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Analytical Thinking Promotes Disbelief in Experimental Psychology

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In a recent issue of Science magazine, two academic psychologists published a mélange of studies exploring the relationships between "Analytical Thinking" and "Religious Disbelief." These studies, particularly with their publication in a prominent scientific journal, are poster children for the muddled thinking contributing to the culture wars around religion and science. These scientifically impaired studies confuse more than they clarify; they poorly reflect the scientific method and mischaracterize religion.

The study authors operate within a two-module model of human cognition. In this explanation of how humans think, scholars (most famously Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman) and others posit that part of our brains is responsible for quick, intuitive assessments. These quick assessments represent something like the proverbial "instinct" of one's "gut." Such rapid assessments are easy to perform and correct often enough to be useful. In addition to that intuitive module for information processing, according to this theory, the human brain contains an "analytical" module, which spends more time and energy to figure out whether the "gut" got it right, a kind of second-guessing of initial intuitions. It seems reasonable and consistent with human experience that the mind would only think through material that needs to be thought through and would rely on intuitions about the rest. While it is clearly not the whole story, this two-module model of cognition seems scientifically useful.

In their experiments, the authors exposed participants (mostly Canadian college students) at random to one of several stimuli that the authors hoped would increase analytical thinking versus a control stimulus. These stimuli ran the range from word puzzles that required second-guessing an initial intuition to a picture of Rodin's The Thinker (vs. a picture of Discobolus), or a slanted, italicized font (vs. a simpler font). After these exposures, the authors asked participants to complete a basic questionnaire about religious beliefs, including "I believe in God," "I believe in angels" and similar statements.

After an "analytical" stimulus, students were a bit less likely to seem religious on the questionnaire than control students. From these experiments and observations the authors reported that "Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief." Unfortunately, their work is at best mediocre science and requires and perpetuates a misleading view of religion.

The scientific method, generally speaking, is a philosophical approach to knowledge that relies on careful, reproducible measurement and (ideally) manipulation of simplified components of a complicated system. For science to be useful, the scientist must measure what she believes she is measuring and must simplify complexity in a basically accurate way ("As simple as possible," Albert Einstein is often paraphrased, "but not simpler.") The authors display no clear evidence that they are actually measuring religious belief; they also display limited understanding of the cognitive and cultural systems they are attempting to simplify.

The authors used various brief questionnaires to try to measure religious belief without appearing to recognize that the study's questionnaire is itself a cognitive task, a request for people to describe their religious belief. Cognitive tasks, including answering questionnaires, are susceptible to context and framing effects. Depending on our perceived audience and our frame of mind, we may report our religiosity and/or religious beliefs in different ways. The study authors confuse self-reports of religious identity or affiliation with the beliefs relevant to religion. People use religious thinking/belief to make sense of tragedy, to create and sustain relationships with each other, to feel at one with the cosmos or other living beings, to honor beauty and work through pain. There is nothing terribly religious about a questionnaire on belief in angels during a college psychology experiment. These studies fail the basic scientific test of measuring what they purport to measure.

These studies also display an all-too-human impulse to try to map a familiar model onto a vaguely reminiscent natural phenomenon. The authors implicitly suggest that the two-module model of cognition maps onto the current dualism of "science" vs. "religion." In this superficial view, religion represents the "gut instinct" and science the analytical thinking. In point of fact, both religion and science rely heavily on both intuitive and analytical modules. In one of the curious twists common to modern psychology research, the authors display the sort of non-analytic thinking they implicitly associate with religious belief in their attempt to explain the phenomena they observe.

Several important questions go unanswered: Do analytical tasks increase skepticism generally? Do analytical tasks generically increase the probability of negative answers on questionnaires? Do analytical tasks increase subject identification with the academics studying them? How do questionnaires map onto the actual cognitive work of religion? Do the observed phenomena differ fundamentally from Jungian word association games? Without even attempted answers to these questions, the studies lack the type of validity readers associate with studies published in a journal as highly acclaimed as Science. If, as one possible example, analytical tasks tend to increase defiance of authority or skepticism generally, study subjects may have been less likely to agree that they believe that experimental psychologists understand the nature of human cognition. Or they may have been less likely to concur that the New Atheist agitator Richard Dawkins is both smart and handsome. Or that the physical sciences contain the key to unlocking the meaning of life. On a more mundane level, knowing the durability of the authors' findings through time would be useful -- would subjects still appear less religious six months after the experimental stimuli? A durable effect could support the authors' original intuitions about the data, but such evidence of durability was not obtained. The article's tabloid-style title suggests the limitations of the authors' views. Alternative titles, even if we were to grant that the studies are methodologically valid, might include "Religious disbelief is counter-intuitive" or "word puzzles put people out of the mood to say that they believe in angels."

In addition, the authors display no substantive awareness of the historical or cultural contexts for their experiments. Before the 18th and 19th centuries, much of the most vigorous analytical thinking in the West was explicitly religious. Even Galileo, a darling of science-vs-religion agitators, was deeply religious. (His fight was with the contemporary Church and certain elements of its teachings, not with religion per se.) Would analytical tasks have increased "religious belief" in that cultural context, a context closer than the present-day West to the setting(s) in which religion arose?

While it can be difficult to reach across disciplines, the authors appear entirely ignorant of the rich academic literature in religious studies on the nature of religion, religious belief and religious community. Assuming that answers to a questionnaire actually describe religious cognitive states seems amateurishly naïve about the nature of religion. The idea that religion is merely or primarily assent to certain dogmata is largely an artifact of post-Enlightenment Protestant thinking. If, as seems implicitly true, the authors are interested in answering the important question of how and why religion originally evolved, they will need to look much more carefully than a cursory glance at the early 21st century.

The authors may be close to something important, though, despite the methodological problems in these specific studies. It may be that religious experience is richer when we emphasize intuitive thinking. Emotions like love, affection, reverence, awe and respect may also operate best when the brain emphasizes intuition. In what ways is religious belief like those other emotional and cognitive states? How do intuition and analysis interact in emotional and religious states? The current experiments shed no light on such interesting questions.

Is there something useful in these experiments? Should they have been published at all? My answer to both those questions is yes, though I would not have attached their title to the experiments and would not have placed them in such an influential journal. The work of science is often, if not generally, tedious and trivial, but for the entire endeavor to work, we all have to be willing to perform and publish it anyway. The authors have, I think, usefully clarified that future surveys of religious belief using the same questionnaires should control for cognitive stimuli subjects experienced shortly before answering. That minor contribution is science, even if it doesn't belong in a journal as influential as Science. Beyond that minor scientific contribution, these studies mostly, if idiosyncratically support my corruption of their title: analytical thinking promotes disbelief in experimental psychology.