Religious and Non Religious Use Different Cognitive Pathways To Form Opinions

MedicalResearch.com 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

MedicalResearch.com: 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.

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