This isn't a blog about Batman but it is a blog about God, who has more superpowers but is less cool. It's a shame the A-Level Specification doesn't explore the psychology of belief, but a study on this topic caught my eye this week.
Nicholas Epley and colleagues authored a 2009 study into religious beliefs, bringing together good old-fashioned Cognitive Psychology (surveys! questionnaires!) and newfangled Biological Approach brain imaging techniques. It's called Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs.
OK, so, as titles go, it's not exactly Abbey Road or Appetite For Destruction, but it sums up the research question pretty well. The "egocentrism" in the title is a cognitive bias that inclines people to view the world strictly from their own perspective and struggle to see things from anyone else's. We're all egocentric to some extent, but egocentrism is especially linked with early childhood and with developmental disorders like autism which make it particularly hard to "put youself in someone else's shoes".
Epley is tackling the religious idea that, rather than trusting their own judgements, religious believers can turn to God for guidance. This is sometimes summed up in the bumper-sticker slogan "What Would Jesus Do?"
Religion appears to serve as a moral compass for the vast majority of people around the world. It informs whether same-sex marriage is love or sin, whether war is an act of security or of terror, and whether abortion rights represent personal liberty or permission to murder - Nicholas Epley
You see, if believers really were getting input from God, you'd expect their views would be particularly consistent and objective. After all, my opinions about what other people think is probably skewed by my own biases, but surely, when it comes to God, I set my biases aside, right? Wrong, says Epley, who suspects religious beliefs are as egocentric as any other belief and he sets out to prove it.
Epley et al. carry out 7 different studies and bring all their findings together (this approach is called "triangulation"). The first four studies are surveys, questioning commuters at a train station in Boston, college students and members of a US survey database. It's nice to see a piece of research use someone other than students. I agree with Ariel Rubenstein's complaint that too much cognitive psychology boils down to the "science of the behavior of the college sophomore" so it's nice to see big city commuters get a look-in on a study too.
The surveys showed a strong correlation between a person's own beliefs on issues like politics and morality and what they thought God's views were. This looks as if people are basing their view of God on themselves, rather than basing their beliefs on God. Sigmund Freud would totally agree: he calls this tendency to invent a powerful deity and invest it with all our values "projection" and he thinks it's a form of mental illness.
Not so fast, Dr Freud! As my students will find out when we get onto correlations and the Spearman's Rho test, CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION. Just because there's a link between two things, you can't be sure one is causing the other. Maybe God is inspiring people's beliefs, rather than people basing their idea of God on their own attitudes! (And, if you're interested, the philosopher William Lane Craig has a nice comeback to the whole "projection" thing).
Epley et al. have thought of such criticisms and they set up some clever lab experiments in Studies 5 & 6. If you want to find cause-and-effect, you need a lab experiment. Epley's experiments involved getting people to read short speeches arguing for or against a hot news topic; one speech was always a good argument (logical... evidenced... etc); the other was always a weak one (Paris Hilton and Britney Spears feel this way too!). Naturally, people's views shifted in favour of the better argument. But crucially, so did their opinion on God's stance on the matter!!
This is clever mixture of independent and repeated measures, because some people got weak arguments and didn't change their views (or God's), but others got strong arguments and changed their views and felt God's view had changed too. This really does make religious beliefs look egocentric - just puffed-up versions of our own beliefs.
Epley isn't done yet, because Study 7 is a brain imaging study, just like Raine et al. (1997), but using fMRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) rather than PET scanning. Epley gets the participants to think about their own views, about other people's views and about God's views on different topics, then he takes a fMRI brain image to see what parts of the brain seem to be involved with these cognitive processes.
Whoops! You can see there's a big gap between the parts of the brain at work when people think about the difference between their own beliefs and other Americans' beliefs... and a big gap between the parts of the brain used to think about God's views and other Americans' views... but when people have to think about their own views and God's views, there's no difference at all: the same part of the brain seems to do both jobs.
There's a lot of good stuff in this study. It's imaginative and it tackles a new topic. It mixes Cognitive and Biological Approaches and it mixes methods too. But is Epley right?
People may use religious agents as a moral compass... The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God's beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing. - Nicholas Epley
I'm not sure he is.
Many religions teach that God is (in some sense) "within us" and almost of all of them teach that God is a spirit who cannot be imagined as another person. When I think about my friends' beliefs or just "British people's" beliefs, I tend to imagine how they look (or I think of people look that I see on the news or in the street) - but if I think about what God wants or commands, I don't have a picture to think of. Instead, I have to rummage through my own feelings and memories. This is called "introspection" or maybe "meditation" or even "prayer".
It doesn't surprise that this shows up on a brain imaging scan as looking just like "me thinking about myself". That just goes to show the famous danger of reductionism with the scientific method. If you boil everything down to brain scans, you over-simplify: I can tell the difference between me analysing my own beliefs and me just imagining stuff, even if a fMRI scanner can't.
Similarly, the 5th and 6th studies that get people to change their beliefs are interesting, but they could be used to draw a different conclusion from the one Epley arrives at.
Most religions understand that people have a nasty tendency to imagine God as being "just like them" and then attach all their own beliefs, priorities and pet-hates to God. They call this "anthropomorphism". Religions try to correct this by confronting people with sermons and sacred texts that challenge people's own personal views. Epley's study actually suggests they're right to do this. Left to their own devices, people's views are easily swayed and their religious beliefs are easily swayed too. For example, they can drift into extremism and be convinced the whole time that they're following God's will, when really they're reimagining God to fit in with their own desires. That's why believers are encouraged to go to church, or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever.
But enough about religion: what would Batman do? Batman is completely unsway-able. His parents get murdered and he becomes a masked crime fighter and nothing, but nothing, ever persuades him that he's made the wrong decision. He seems to have rock-solid beliefs, completely immune to social pressures. Maybe we should be more like Batman?
One of the things these cognitive studies teach us is: we're not Batman. Our beliefs are really easily swayed; even beliefs that are deeply important to us, like religious beliefs. That's probably a good thing. If you can be swayed by arguments and by an awareness of other people's opinions, you're not weak; you're a reasonable person. Batman may be awesome, but nobody ever claimed he was reasonable.
The Psychology Wizard is Jonathan Rowe. I'm a teacher and writer, living in the Fens of Lincolnshire. It sure is flat here. I'm writing a Roman Horror Novel at the moment. Check out Tinderspark and The Thief Of Faces if you fancy a good read.