Monthly Archives: March 2014

More On The Importance Of Persuasion


My most recent post on this, On Advertizing Science, has a lot of info on why effective methods of persuasion are not only related to how religions spread, but are also related to how other ideas spread effectively. Here is another metastudy done on how persuasion efficacy correlates with financial success. Summarized by Less Wrong:

Ng et al. performed a metastudy of over 200 individual studies of objective and subjective career success. Here are the variables they found best correlated with salary:

Predictor Correlation
Political Skills 0.29
Education Level 0.29
Cognitive Ability (as measured by standardized tests) 0.27

(all significant at p = .05)

(For reference, the “Big 5” personality traits all have a correlation under 0.12.)


The strongest predictor of salary (tied with education level) is what the authors politely term “Political Knowledge & Skills” – less politely, how good you are at manipulating others.

Several popular books (such as Cialdini’s Influence [ed: Also on my blog]) on the subject of influencing others exist, and the study of these “influence tactics” in business stretches back 30 years to Kipnis, Schmidt and Wilkinson. Recently, Higgins et al. reviewed 23 individual studies of these tactics and how they relate to career success. Their results:

Tactic Correlation Definition (From Higgins et al.)
Rationality 0.26 Using data and information to make a logical argument supporting one’s request
Ingratiation 0.23 Using behaviors designed to increase the target’s liking of oneself or to make oneself appear friendly in order to get what one wants
Upward Appeal 0.05 Relying on the chain of command, calling in superiors to help get one’s way
Self-Promotion 0.01 Attempting to create an appearance of competence or that you are capable of completing a task
Assertiveness -0.02 Using a forceful manner to get what one wants
Exchange -0.03 Making an explicit offer to do something for another in exchange for their doing what one wants

So there are a couple of take-homes from this. The one I’m focusing on most is that you shouldn’t box yourself into a one-or-the-other situation when it comes to trying to influence others. In the definition above, “rationality” might be more clearly defined as presenting just the facts. Sure, presenting just the facts seems like it should work on persuading someone all on its own, but the delivery counts almost equally as much. Combining the two — being both likable and having the facts on your side — would work much better than just relying on one or the other.

The author continues:

This site [Less Wrong] has a lot of information on how to make rational appeals, so I will focus on the less-talked-about ingratiation techniques.

How to be Ingratiating

Gordon analyzed 69 studies of ingratiation and found the following. (Unlike the previous two sections, success here is measured in lab tests as well as in career advancement. However, similar but less comprehensive results have been found in terms of career success):

Other Enhancement, or “flattery”, had a weighted effectiveness of 0.31. Opinion Conformity, or “go along to get along”, had a weighted effectiveness of 0.23.

The others were a 0.15 or below. Note that “flattery” is sometimes too obvious to be effective. You can do more subtle flattery by doing things like asking someone for a favor or their opinion on something.

The author concludes:


One important moderator is the direction of the appeal. If you are talking to your boss, your tactics should be different than if you’re talking to a subordinate. Other-enhancement (flattery) is always the best tactic no matter who you’re talking to, but when talking to superiors it’s by far the best. When talking to those at similar levels to you, opinion conformity comes close to flattery, and the other techniques aren’t far behind.

Unsurprisingly, when the target realizes you’re being ingratiating, the tactic is less effective. (Although effectiveness doesn’t go to zero – even when people realize you’re flattering them just to suck up, they generally still appreciate it.) Also, women are better at being ingratiating than men, and men are more influenced by these ingratiating tactics than women. The most important caveat is that lab studies find much larger effect sizes than in the field, to the extent that the average field effect for the ingratiating tactics is negative. This is probably due to the fact that lab experiments can be better controlled.


It’s unlikely that a silver-tongued receptionist will out-earn an introverted engineer. But simple techniques like flattery and attempting to get “sponsored” can appreciably improve returns, to the extent that political skills are one of the strongest predictors of salaries.

Again, notice the persuasion techniques of religious groups. They don’t focus on facts and data. Rather they focus on the people element, designing an environment where they will appear likable. They intimate that belonging to their group is beneficial; implying that belonging to their group will give you all of the feels. A truly formidable persuasion artist would combine both the good feeling of belonging to the group and accurate, well referenced facts.

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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in cognitive science


A Link Between Pathogen Avoidance And Religion?

Did you know that “bacteria” is literally Greek for rod?

