Some insight into the psychology of belief

Back in April, I finished a series of articles on morality.
The final, summary article featured the ideas of Harvard psychologist Joshua Greene.

The most novel part of Greene’s thinking that I reported on then was his suggestion that a useful metaphor for the workings of our moral mechanisms is to view our moral cognition as operating like a digital camera.

Greene has continued his experimental work, and I’ve found time recently to read some of his latest short publications.

One of them, “Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God” was published online on September 19, 2011, by the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Greene’s article seems like an appropriate subject for Christmas week.

(For those of us in the Great White North, much of which happens to be still green, today is Boxing Day, when Canadians give all of our household servants and other staff leftover turkey and small trinkets.)

“Divine Intuition” summarizes three studies conducted by Greene and two colleagues at Harvard. All three studies are based on the idea that some people typically rely more on “intuition” and others rely more on “reason.” If this is so, might there be a similar difference between people whose thinking is dominated by one or the other form of cognition in the generation, strength, and persistence of belief in the supernatural?

Greene, et al., answer “Yes.”

The authors define their terms this way:

By intuitive judgments we mean judgments made with little effort based on automatic processes, and by reflective judgments we mean judgments in which the judge pauses to critically examine the dictates of her intuition(s), thus allowing for the possibility of a less-intuitive or counterintuitive conclusion.

Under this general framework, constructs related to intuitive thinking include thinking that is reflexive, heuristic, associative, holistic or experiential in nature, whereas reflective thinking has been related to processes such as controlled, systematic, analytic, rule-based, or “rational” thinking.

The authors argue that “If belief in God is indeed intuitive (consistent with propositions that the underlying beliefs spring to mind automatically or effortlessly), this suggests that the extent to which one believes in God may be influenced by one’s tendency to rely on intuition versus reflection.”

Study 1 “showed that people who exhibit thinking styles that are more intuitive and less reflective are more likely to believe in God and to believe in God with greater confidence.”

Study 2 “showed that these results held while cognitive ability and personality were controlled. In both studies, we found that cognitive style predicted self-reported changes in belief since childhood but was uncorrelated with religious influences during childhood.”

And Study 3 showed “that the induction of mindsets favoring intuition (or opposing reflection) significantly increased self-reported belief in God.”

Study 3 holds the most interest, as it shows that encouraging intuition (or discouraging reflection) has a measurable effect on expressions of belief. That is, when there is less reflection, there is more “automatic” belief. This result appears to support the idea that our “default” tendency is to believe, and that reason acts as a more conscious “check” on our less conscious impulses.

These findings fit nicely with many of the ideas I’ve reported on these pages, not the least of them being that our rational minds are the way that we justify and explain our instincts and feelings to ourselves and to others. In some circumstances, our rational minds can, like the manual setting on Greene’s moral camera, “dial back” or override our autonomic reactions. And sometimes, and more for some people than for others, a combination of predilection and practice results in an “overgrowth” of ratiocination, turning the affected person into a member of that subspecies that so annoys the majority, a “rationalist.”

“Divine Intervention” reports one of those frequent and well-publicized studies that show that something like 90% of Americans profess belief in God. That’s a lot of people, even if you strip off the large cadre of “social believers,” those whose faith is conventionally correct but doctrinally unexamined, an automatic part of the community spirit expected by their neighbours.

If believers are more likely to be intuitive, and if it’s reasonable (which I think it is) that the “social believers” are largely such because they, too, act on their most basic impulses, there’s a pretty strong suggestion that there are more Intuitives than Rationals out there. A lot more, in point of fact.

Does this all mean that an inclination to believe in the supernatural is born into us, as a natural consequence of Theory of Mind and our constant search for agency? Perhaps, but then why would — how could — anyone ever disbelieve?

I’m currently attracted by the some of the views of Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age (2007) I’ve just started. In his account, reason cannot “shed” religion without something else to replace it, and he argues that alternative ways of looking at the world have become practically possible only quite recently in our history. As I say, I’ve just started the book, but his way of explaining secularization is intriguing. If the book and/or my comprehension skills hold up, you’ll be reading more about A Secular Age here in the near future.

Of course, none of “Divine Intuition” proves, or claims, that there aren’t many rational believers and many intuitive atheists. It’s just that this research suggests that emphasizing the intuitive makes a believing state of mind more likely.

So for all of you Intuitives out there, I hope that you had a meaningful Christmas.

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For a humourous (I hope) lament on the social burdens borne by the habitual rationalist, see the next article, to be posted on Wednesday.


2 thoughts on “Some insight into the psychology of belief

  1. Is this suggesting that the division is a function of human nature? Why the implication that rationals only now are shedding intuition? Were there no rationals in past at a time when everyone believed?

    • Charles Taylor argues that a rational alternative to supernatural thinking was not possible before the supporting social and scientific conditions were in place. When everybody believed, it was because the conditions were such that everyone believed.

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