience all share an underlying theme of cognitive exploration of both inner and outer experience (DeYoung, et al., 2012). People who are high in openness to experience are interested in unconventional ideas and have a willingness to question traditional values and beliefs. This might help to explain why both paranormal believers and atheists (who generally tend to be sceptical of all supernatural beliefs) tend to be high in openness to experience. Atheists are willing to question traditional religious beliefs and form their own opinions. People who believe in the paranormal may be attracted to paranormal phenomena because they are outside mainstream experience. Where atheists and paranormal believers may differ is in narrower aspects of personality encompassed by openness to experience. De Young et al. proposed that the traits encompassed by openness to experience fall along a spectrum with the more intellectual aspects, such as need for cognition at one end, and the more unusual experiential traits, such as fantasy-proneness and magical thinking at the other end. People who endorse paranormal beliefs may be more open to fantasy (Smith, et al., 2009) and more prone to unusual perceptual experiences (DeYoung, et al., 2012). Atheists on the other hand tend to self-identify as intellectuals and tend to attribute their lack of belief to their interest in logic and rationality (Caldwell-Harris, Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2011). Interestingly, although openness to experience and intelligence are moderately positively correlated, in the Shenhav et al. study measures of intelligence had almost no relationship with belief in God. This suggests that belief is more closely related to personality preferences than actual intellectual ability. 

Due to the heterogeneity of the construct, priming openness to experience could have ambiguous effects on supernatural beliefs. The idea of priming openness to experience might seem implausible because personality traits such as openness to experience are usually thought of as enduring characteristics of a person that remain stable over time. Stable traits may be contrasted with more transient states that reflect changes in a person’s mood. For example, some people may be generally sociable (a trait) yet at any given moment how sociable they feel (their state) may vary with their mood. Research has found that stable personality traits have corresponding states and that it is possible to experimentally induce temporary changes in these states (Schutte, Malouff, Segrera, Wolf, & Rodgers, 2003). This was done by asking people to concentrate on imagining themselves in a number of situations where they were acting as if they were in a particular state. For example, state extraversion was induced by asking them to imagine they were the centre of attention at a party. State openness to experience was induced by asking a person to imagine they were having an intellectual discussion. The experimenters found that the inductions did produce significant increases in personality states associated with openness to experience.

As far as I know, no experiments have been done to test whether priming state openness to experience would affect supernatural beliefs. For example a person might be asked to imagine what it would be like to have a very unconventional lifestyle. One reasonable prediction would be that priming openness to experience could reduce more conventional forms of religious belief, but could also increase receptivity to paranormal or mystical ideas. Priming manipulations focusing on narrower aspects of openness might produce more specific results. Thus, asking someone to imagine they were having an intellectual discussion might produce more general scepticism, whereas asking someone to imagine what it would be like to have a rich fantasy life might produce receptivity to more mystical types of thought and experience. Studies that primed analytical thinking did not assess how durable the effects on religious beliefs were. Priming states of openness might have only a transitory effect on a person's beliefs. Nevertheless, research into this area would help shed light on the processes underlying both rational and non-rational beliefs.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Other posts discussing the possibilities of priming

Reason Versus Faith? The Interplay of Intuition and Rationality In Supernatural Belief

Think Like a Man: Effects of Gender Priming on Cognition

Turning the Wheels of the MInd - Clockwise movements increase openness to experience

Are Sex And Religion Natural Enemies?


Caldwell-Harris, C. L., Wilson, A. L., LoTempio, E., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2011). Exploring the atheist personality: well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists, Buddhists, and Christians. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14 (7), 659-672 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2010.509847

DeYoung, C. G., Grazioplene, R. G., & Peterson, J. B. (2012). From madness to genius: The Openness/Intellect trait domain as a paradoxical simplex.  Journal of Research in Personality, 46 (1), 63-78 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2011.12.003

Galen, L. W. (2009). Profiles of the godless: Results from a survey of the nonreligious. Free Inquiry, 41-45. 

Gervais WM, & Norenzayan A (2012). Analytic thinking promotes religious disbelief. Science (New York, N.Y.), 336 (6080), 493-6 PMID: 22539725

MacDonald, D. A. (2000). Spirituality: Description, Measurement, and Relation to the Five Factor Model of Personality. Journal of Personality, 68(1), 153-197. doi: 10.1111/1467-6494.t01-1-00094

 Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Seli, P., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2012). Analytic cognitive style predicts religious and paranormal belief  Cognition, 123 (3), 335-346 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.003

Schutte, N. S., Malouff, J. M., Segrera, E., Wolf, A., & Rodgers, L. (2003). States reflecting the Big Five dimensions. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(4), 591-603. doi: 10.1016/s0191-8869(02)00031-4

Shenhav, A., Rand, D., & Greene, J. (2011). Divine intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0025391

Smith, C. L., Johnson, J. L., & Hathaway, W. (2009). Personality Contributions to Belief in Paranormal Phenomena. Individual Differences Research, 7(2), 85-96.

This post was previously published on my personal blog Eye on Psych