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Study Finds Correlation Between Belief in God and Cognitive Style

By Nicholas P. Fandos, Contributing Writer

There exists a correlation between an individual’s belief in God and his or her cognitive style, suggests a study by Harvard researchers published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General on Monday.

The researchers determined that those with an intuitive cognitive style tend to have a stronger belief in God than those with a more reflective cognitive style. As defined in the study, intuitive thinkers make judgments quickly, based on automatic processes and instinct. Reflective thinkers prefer to pause and critically examine initial judgments before making a decision.

The study was conducted by three Harvard Psychology Department researchers—doctoral student Amitai Shenhav, Human Biology Lecturer David G. Rand, and Social Sciences Associate Professor Joshua D. Greene.

“Our study shows that although there’s certainly a role for [cultural influence], that’s not the only thing going on,” Rand said.

The study found that intuitive thinkers not only tend to believe more strongly in the existence of God, but their faith also grows more certain over time. Alternatively, reflective thinkers become less certain of the existence of God over time.

To confirm their results, the researchers controlled for age, gender, and IQ and still found a positive correlation between cognitive style and belief in God.

Another part of the study demonstrated that cognitive style can be swayed in the short term, resulting in greater or lesser certainty about the existence of God. Researchers asked study participants to write about personal experiences in which they followed “their intuition or first instinct” or carefully reasoned through a situation.

“What we were most surprised by was the strength of the effect of just having someone write [a] paragraph result in a substantial shift in that person’s reported belief in God,” Rand said.

While the study provides insight into how people think about belief, the researchers were careful to point out that cognitive style is not an absolute indicator of people’s beliefs.

“Each person strikes their own balance when they apply intuitive or reflective style. The findings don’t mean anything about

religious beliefs being rational or irrational,” Shenhav said.

The study’s findings raise further questions about the relationship of cognitive style and politics, the researchers said.

“The way that the political landscape in the U.S. is structured, belief in God is very strongly tied to a sort of sweep of other political beliefs,” Rand said.

Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Gregory M. Epstein said this research is highly relevant for the humanist community, and he has invited Rand to speak at one the group’s meetings later this fall.

“With the incredible expansion in recent years of the size of the secular community in the U.S., I think people are asking a lot of questions about who are the non-religious in America,” Epstein said. “This is sort of a nugget of insight as to what goes on in the mind of a non-believer.”

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