Category: Religion

Psychologists went to war-torn Northern Iraq to find out why some fighters will sacrifice everything for their cause

A soldier, pictured in Iraq in 2015, from the Kurdish Peshmerga – one of the groups interviewed in this extraordinary study (John Moore / Getty Images Staff)

By Emma Young

Why are some people willing to risk their own lives – and even their children’s lives – to fight an enemy? An extraordinary study involving interviews with frontline fighters against the Islamic State, as well as IS fighters, finds that three crucial factors are at play. The most important was the strength of commitment to a “sacred” or deeply-held value or idea – but not necessarily a religious one. The findings “may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense,” wrote Ángel Gómez and his colleagues in their new paper in Nature Human Behaviour.

Continue reading “Psychologists went to war-torn Northern Iraq to find out why some fighters will sacrifice everything for their cause”

Children as young as four believe in karma – good things happen to those who do good

GettyImages-516294624-2.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Even the most scientifically trained among us have an instinct for mystical thinking – seeing purpose in nature, for example, or reading meaning in random coincidences. Psychologists think this is to do with the way our minds work at a fundamental level. We have evolved to be highly attuned to concepts relevant to our social lives, things like intentions and fairness. And we just can’t switch off this way of thinking, even when we’re contemplating the physical world.

This may explain the intuitive appeal of the Buddhist and Hindu notion of karmic justice – the idea, essentially, that you get what you deserve in life; that the cosmos rewards those who do good (variations of this idea are also spread by other religions). Indeed, in a new paper in Developmental Science, psychologists at Yale University have shown that children in the US as young as four are inclined to believe in, and actively seek, karmic justice, regardless of whether they come from a religious family or not.

“We conclude that, beginning early in development, children expect that life events are not purely random occurrences, but instead that they happen for an intended reason, such as rewarding people for their good behaviour,” said the study authors Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom.

Continue reading “Children as young as four believe in karma – good things happen to those who do good”

Who cares more about the needy: Religious people or unbelievers?

Turkey - Society - Sacred and Secular Istanbul
Young Turks – conservative and liberal – mingle on a Friday afternoon near Eyup Mosque

By Alex Fradera

“The believer is not the one who eats when his neighbour beside him is hungry” said the founder of Islam, but many unbelievers see this as the norm: that religious people rarely do the good demanded by their faith. Some evidence seems to support this cynicism. Surveys on tackling inequality and support for welfare often find that the religious show less enthusiasm for helping the poorest in society. This would seem to reflect badly on the faithful, but new research in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics involving Turkish Muslims offers some redemption. The findings suggest that the religious may be taking a pragmatic approach that expresses their compassion for the needy while remaining consistent with their beliefs about a just deity … and in fact, from a practical perspective, this approach may lead to surprisingly good outcomes.

Continue reading “Who cares more about the needy: Religious people or unbelievers?”

Are these uncertain times drawing us into a cycle of dogma and prejudice?

31586456614_4a06b4b872_kBy Christian Jarrett

When all around us feels like chaos, it’s human instinct to cling to the rocks of dogma, and woe betide anyone who tries to loosen our grip. Previous studies, usually involving strong religious believers, have shown how dogmatic beliefs allay the anxiety brought on by feelings of uncertainty. In turn, any groups with opposing views are treated with suspicion and prejudice. A new study in the British Journal of Psychology broadens this out, showing these processes aren’t unique to religious believers. Dogmatic atheists too seem to be motivated by the need to cope with uncertainty, and they too are prejudiced towards threatening groups, especially during times of uncertainty. The researchers at Jagiellonian University, led by Małgorzata Kossowska, suggest their findings have interesting implications for understanding political orientations and prejudices. The world feels especially unpredictable right now. Are we all, whatever our politics, clinging to our rocks more strongly than ever?

Continue reading “Are these uncertain times drawing us into a cycle of dogma and prejudice?”

Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world

Satellite view of planet Earth
By Alex Fradera

The number of people who claim to have “No religious belief” is fast-growing in America and Europe, but the number expressing religious belief is growing faster. What’s more, the irreligious category includes fans of astrology, tarot reading or the paranormal. The tenacity of supernatural belief has prompted scientists to try understand its basis, and so far their answers have mostly implied a defect in believers: the religious have a bias in their visual attention; people with supernatural belief fall for bullshit statements. Now, in a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, comes the suggestion that believers struggle to understand the physical world. Continue reading “Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world”

