Analytic thinking undermines religious belief while intelligence undermines social conservatism, study suggests

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Religion and politics appear to be related to different aspects of cognition, according to new psychological research. Religion is more related to quick, intuitive thinking while politics is more related to intelligence.

The study, which was published in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences, found evidence that religious people tend to be less reflective while social conservatives tend to have lower cognitive ability.

“We have been doing research on how certain cognitive (thinking) styles (i.e., tendency to think analytically vs. intuitively) may be associated with or even lead to different social attitudes for a couple of years,” explained the study’s corresponding author, S. Adil Saribay of Boğaziçi University. “This research is partly motivated by the observation that the growing religiosity, anti-secularism, and anti-science sentiment across the world seemed to go along with the spread of simple ideas about the world that have intuitive appeal.

“Empirical findings generally suggest that an intuitive thinking style and a lower IQ level (cognitive ability) are associated with both religiosity and conservatism. Thinking style and cognitive ability are positively associated; and so are religiosity and conservatism. We noticed that there are reasons to believe that religiosity and social conservatism may be differentially predicted by cognitive style and cognitive ability, respectively.”

The study examined 426 American adults. Among the sample were 225 Christians, 59 Agnostics, 37 Atheists, 9 Buddhists, 8 Jews, 5 Pagans, 3 Muslims , 30 “others”, and 50 with no affiliation.

Saribay and his colleague, Onurcan Yilmaz, found that an intuitive thinking style independently predicted religious belief while low cognitive ability independently predicted social but not economic conservatism. In other words, people who tended to think intuitively rather than analytically were more likely to believe in a variety of religious concepts. People with lower cognitive ability were more likely to endorse socially conservative views.

“We would like to warn readers to resist the temptation to draw conclusions that suit their ideological worldviews,” Saribay told PsyPost. “One must not think in terms of profiles or categories of people and also not draw simple causal conclusions as our data do not speak to causality. Instead, it’s better to focus on how certain ideological tendencies may serve psychological needs, such as the need to simplify the world and conserve cognitive energy.”

“Our findings suggest that intuitive thinking serves the upholding of religious beliefs and by extension, growing less religious has more to do with overcoming one’s intuitions, if one has received religious upbringing. On the other hand, adopting socially progressive ideas may have more to do with intelligence compared to cognitive style. Note that these relations are not so clear cut and effect sizes are small.”

The small effect sizes mean that there were large overlaps between the groups studied. “But if any differential relation between these constructs exists, our survey of the literature and our data both suggest that it is in this direction,” Saribay said.

“By extension and more practically, resolving different types of ideological conflict may require different approaches,” he continued. “If conflict involves religious beliefs, it may be best to invite the religious party to reason slowly and more carefully in a calmer atmosphere (to enable analytic scrutiny), rather than to attack them and generate heated emotions (which would only bolster their tendency to rely on intuitions).”

“Resolution of conflict that involves social conservatism, on the other hand, may benefit more from breaking down progressive ideas into pieces that are easier to comprehend and reason about. This, of course, requires more direct evidence, but is suggested by our findings.”

The findings dovetail with previous research that found liberals tend to use analytic thinking when processing moral judgments while conservatives tend to use intuitive thinking.

“This is a difficult area because of its political nature and people often assume we are ideologically motivated in the research. It is of course likely that various biases influence research outcomes and this has been a topic of discussion (e.g., the liberal bias in social psychology),” Saribay added.

“However, a more balanced understanding can only be reached via continued empirical research. Human beings may sometimes benefit from cognitive simplification of a complex and at times scary world of constant change and uncertainty. It does seem that certain aspects of religion and conservative ideology serve to deal with this, in slightly different ways. This is the direction that evidence points to thus far. However, researchers of course must resist this very need to simplify the world beyond a certain level.”

“Our field treated culture as a relatively static entity and made simple, sweeping distinctions such as individualism vs. collectivism; but as research continued, it moved on to a more nuanced person by situation by culture type of understanding,” Saribay said. “Same happened earlier with the construct of personality. Thus, we hope that our understanding of the current variables and their relations will grow more complex.”

The study, titled “Analytic cognitive style and cognitive ability differentially predict religiosity and social conservatism“, was published online March 30, 2017.