Well this is a pretty far out there hypothesis. As I’ve posted before, collectivist tendencies are correlated with religion. And collectivist tendencies also seem to be related to disease detection and deterrence. An article called The Germ Theory of Democracy explores this hypothesis a bit further:

Psychologists and other social scientists have long been curious about this robust difference between human populations. In strongly collectivist societies, group membership forms the foundation of one’s identity. Sacrificing for the common good and maintaining harmonious ties with family and kin are expected. By contrast, in strongly individualist societies like those of the United Kingdom, the U.S., Australia, and the Netherlands, individual rights are valued above duties to others. One’s identity does not derive from the group, but rather is built through personal actions and achievements. Although these differences have been confirmed by many cross-cultural studies in a variety of different ways, no one had come up with a convincing evolutionary theory to suggest why it would be advantageous for one group of people to become more collectivist and another group to become more individualist.

Fincher suspected that many behaviors in collectivist cultures might be masks for behavioral immune responses. To take one key example, collectivist cultures tend to be both more xenophobic and more ethnocentric than individualist cultures. Keeping strangers away might be a valuable defense against foreign pathogens, Fincher thought. And a strong preference for in-group mating might help maintain a community’s hereditary immunities to local disease strains. To test his hypothesis, Fincher set out to see whether places with heavier disease loads also tended toward these sorts of collectivist values.

Working with Damian Murray and Mark Schaller, two psychologists from the University of British Columbia, and Thornhill, Fincher compared existing databases that rated cultural groups on the individualist-collectivist spectrum with data collected from the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network and other sources. The team paid special attention to nine pathogens (including malaria, leprosy, dengue, typhus, and tuberculosis) that are detrimental to human reproductive fitness. What the team found was a strong correlation between collectivist values and places with high pathogen stress. In 2008, Fincher, Thornhill, Schaller, and Murray published a major paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that laid out the connection.


While there is much more research to be done, early findings suggest that—particularly when it comes to the development of local languages and religions—pathogen stress does appear to spawn cultural diversity.


By the time [Thornhill and Fincher] published a major paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2012, they had marshaled evidence that severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior.


Schaller and his colleagues, for example, set up a test to see if disease cues could influence laboratory subjects’ opinions of foreigners. Schaller’s team had one group of subjects watch a slideshow about germs and disease while another group watched a show about everyday accidents and dangers. The researchers then told the subjects that the Canadian government was going to spend money to attract immigrants to the country. As Schaller predicted, the test subjects who had been cued with the disease presentation were less inclined to spend money to attract people from unfamiliar countries.


Other critics have pointed to potential counterexamples to the pathogen stress theory: If strong religiosity is, as Thornhill and Fincher claim, an adaptive response to pathogen stress, then why do some religious people behave in such pathogenically promiscuous ways—engaging in blood rituals, circumcision, piercing or tattooing, or tromping off to proselytize in strange lands? Still other researchers have stepped in to suggest that the level of in-group preference in a culture can be better understood in relation to the quality and accessibility of local governmental institutions: The more dependable the institutions, the less people have to invest in their family and local groups to meet basic needs.

Seems interesting and both intuitive and counterintuitive. Intuitive because, yeah, how people respond to disease threat is a major motivator. Counterintuitive because, wow, can that motivation really snowball into entire systems of government, determining whether some government is either liberal or conservative?

Of course I’m more interested in the religion aspect of it. I wonder if the spread of religions can be predicted by the level of disease threat.

Another side point addressed in the article:

As fortune would have it, the United States may have just embarked on a natural experiment to test Thornhill and Fincher’s pathogen stress theory. Conservatives (with their collectivist values emphasizing religion, tradition, and regionalism) and liberals (with their individualist values of openness, anti-authoritarianism, and experimentation) have spent the better part of 10 years now manning their battle lines over the issue of universal access to health insurance coverage. If Thornhill and Fincher are right, conservatives may have had more reason to oppose the Affordable Care Act than they currently understand. Might an effective health intervention such as Obamacare move the country, on some deep psychological level, away from conservative values and toward more liberal ones? Is it possible that there are utterly unacknowledged stakes in this battle?

Yes, access to healthcare is also another leading indicator of religiosity. A more healthy society, that is, one where you don’t have to worry about your health, is a less religious society. Pathogen avoidance and cognitive impairment aren’t necessarily opposed in this case either; they could be working in concert to dampen a nation’s religiosity.