Awe-inspiring documentaries could turn people away from science

An angel came down that night
Image via KayYen/Flickr

By Christian Jarrett

Science documentaries often go heavy on awe. In his immensely popular TV shows, the pop star turned physicist Brian Cox is frequently depicted in awesome landscapes, staring into the distance, moody music in the background, reflecting on awe-inspiring facts about nature, such as that we are all essentially made of star dust. It seems like a powerful way to engage people in science. Just one problem. A new study in Emotion suggests that when people who hold religious beliefs experience feelings of awe, this makes them even less likely to believe in science as a valid way to understand the world. Moreover, feelings of awe could encourage the non-religious to endorse less credible scientific theories that emphasise order over randomness in the universe.  Continue reading “Awe-inspiring documentaries could turn people away from science”

Distrust of atheists is "deeply and culturally ingrained" even among atheists

Just as people throughout history have been subject to prejudice and persecution because of their religious beliefs, recent evidence suggests that atheists today are discriminated against because of their lack of faith. For instance, in a 2012 study, nearly one in two atheists and agnostics reported having experienced discrimination at work, in the family and elsewhere. Another US study that asked respondents to imagine their children marrying people from different social groups found that participants were most disapproving of the idea of their child marrying an atheist.

Building on these kinds of past results, most of which stem from the US, a new British study published in The International Journal for The Psychology of Religion, has found that many people’s distrust of atheists seems to be deeply held, and what’s more, even many atheists seem to have an instinctual distrust of other atheists. For background, Britain is a country where 13 per cent of people today consider themselves convinced atheists.

Leah Giddings and Thomas Dunn recruited 100 participants from Nottingham Trent University: their average age was 21 and 70 were women. Forty-three per cent were atheist, 33 per cent were Christian and the remainder subscribed to other faiths. The researchers presented the participants with a vignette about a man who one day backed his car into a van and failed to leave his insurance details, and later on, when he found a wallet, he removed the money from it for himself. In short, this chap wasn’t very trustworthy or moral. Next, half the participants were asked to say whether it was more probable that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and religious (let’s call this the teacher+religious condition). The other half of the participants had to say whether they thought it was more likely that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and an atheist (the teacher+atheist condition).

Logically speaking, in both conditions the correct answer is always (a) because (b) is a subset of (a) and therefore less likely by definition. However, it’s well known in psychology that many people struggle to answer these kinds of questions logically because they’re swayed by the connotations of the secondary category that’s mentioned in (b) – an error that’s known as the conjunction fallacy.

What was particularly revealing in this study is that participants in the teacher+atheist condition were much more prone to committing the conjunction fallacy (66 per cent of them did so), than the participants in the teacher+religious condition (just 8 per cent of participants in this condition fell for the conjunction error). These results suggest that at a superficial level, the description of the distrustful man sounded to many of the participants like a typical atheist, and hence many of them said they thought it more likely that he was both a teacher and an atheist than a teacher.

To test the strength of this apparent prejudice towards atheists, the researchers asked the participants the same question again, and they also presented them with information about the proportions of the population who are religious or atheist. To participants in the teacher+atheist condition, this barely made any difference to their answers, suggesting their instinctual prejudice towards atheists was robust. Even though they were given a chance to think more rationally, they still fell for the fallacy. By contrast, the participants in the teacher+religious condition committed the conjunction fallacy even less often when they were asked the question for a second time.

The prejudice shown towards atheists in this study was more pronounced among those who professed a stronger belief in God, but it was also present, albeit to a lesser extent, among the non-religious. Another thing – the non-religious participants, like the religious, showed more instinctual distrust toward atheists than towards religious people (that is, they committed the conjunction fallacy more often in the teacher+atheist condition than the teacher+religious condition).

The researchers said their findings “suggest anti-atheist distrust is deeply and culturally ingrained regardless of an individual’s group membership”. This raises the question – why are people, at least in the UK and the US, so distrustful of atheists? The researchers speculated that it may be because most people assume that religious folk believe they’re being monitored by a higher being, and that this will therefore encourage these people to behave morally, whereas this supervision is absent for atheists. Also, perhaps people’s distrust of atheists stems from the fact that, unlike religious people, atheists lack a coherent set of known moral rules (of course they have their own individual moral code, but as a group they don’t have a code that they all follow).

“Looking to the future,” the researcher said, “it is also important to explore how these perceptions and attitudes toward atheists manifest behaviourally, whether people act on these prejudices and in what contexts. It is only once the nature and extent of the issue is better understood that we can take measures to address it.”


Giddings, L., & Dunn, T. (2016). The Robustness of Anti-Atheist Prejudice as Measured by Way of Cognitive Errors The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 26 (2), 124-135 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2015.1006487

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Why do so many people believe in psychic powers?

