Analytic thinking undermines religious belief while intelligence undermines social conservatism, study suggests

‘Suggests’ is the operative word in the title here. The title is a sensationalist interpretation of an inconclusive and careful study, and I don’t think this is what the authors of the study mean to say at all. Indeed, they express caution in numerous ways, noting small effect sizes, lack of proof of causality, large overlaps between groups, and many other reasons for extremely critical interpretation of the evidence:

“We would like to warn readers to resist the temptation to draw conclusions that suit their ideological worldviews,” Saribay told PsyPost. “One must not think in terms of profiles or categories of people and also not draw simple causal conclusions as our data do not speak to causality. Instead, it’s better to focus on how certain ideological tendencies may serve psychological needs, such as the need to simplify the world and conserve cognitive energy.”

This is suitably cautious and very much at odds with the title of the PsyPost article.

The study itself finds some confirmatory evidence that, in the US (and only in the US):

  •     Religion may be embedded more in Type 1 intuitions relative to politics.
  •     Processing liberal political arguments may require cognitive ability.
  •     Religious belief should be predicted uniquely by analytic cognitive style.
  •     Conservatism should be uniquely predicted by cognitive ability.

It is important to note, however, that ‘prediction’ in this instance has a very precise meaning of implying slightly increased odds of correlation between these factors, not that there is a causal connection one way or the other. The study simply adds a little more evidence to an already fairly substantial body of proof that cognitively challenged people, especially those more inclined to intuition than to reason (the two are statistically correlated), are somewhat more likely to be drawn both to religion and to right wing politics. Much as I would like it to imply the inverse – that intelligence and rationality are a cure for religion and right wing beliefs – there is absolutely nothing in this research to suggest that.

Part of the motivation for the study is the researchers’ observation of the growing antagonism to intelligence, expertise, evidence, and truth that is revealed in Trump’s victory, Brexit, ISIL, man-made climate change denial, and so on. While such evils are no doubt fuelled and sustained by (not to put too fine a point on it) stupid people in search of simple solutions to complex problems, it would be foolish (stupid, even) and highly inaccurate to suggest that all (or even a majority) of those exhibiting such attitudes and beliefs are stupid, or driven by intuition rather than reason, or both. As the study’s authors rightly observe, the value of this study is its contribution to understanding some of the complexity of the problem and should not be used to extrapolate exactly the same kind of simplified caricatures that cause it in the first place:

“…a more balanced understanding can only be reached via continued empirical research. Human beings may sometimes benefit from cognitive simplification of a complex and at times scary world of constant change and uncertainty. It does seem that certain aspects of religion and conservative ideology serve to deal with this, in slightly different ways. This is the direction that evidence points to thus far. However, researchers of course must resist this very need to simplify the world beyond a certain level.”

The original study can be found at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019188691730226X

Address of the bookmark: http://www.psypost.org/2017/09/analytic-thinking-undermines-religious-belief-intelligence-undermines-social-conservatism-study-suggests-49655

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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