Religious and Non Religious Use Different Cognitive Pathways To Form Opinions Interview with:

Jared Friedman Doctoral Student, Organizational Behavior Research Assistant II, Brain Mind and Consciousness Lab Case Western Reserve University

Jared Friedman

Jared Friedman
Doctoral Student, Organizational Behavior
Research Assistant II, Brain Mind and Consciousness Lab
Case Western Reserve University What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: These studies were motivated by our prior work in neuroscience and psychology.  Neuroscience research from our lab has shown that brain areas associated with empathy seem to share a ‘see-saw’ relationship with brain areas associated with analytic reasoning.  As activity in one set of brain areas goes up, activity in the other set of brain areas tends to go down.  This suggests there is a sort of neural antagonism between warm, empathic sorts of thinking on the one hand, and cold, analytic sorts of thinking on the other.

In prior psychological work, we tested the hypothesis that these two different sorts of thinking might share opposing relationships to religious belief.  Over a series of 8 studies, we showed that although religious belief is negatively related to analytic reasoning skills (which many other labs had shown), it shares a much stronger positive relationship to measures of empathy and moral concern.  This suggests that religious belief, measured on a continuum, might emerge from the tension between empathic and analytic forms of thinking.

The current studies expanded on this prior work by examining how dogmatism – strongly holding onto one’s beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence – relates to measures of moral concern and analytic reasoning among individuals identifying as religious and non-religious.  The measure of dogmatism we used is neutral with respect to any particular belief system, which means that it measures dogmatism in general (rather than dogmatism towards, for instance, religious beliefs).  We found that analytic reasoning negatively relates to dogmatic tendencies in both groups.  However, the interesting part is that higher levels of dogmatism among the religious were related to higher levels of moral concern, whereas higher levels of dogmatism among the nonreligious relate to lower levels moral concern.  This is very intriguing because it suggests that religious and nonreligious individuals rely differently on these two types of cognition when forming beliefs about the world, in general.  We also found that perspective taking, which is an emotionally detached form of understanding other people’s minds, had a particularly strong negative relationship among the nonreligious. What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Response: Perhaps the most practical take away from this set of studies is the notion that religious and nonreligious individuals rely differently on these two broad sorts of thinking – empathic cognition and analytical reasoning – when it comes to forming and revising their beliefs.  Religious individuals may adopt and cling to certain beliefs, especially those which seem at odds with analytic reasoning, because those beliefs resonate with their moral sentiments.  In contrast, non-religious individuals may discount their moral sentiments when it comes to adopting or revising certain beliefs, and instead rely more on analytic reasoning to inform belief formation/revision.  In other words, moral sentiments and emotions may not motivate nonreligious individuals to adopt or revise certain beliefs, especially when those emotional sentiments draw them towards beliefs that conflict with what cold, analytic reasoning suggests. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: Two things we noted were that this research has consequences for how to go about creating a more fruitful discourse between religious and nonreligious individuals and, further, how these findings can be used in the context of health care and behavioral change.  When it comes to discourse, it seems that trying to persuade nonreligious individuals by appeal to moral sentiments may ‘fall on deaf ears’.  And appealing to analytic and logical arguments to religious individuals may be similarly ineffective, especially when the beliefs are adopted for moral reasons.  A more fruitful discourse can emerge by appealing to the sorts of psychological processes that religious and nonreligious individuals differentially draw on when forming and revising their beliefs, and thereby getting each side to better understand the motivations of the other.

Similarly, in the context of health care, it is possible that religious individuals may be more motivated to change maladaptive behavior if clinicians appeal to empathic and moral sentiments, perhaps by noting that their behavior/health can have negative consequences on those they love the most.  The nonreligious may be more motivated to change behavior by appeal to logic and empirical evidence.  This is, of course, speculative – but it would be nice to see future work investigating the effects of empathic/moral persuasion and analytic/empirical persuasion on behavioral change, especially among those identifying as religious and nonreligious.  We would also be interested in the causal relationship between the variables we investigated here.  Might empathy inductions have similarly different effects on dogmatism and behavior change among individuals identifying as religious or not?

No disclosures Thank you for your contribution to the community.

Citation: Jared Parker Friedman, Anthony Ian Jack. What Makes You So Sure? Dogmatism, Fundamentalism, Analytic Thinking, Perspective Taking and Moral Concern in the Religious and Nonreligious. Journal of Religion and Health, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10943-017-0433-x

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.



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