Researchers say belief in psychic powers is not related to general IQ, memory bias or education, but to a lack of analytical skills

A large proportion of the public – over a quarter according to a Gallup survey in the US – believe that humans have psychic abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance, even though mainstream science says there is no evidence that these powers exist. It might be tempting for sceptics to put this down to a lack of general intelligence or education on the part of the believers, but in fact past research has failed to support this interpretation.

Now a paper in Memory and Cognition has looked for differences between believers and sceptics in specific mental abilities, rather than in overall intelligence or education. Across three studies – this was one of the most comprehensive investigations of its kind – the researchers at the University of Chicago found that believers in psychic powers had memory abilities equal to the sceptics, but they underperformed on tests of their analytical thinking skills.

Stephen Gray and David Gallo surveyed the psychic beliefs, “need for cognition” (how much people enjoy mental effort) and life satisfaction of over two thousand people online. For example, regarding psychic beliefs, one survey item asked participants whether they agreed or disagreed that “it is possible to gain information about the future before it happens, in ways that do not depend on rational prediction or normal sensory channels”. The strongest psychic believers and sceptics matched for years in education or academic performance (around 50 people in each group, in each of the three studies; aged 18 to 35) were then invited to complete a range of tests of their memory and analytical skills, either online or in person at the psych lab.

For example, one of the memory tests involved listening to lists of related words and then trying to recall as many of them as possible, without mistakenly recalling a “lure” – a word related in meaning to those on the list, but which actually wasn’t in the list. Another memory task involved the researchers quizzing the participants about whether they’d had various childhood experiences, then asking them to imagine having had those experiences, and finally, one week later, asking them again whether they’d truly had the experiences. The idea was to test the vulnerability of participants’ memories to suggestion and distortion. On these measures and others, including a basic test of working memory ability, the psychic believers matched the performance of the sceptics.

However, it was a different story when it came to the tests of analytical thinking, which included: evaluating arguments, a survey of belief in conspiracy theories, the remote associates test (e.g. which one word is related to all of the following?: falling, actor, dust*), and a test of logic (e.g. fill in the blank spaces: “escape, scape, cape, _ _ _**). On all these tests, the sceptics outperformed the believers (statistically speaking, the effect sizes varied from small to large across the different measures). This was despite the fact that the believers scored as highly as the sceptics on “need for cognition” suggesting their poorer analytical performance wasn’t due to low motivation.

The results don’t prove that relatively poor analytical thinking skills cause people to become believers in psychic phenomena, but they are certainly consistent with the idea that a lack of these skills may leave people more prone to developing such beliefs, for example by undermining their ability to scrutinise whether last night’s dream really did predict today’s events (unlike a sceptic, a believer might not take into account all their dreams that didn’t appear to foretell the future, nor realise that the dream was influenced by the same past events that also shaped the future). A lack of analytical skills might be especially pertinent for people who are in regular contact with others who endorse the idea of psychic phenomena. Indeed, 70 per cent of believers said their beliefs were in line with those held by their friends and family.

Intriguingly, across all the two thousand-plus people who completed the initial survey, belief in psychic powers correlated with scoring higher on life satisfaction. This makes sense – after all, if you’re gullible/ open-minded enough to believe in psychic phenomena, it’s not such a leap to believe that super heroes walk the earth, which must be a fun outlook to have.


Gray, S., & Gallo, D. (2016). Paranormal psychic believers and skeptics: a large-scale test of the cognitive differences hypothesis Memory & Cognition, 44 (2), 242-261 DOI: 10.3758/s13421-015-0563-x

*Answer: star
**Answer: ape

further reading
Do sceptics have more inhibitory brain control than supernatural believers?
Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren’t really there
Why do sceptics always report negative results?
How to evaluate an argument like a scientist
Dramatic study shows participants are affected by psychological phenomena from the future

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Are religious people really more prejudiced than non-believers?

The holiday season is a good time to reflect on the question of why, if so many religions are founded on tolerance, highly religious people can act in an intolerant fashion. Finding the cause of this has preoccupied researchers, driven to repeated findings that suggest believers are actually more prejudiced than the non-religious. The leading explanation constructs a picture of the believer as someone possessing a distinctive cocktail of traits that inclines them to judge others harshly: people who are more religious also tend to be less open, averse to ambiguity and complexity, and motivated by values like authoritarianism. But a new article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology questions this explanation, asking whether the intolerance of the religious needs such complicated answers, or whether they’re really just behaving as we all do: shunning the different.

