Does Thinking About God Have a Down Side?

February 13, 2012

Research led by University of Waterloo psychologist Kristin Laurin has yielded a result that’s surprising to me, and that raises questions about a possible unwanted effect of work by many thinkers, including myself.

Laurin and her colleagues did several experiments, and tested two main hypotheses. I’ll focus on one: God thoughts lead to reduction in active pursuit of goals. This hypothesis was tested in three experiments, all of which supported it. A summary of just one of the experiments will explain what the hypothesis means, and give some idea of how it can be investigated. (The other hypothesis, which did not surprise me, was this: God thoughts lead to increase in resistance to temptation.)

How can you be sure people have recently had “God representations” in mind? One way is to give them the task of composing sentences from lists of words they are given, and include words like “God”, “divine”, sacred” on the lists. That was the set up for one group of participants. Another group of participants was given the same task with other lists that contained none of those words, but did contain words for positively valued items (e.g., “sun”, “flowers”, “party”). A third group did the same task using lists with neutral words.

To get at the effect of the differences among these groups, Laurin and her colleagues asked all participants to do a new verbal task. They were told that high scoring on this second task was a good predictor of success in their chosen field (engineering, as it happens). The task was to write down as many English words as they could in 5 minutes that are composed of just the letters R, S, T, L, I, E, and A.

The key result – predicted by the researchers but surprising to me –  was that participants who had received the list of religion-related words on the first task did less well on this second task than the other participants – they averaged 19.5 words, compared to 30.4 and 30.3 for the participants who had gotten non-religion-related words that were positive, or neutral, respectively.

Several weeks before this experiment was conducted, the authors had given a questionnaire to their participants that included a religion identification question. They were thus able to test whether their experimental result depended on participants’ religious classification. They found that their result did not depend on religious classification, even when that classification was “atheist’ (about half of the participants in this study).

The authors suggest a mechanism for their observed effect, namely that exposure to the religion-related words in the lists in the first task “activated the idea of an omnipotent, controlling force that has influence over [participants’] outcomes”. In a second study, they found experimental support for this mechanism, and concluded that “only those who believed external forces could influence their career success demonstrated reduced active goal pursuit following the God prime” (where receiving the “God prime” = receiving the religion-related lists in the first task).

This conclusion gives me pause, for the following reason. As is evident from several posts on this and several other blogs, recent books, and newspaper reports, there are many lines of research that show the importance of unconscious processes. A large number of effects on our behavior come from circumstances of which we are unaware, or circumstances that we consciously notice, but that influence our behavior in ways we do not realize. In the last decade, and continuing today, our dependence on processes that are unconscious, and therefore not under our control, has become more and more widely publicized.

It thus seems that there is a serious question whether the increasing recognition of the effects of unconscious processes may have an unwanted, deleterious effect of reducing our motivation to actively pursue our goals. Your Brain and You resolved somewhat similar issues about the relation of unconscious processes to responsibility and certain attitudes toward ourselves. But, of course, it could not consider this recent experiment, and it did not address the question of what effect the recognition of our dependence on unconscious processes might have upon our degree of motivation to pursue our goals.

I do not think I have an answer to this question, but I wonder whether the following distinction may turn out to be relevant. Getting people to think about a god is getting them to think about an agent – an entity with its own purposes and ability to enact them. On the other hand, accepting that there are causes of behavior that lie beyond our control is not the same as accepting that our outcomes depend on another agent’s purposes. So, it seems possible that the growing recognition of the importance of unconscious processes to our thoughts and actions may not lead to reduced motivation to achieve our goals.

[Laurin, K., Kay, A. C. and Fitzsimmons, G. M. (2012) “Divergent Effects of Activating Thoughts of God on Self-Regulation”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(1):4-21.]

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An Unusual Aphrodisiac

October 10, 2011

Imagine you’re a prehistoric heterosexual man who’s going into battle tomorrow. The thought that there’s a fair chance of your dying might so completely occupy your mind that you’d be uninterested in anything save, perhaps, sharpening your spear.

On the other hand, your attitude might be that if you’re going to be checking out tomorrow, you’d like to have one last time with a woman tonight.

We are more likely to be descendants of the second type of man than the first. So, we might expect that there would be a tendency among men for thoughts of their own death to raise their susceptibility to sexual arousal.

In contrast, women who were more erotically motivated when they believed their own death might be just around the corner would not generally have produced more offspring than their less susceptible sisters. So, there is no reason to expect that making thoughts of death salient should affect sexual preparedness in women.

These ideas have recently been tested in two studies by Omri Gillath and colleagues. Of course, they didn’t send anybody into battle. Instead, they used two methods – one conscious, one not – to make the idea of death salient.

In the first study, one group of participants wrote responses to questions about the emotions they had while thinking about their own death and events related to it. Another group responded to similarly phrased questions about dental pain. The point of this contrast was to distinguish whether an arousal (if found) was specific to death, or whether it was due more generally to dwelling on unpleasant topics.

After responding to the questions, participants were shown either five sexual pictures (naked women for men, naked men, for women) or five non-sexual pictures (sports cars for men, luxury houses for women). Previous studies had found that all the pictures were about equal for their respective groups on overall perceived attractiveness. Participants had all self-identified as heterosexual. They had five minutes to carefully examine their set of five pictures.

Participants were each connected to a device that measured their heart rate. The key result was that the men who answered the questions about death and viewed erotic pictures had a significantly higher average heart rate during the picture viewing than any other group. That means that, on average, they had a higher rate than other men who saw the same pictures, but had answered questions about dental pain. They also had a higher rate than other men who had answered questions about death, but then saw non-sexual pictures. And they had a higher rate than women who answered either question and viewed either pictures of naked men or non-sexual pictures.

