Daily Archives: September 13, 2013

Poverty And Cognitive Impairment


Another cool article at Slate that is food for thought in regards to religiosity and cognitive science: Poverty causes poor decision making, poor decision making doesn’t cause poverty:

A study published last week in the journal Science shows that the stress of worrying about finances can impair cognitive functions in a meaningful way. The authors gathered evidence from both low-income Americans (at a New Jersey shopping mall) and the global poor (looking at farmers in Tamil Nadu, India) and found that just contemplating a projected financial decision impacted performance on spatial and reasoning tests.

Well, maybe now we know why religiosity is correlated, the world over, with high income inequality. But it goes deeper than that. As I mention in my post the thief and the wizard, there are two general modes of thought that our brains have. System 1 (the thief) and System 2 (the wizard). System 1 is fast, generally thought of as “intuition”, and System 2 is slower, generally though of as “rationality”. I picked “thief” and “wizard” because anthropomorphizing those two systems helps people remember them and their intuitive (heh) qualities. We default to System 1 for the vast majority of our daily tasks, and if we’re tired or stressed out we rely even more on System 1 thought processes in situations where we would be more likely to use System 2.

A post over at Epiphenom is a treasure trove of experiments that repeatedly demonstrate this:

So, for example, Ara Norenzayan has shown that subtly reminding people of death makes them say they are more religious. That’s probably related to something called ‘World View Defence’ – when you remind people about death, they tend to grab onto their traditional, cultural values. Similarly, Iranian students who are made to feel more anxious are more likely to support suicide bombers.

The effect can be quite specific. Aaron Kay has shown that making people feel like they are not in control strengthens their belief in a controlling god – in other words, they compensate for lack of control in their own lives by believing in a god that has it all in hand. What’s more, Kurt Gray has shown that people invoke god as a moral agent to explain negative (but acausal) events.

Our thoughts about the world are subject to all kinds of unconscious biases, and it’s widely believed that these contribute to religious beliefs. And some of these biases are strengthened when people are made to feel anxious. For example, Nicholas Epley has shown that making people feel lonely increases their belief in the supernatural – and also makes them more likely to think that household gadgets have personalities!

In another study, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky have shown that manipulating people so that they feel out of control makes them more inclined to see patterns that aren’t really there. This is a key part of superstition – once you start to believe that a rain dance actually does make rain, it’s a short step to invoking a deity to explain the link.

Read the whole post!

Anxiety = higher cognitive load. Higher cognitive load = less System 2 and more System 1 reasoning. More System 1 reasoning = more god belief, among other things. Jetlagged (i.e. anxious and tired) and traveling to a sacred place will have all sorts of (now predictable?) odd behavior. Hell, it even happens in dating. Lowering someone’s self-esteem and/or making them anxious makes them default to System 1. And feeling something is scarce will also default you to System 1 thought processes (also in that post is System 1 — i.e. groupthink — asking System 2 to come to its defense).

What else do people do when they’re stressed out? They eat lots of comfort foods, like ice cream or cheesecake.

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Posted by on September 13, 2013 in cognitive science

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