The researchers Mark Brandt and Daryl Van Tongeren began by noting that evidence about believers’ prejudice centres on their attitudes to certain social groups, some of whom (e.g. those in homosexual relationships) appear quite dissimilar to the believer. To explore this, the pair first conducted a survey and discovered that fundamentalist Christians saw themselves as very different to some groups (the top four being atheists, gay men and lesbians, liberals and feminists) but similar to others (Catholics, tea party members, conservatives, and Christians). Next, they analysed a dataset of 5225 participants and found that fundamentalists only showed greater intolerance than non-religious people to the groups they see as dissimilar. When it came to the groups that the fundamentalists see as similar to themselves (e.g. the Catholics et al), it was actually non-religious people who showed greater intolerance.

This finding was replicated in a separate sample, which also showed that just as the more religious expressed an unwillingness to spend time with groups different from them, so did the irreligious. It’s almost banal: whether we’re religious or not, we dislike those who we see as different, an observation founded in social psychologist Henri Tajfel’s classic research on intergroup discrimination. But that’s the point: do we need a unique account of the religious believer as a special snowflake to explain something that makes sense in terms of fundamental psychological mechanisms?

Maybe not special, but special-ish. The prejudice held by non-believers only went so far: for example, unlike fundamentalists, they never rated people from dissimilar groups as being significantly “less human” than them, and on the other intolerance measures the religious came out higher in two of three studies. Why the difference? By probing fundamentalist people’s beliefs with additional items, the researchers found a hardcore who took a more ideological approach to belief, which they saw as essential to their moral centre (they gave high ratings to questionnaire items like “When thinking about your opinions and beliefs about religion, to what extent would you describe them as central to how you see yourself”). These individuals expressed prejudice towards groups they saw as different from them at a level of intensity simply not seen in most other people, whether highly religious or not. So there is an exceptional intensity of intolerance in some of the highly religious, likely with a distinct psychological foundation, but most other cases of intolerance among the religious are unexceptional – their prejudice is just an example of the wider human tendency to be wary of people who seem different.

For many social scientists, the religious figure is, like the conservative, an exotic figure to understand and categorise. And doubtless faith and religious practice do shape mind, heart and behaviour. But this research suggests we shouldn’t be so quick to attribute the worst excesses of a religious person to their religiosity, but recognise that to some extent those tendencies bubble up unchecked in all of us. With that in mind, do your best to enjoy your coming together this month.


Brandt, M., & Van Tongeren, D. (2015). People Both High and Low on Religious Fundamentalism Are Prejudiced Toward Dissimilar Groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000076

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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When our beliefs are threatened by facts, we turn to unfalsifiable justifications

On being told physics could undermine
religious claims, believers said faith
was more about living a moral life

It’s great to have facts on your side. The fundamentalist is delighted by the archaeological find that tallies with scripture, just as the atheist seizes on the evidence that contradicts it. But when the evidence goes against us, we’re less likely to change a belief than to criticise the validity or provenance of the evidence. Now, research suggests that the mere prospect of a factual threat leads us to downplay how much our belief depends on such evidence at all. We become attracted to other, less falsifiable reasons for believing.

Justin Friesen and his colleagues conducted a series of studies each with a hundred or more participants. The first presented participants with a summary statement from a conference on science and God. When it suggested that science could one day settle the question of God’s existence, religious participants wavered in their religious conviction, rating it significantly lower than those told that science was not armed to answer such questions. The very possibility that the religious belief was falsifiable made it vulnerable.

A subsequent study presented the discovery of the Higgs Boson as either a threat to or unlikely to affect matters of religion. Asked what reasons underpinned their belief, religious participants gave more importance to unfalsifiable statements such as “living a moral life would be impossible without God” when told the particle was a threat, and relatively less to evidence-linked statements such as  “historical and archaeological evidence shows how God intervened in the world.”

This effect wasn’t restricted to religious belief. In another study, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage were shown data on life outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples; by presenting these outcomes as either positive or troubled, participants were exposed to data that either supported or undermined their position. When the facts were on their side, they rated the issues of same-sex marriage and child-rearing as a matter for evidence to decide; when the facts were against them, they saw it as more a matter of opinion.

The authors speculate that this tendency to revert to unfalsifiable justifications may mean that many beliefs, over time, shear off their evidential component and become increasingly unchallengeable. But they also note that unfalsifiability may have important psychological value, for instance in making inviolable beliefs such as “love is real” or “genocide is wrong”, whose compromise could otherwise be deeply distressing and disorientating.  Cherish or bemoan it, our belief systems are laced with unfalsifiable aspects that won’t be budged by evidence alone.


Friesen, J., Campbell, T., & Kay, A. (2014). The Psychological Advantage of Unfalsifiability: The Appeal of Untestable Religious and Political Ideologies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000018

further reading
Five minutes with the discoverer of the “Scientific Impotence Excuse
The unscientific thinking that forever lingers in the minds of physics professors
Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren’t really there
Can psychology help combat pseudoscience?

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.