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Posted by on March 24, 2014 in cognitive science, economics/sociology


Religious Radicalization Linked With Socio-Economic Status


Probably much to Sam Harris’ chagrin, a new study published at Queen Mary University of London found a very weak connection between radicalization and religiosity:

New research from Queen Mary University of London has found youth, wealth, and being in full-time education to be risk factors associated with violent radicalisation. Contrary to popular views – religious practice, health and social inequalities, discrimination, and political engagement showed no links.

he pioneering research assessed population prevalence of sympathies for terrorist acts – a key marker of vulnerability to violent radicalisation – and their relationship with commonly assumed causes of radicalisation. The community study surveyed over 600 men and women of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Muslim heritage in London and Bradford, aged 18-45.

A small minority of people (2.4%) expressed some sympathy for violent protest and terrorism, whilst over 6% remained neutral – i.e., they did not show sympathies but nor did they condemn such acts. However, sympathy levels increased among those under 20, those in full time education rather than employment, those born in the UK, and high earners (£75,000 per year or more).

Interestingly, migrants and those speaking a language other than English at home, and those who reported having poor physical health, were all less likely to show sympathies for terrorist acts. In addition, those who reported suffering from anxiety and depression were no more likely to display sympathies, provoking some new research questions about the relationship between radicalisation and mental health.

This corroborates the research of Scott Atran.

Also, the last paragraph indeed is interesting, health factors such as anxiety or depression are leading indicators of religiosity. At said link, the main point was to illustrate that women are more religious than men. However, suicide bombers seem to be disproportionately men. If it was religion itself that was responsible for radicalization, then we would expect women to be more radicalized than men. This study might explain why this isn’t so.

Also to note — anecdotally — that youth, wealth, and being in full-time education seems to correlate with another sort of radicalization in the West.

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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in economics/sociology


Richard Carrier Takes On Maurice Casey


Truth be told, I haven’t been keeping up with the historical/mythical Jesus hypothesis all that intently. I’ve been reading about it tangentially, but it hasn’t been at the forefront of my thoughts on religion and early Christianity.

As you might have noticed, I’ve been blogging about the psychological reasons why people are religious more recently. Quite honestly, the historical/mythical Jesus argument looks hopelessly theoretical without anything concrete to explore so I maintain my agnosticism. Really, all of the evidence that we currently have regarding Jesus is probably all of the evidence that we’re ever going to have about Jesus so the only thing that can change at this point is probably something more political/psychological/cultural.

But anyway, Carrier has a lengthy rebuttal to Casey’s book Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths?. I have to get this disclaimer out of the way: I haven’t read Casey’s book, so I’m in no position to comment on the accuracy of Carrier’s portrayal of Casey’s arguments. But Carrier has always been good about not strawmanning opponents and his works are always well evidenced so my prior probability that it faithfully reports Casey’s arguments is pretty high.

What was really interesting about this review — as I mentioned above, from the context of why people are religious — is that Carrier points out a host of cognitive biases that points to the idea that Casey identifies too strongly with being a “Jesus historicist” to even allow for the possibility that Jesus mythicists can actually have good arguments. Take a look at this:

Deficit of Hypothetical-Categorical Reasoning

Casey is often incapable of understanding his own critics. So bizarrely, in fact, that it suggests a genuine cognitive deficit usually characterizing persons with an abnormally low IQ. I caught several examples of Stephanie Fisher exhibiting exactly the same cognitive deficits, where she could not think in abstract, hypothetical terms, but only in concrete, literal terms, resulting in bizarre misunderstandings of rather basic explanations of things (she had an extremely hard time understanding conditional “if, then” statements, or thought experiments, or even the purpose of counterfactual reasoning).

To understand how Casey shows the same cognitive deficiency, you need to first read an unrelated example of what I am talking about, based on a study of such reasoning. Once upon a time some researchers tested subjects in remote and previously largely illiterate villages of Uzbekistan and neighboring areas, as follows:

In a typical exchange the questioner asks: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears there?” One peasant answers: “I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear, I’ve never seen any others. … We don’t talk about what we haven’t seen.” Exchanges of this sort could be repeated at length. In essence, the peasants refused, or were unable, to reason hypothetically. Similarly, when asked about similarities between objects, they tended to group them by similar use rather than by similar abstract categories. For them, a saw and a hatchet go together because they are both needed to make firewood, not because they are both tools (and, moreover, a log needs to be included in the group for utilitarian completeness).

