There are everyday miracles and everyday mysteries. And what can be more mystifying than trying to understand what or how someone else thinks? Of course, some people’s thoughts are easy to read through their faces, and we might find it easier to understand the thinking of those closest to us. Most of the time, someone else’s mind is a jealously guarded box, which they may or may not struggle to keep a lid on. Even our very nearest and dearest can surprise us with their trains of thought.
So what is it that makes the contents of these boxes differ between you and the next person? What, for example, makes someone religious? Why might somebody’s box contain incense, worship and prayers, rather than disbelief?
Ask a question as complex as ‘What makes somebody religious?’ and you're not going to get a simple answer. But Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan have recently published work which suggests that they may have uncovered one of the first pieces of this puzzle.
The authors explain that current thinking is made up of two pathways. There’s system one, which consists of intuitive thinking, making quick decisions from information that’s easy to grab and guzzle. Then there is system two, where thinking is more analytical and calculated. System two is slower, but dominates system one. The two systems can run in parallel, but given the chance, system two often overrides system one.
Past work has shown that intuitive thinking (system one) makes us more likely to believe in supernatural agents. Since ‘supernatural agents’ are a pretty pivotal part of world religions, from Scientology to Sikhism, it seems probable that intuitive thinking and religious belief can be intimately linked.
And herein lays the possible source of Doubting Thomas (or Thomasina). Given that the intuitive working of system one can be overridden by the analytical thinking of system two (in certain circumstances); increasing analytical thinking could allow doubts to creep in around the edges of religious belief.
At least, so goes the theory. And this theory was rigorously tested by several experiments during which analytical thinking was subtly increased by various measures. The subtlest of these was printing questionnaires in the sort of font that makes a block of text that bit more difficult to read . All of the various methods of increasing analytical thinking resulted in lower scores of religious belief, as measured by a questionnaire. So increasing the analytical thinking of participants promoted religious disbelief.
This is just the first piece of the puzzle. Although analytical thinking does promote religious disbelief there is clearly more to the picture than that. But we have been given the first peek into a box that motivates people to do extraordinary things, and future inspection can only give us a greater insight into the strange apes, which we call humans.
Gervais, W.M. and Norenzayan A. (2012). ‘Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief’. Science 336, 493-496.
Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., Epley, N. and Eyre, R.N. (2007).’Overcoming intuition: Metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning.’ Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 136(4),569-576.