In the second study, the death/pain saliency difference was induced by flashing the word “dead” (for half the participants) or the word “pain” (for the other half) before each item in a series of pictures. The presentation of the words was very brief (22 thousands of a second) and came between masks (strings of four X s). With the masks, that’s too short to recognize the word. The pictures either contained a person or did not. Half of the pictures that contained a person were sexual, half were not. Pictures remained visible until the participant responded.

The response was to move a lever if, but only if, the picture contained a person. The movement was either pulling the lever toward oneself, or pushing it away. There were 40 consecutive opportunities for pulling, and 40 for pushing; half of participants started with pulling, half started with pushing.

The logic of this experiment depends on a connection previously established by Chen and Bargh (1999) between rapidity of certain responses and the value of what is being responded to. Pulling brings things closer to you, and if what’s before your mind is something you like, then that will speed the pulling (relative to pulling in response to something you’d ordinarily try to avoid, or something toward which you are neutral).

The reasoning, then, is that those who had a higher degree of sexual preparedness should pull faster in response to erotic materials than those who were not so highly prepared. Gillath and colleagues hypothesized that participants who received the brief exposure to “dead” and then saw an erotic picture should be faster pullers than those who received a brief exposure to “pain” before an erotic picture.

And that is what they found – for men. There was no such result for women. Nor did the brief exposure to “dead” result in faster pulling after being presented with non-sexual pictures; the faster reaction times depended on both the exposure to “dead” and the sexual nature of the following picture.

These two studies are certainly interesting in relation to the evolutionary thinking that led them to be undertaken. But I also find them fascinating in relation to a more general point. The second study provides evidence that our brains can (a) make a distinction (between pain and death) and (b) relate it to another difference (sexual vs. non-sexual material) completely unconsciously and extremely rapidly. And the first study, although done at a much slower time scale and with consciousness of the materials used to manipulate mood (i.e., the writing about death vs. pain), showed an effect on heart rate, which is not something that was under participants’ control. The brain processes of which we are unaware (except when revealed in studies like these) are amazing indeed.

[O. Gillath, M. J. Landau, E. Selcuk and J. L. Goldenberg (2011) “Effects of low survivability cues and participant sex on physiological and behavioral responses to sexual stimuli”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47:1219-1224. The previous study mentioned in the discussion of Study 2 is M. Chen and J. A. Bargh (1999) “Consequences of automatic evaluation: Immediate behavioral dispositions to approach or avoid the stimulus”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25:215-224. ]


Glimpses of the Unconscious Mind

January 9, 2011

There is a little experiment that I’ve sometimes recommended as a way of appreciating what our brains do unconsciously. It concerns the phenomenon of finding that one has a tune ‘running through one’s head’. Namely, the next time this happens to you, stop and try to think why you has this particular tune in mind right now.

When I’ve tried this, I’ve often had success. What happens is that I’ll recall that a few minutes before I noticed the tune, some key word or phrase from its lyrics happened to occur in a conversation. The conversation was not about the song, or anything closely related to it, and the word or phrase did not trigger any inner speech that had the sense of “Oh, that word/phrase is from <such and such piece of music>.” No: there were several minutes of attending to a conversation on completely unrelated matters, and then “out of the blue” the inner humming of some tune.

(I regret to report that discovery of the explanation for the tune’s running through one’s head does nothing to get rid of its annoying repetition.)

The successes I can recall all worked through the words associated with the tune. But, in his new book, Antonio Damasio reports a more interesting case that worked a little differently. In brief, he found himself thinking of a certain colleague, Dr. B. Damasio had not talked with Dr. B. recently. They were not collaborating on a project, there was no need to see Dr. B., and no plan to do so. Damasio had seen Dr. B. walking by his office window sometime earlier, but that was only remembered later and had not been an object of attention at the time. Damasio wondered why he was thinking of Dr. B.

The explanation that came to mind on reflection was that Damasio had happened, quite unintentionally, to have moved in a way that was similar to Dr. B’s somewhat distinctive gait. Damasio’s explanation is that the accidental circumstance of moving in a way similar to Dr. B. triggered an unconscious process that resulted in Dr. B’s coming to mind.

What makes this case so interesting to me is that, unlike my tune cases, it does not plausibly work through the language system. Of course, I know a few words I could use to describe a person’s gait, but even if I worked hard at it, I think the best I could do would be a vague description that would apply to many people. I suspect it’s the same for most of us. It’s just not believable that Damasio had a verbal description of gait that was specific for Dr. B. And even if he were capable of such a feat of literary skill, he had not been trying to describe his own movement, and so there would have been no route to making a connection by association through words.

What’s left is that the thought of Dr. B. was produced through a process that was not only not conscious, but also not verbal. The memory of Dr. B.’s motion was called up by Damasio’s own motion directly by the similarity of the motions, not through the medium of verbal representations of those motions.

(The suggestion that the motion may not have been accidental, but was caused by Damasio’s having seen his colleague walking by his window, in no way undercuts the point here. For, that would also be a case of unconscious processing leading to, this time, actual movement, without having gone through verbal representations of the stimulus or the resulting motion.)

An attractive analogy for a leading strand in Your Brain and You is that unconscious, nonverbal processing underlies our mental processing in the way that rock strata underlie the ground we walk on. Unless we’re lucky enough to be in a place like the Grand Canyon, we see the strata clearly only occasionally, where there is an outcrop. Damasio’s case seems to me to be one of these outcrops, where we can get a clear glimpse of our unconscious, nonverbal mind at work.

[A. Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (New York: Pantheon, 2010). The coming to mind of Dr. B. is discussed on pp. 104-106 ]