The people tested had adequate vocabularies and detailed knowledge about their world. The exchanges with the testers revealed that they were often quick-witted, clear thinkers. They were, however, not comfortable with abstract or hypothetical thinking and found such thinking to be alien. In their world, abstract categories and hypothetical thinking were, frankly, not perceived to be very useful, and even faintly preposterous. Sometimes their answers implicitly said as much. Even if such habits of thought had been potentially useful, no one was disadvantaged because no one else in the community thought in such ways either. Not having such habits of thought, they did not develop expertise in dealing with problems involving abstract categorical and hypothetical (ACH) thinking assessed by the Raven’s and Wechsler Similarities tests.

Historically, neither peasants, nor laborers, nor tradespeople nor, indeed, practically anyone anywhere had much use for such skills prior to the 20th Century, except philosophers, scientists, and perhaps a few others.

James Allan Cheyne, “Atheism Rising: Intelligence, Science, and the Decline of Belief,”

Skeptic 15.2 (2009), pp. 33-37; see also James Flynn, What Is Intelligence? (2007)

You might not think this could possibly be relevant.

Just wait.

A stark example of this is when Casey repeatedly says no one else ever talks about crucifixions in heaven, therefore it’s impossible that anyone would imagine crucifixions occurring in heaven (6-5013, 5126, etc.). This is just like claiming not to know if bears in the north are white because you haven’t seen one. It’s hyper-concrete thinking.

In actual fact, in Jewish cosmology, all sorts of things that exist or occur on earth also do so in heaven: fighting, writing, scrolls, temples, chairs, trees, gardens. The Revelation of Moses has Adam buried in heaven (in the Garden he was made from, the very Garden Paul says was in the “third heaven” in 2 Cor. 12, just as the Rev. Mos. also says, in which Adam’s fall is described literally: a fall from the heavenly Garden to the earth below). So there’s even dirt in heaven, and corpses, and graves (Eve is also buried there, along with others). And indeed as the Ascension of Isaiah and the book of Hebrews both say: in general things on earth have correlates in heaven (Asc. Is. 7.10; Heb. 9.22-24; Philo provides an elaborate explanation; many Jewish cosmological texts elaborate on the objects and occurrences in heaven that have counterparts on earth).

If people can be buried in heaven, and fight battles in heaven, and visit temples in heaven, then they can be crucified in heaven. But to grasp that requires abstract-categorical-hypothetical reasoning: you have to be able to infer from the abstract hypothesis “ancient Jews imagined all kinds of things happening in heaven” to “crucifixion can be one of those things,” just as one has to be able to infer from “it snows in the north and bears in snowy places are white” to “bears in the north are white.” Saying bears in the north can’t be white until you literally see one yourself exhibits a major deficit in ACHR. And here, though we’re even explicitly told that the things and activities on earth have correlates in heaven (and have countless examples of this belief), Casey can’t imagine any unless he can find a specific text specifically saying so. That is a cognitive defect. And it greatly impairs his ability to reason.

Now Casey (and his student, Stephanie Fisher) is obviously a high IQ individual, or he probably wouldn’t have become an expert in Aramaic. And he also, ironically, must be able to work with abstractions since his fringe hypothesis that Mark is based on a previous Aramaic work is, well, hypothetical. No such text exists, so Casey is manipulating a document in the abstract to arrive at his conclusions. Therefore it seems highly likely that Casey must be suffering from an extreme cognitive bias that prevents him from analyzing mythicist arguments dispassionately.

This, again, fits my experience with this whole debate. A lot of bad blood has been seething between historicists and mythicists over the past four or five years I’ve been reading about it. It’s definitely leaning towards becoming a full on Green vs. Blue issue. What’s more, which is also pretty sad IMO, is that a historical Jesus has very little to nothing to do with the emergence of Christianity. At least, from a secular perspective. The vast majority, if not the entirety, of the Gospel narratives are myths. None of the epistle writers in the NT met Jesus nor do they seem to care about any of his teachings. So Jesus the man has almost no relevance to why Christianity became the religion that it did. Whether Jesus was real or a myth seems more like a MacGuffin.

But, yeah. Carrier’s review of Casey’s book is pretty brutal. I’m looking forward to reading Carrier’s actual mythicist book, On The Historicity of Jesus when it comes out in the next few months.

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Posted by on March 4, 2014 in historical jesus, jesus myth

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