Scientists are beginning to investigate the relationship between religious fundamentalism and cognitive processes. A new preliminary study published in Frontiers in Psychology hints that religious fundamentalism is associated with more intense processing of error-related stimuli.

“My research interests are focused on motivational processes underlying social knowledge formation and usage. Specifically, I am studying why people become closed-minded and dogmatic,” said Malgorzata Kossowska, a professor in the Institute of Psychology at the Jagiellonian University and the corresponding author of the study.

“Closed-mindedness and dogmatism have important behavioral consequences such as prejudice, intolerance, injustice, and inequality. Religious fundamentalism is a very good example of closed minded, dogmatic beliefs. Besides, in Poland, where I am doing my research, almost everybody is religious, and nowadays most of them are religious fundamentalists. Thus, understanding closed-minded religious beliefs allowed me to better understand social processes in my country.”

“In this particular piece we focused on the general sensitivity to error-related events as an important mechanism through which fundamentalism facilitates self-control,” Kossowska told PsyPost. “We observed this mechanism in brain activity. I believe that this approach allows for the integration of multiple levels of analysis and therefore refines and constrains psychological theories.”

The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to examine the brain activity of 34 participants while they completed a Stroop task. During the task, the participants identified the color of various words related to error and uncertainty flashed on a screen.

The researchers were particularly interested in the N400 response, a pattern of electrical brain activity that is associated with the processing of unexpected or inappropriate information.

Kossowska and her colleagues observed significantly larger error-related brain activity among fundamentalist participants who were intolerant of uncertainty, but not among participants who were tolerant of uncertainty. In other words, for people who are intolerant of uncertainty, religious fundamentalism is associated with an increased N400 response on error-related words.

“Our results are in line with the claim that religion acts like a meaning system that offers order and control, protecting people against anxiety and subjective pain of errors when faced with uncertainty,” Kossowska explained.

“More specifically, we found that increased sensitivity to error-related words may be considered as a defensive mechanism of religious fundamentalists. Detecting errors may allow one to bring their behavior in line with fundamentalist rules and standards.”

However, the study has important limitations and there is need for further research.

“There are many major caveats. The study shows a correlation between religious fundamentalism and response-related brain activity; however, the causal direction of this relationship is unclear,” Kossowska said.

“Further research is needed to determine whether a fundamentalist mindset causes overactive performance monitoring or, on the contrary, excessive behavioral monitoring leads to religious fundamentalism. In addition, fundamentalism was studied on quite a homogeneous sample of young Polish Catholics. Thus, studying this effect across religions and cultures will likely yield valuable insights.”

“Next, although small, low-powered studies are endemic in neuroscience, they are also problematic,” Kossowska added. “It was recently recognized that low sample size of studies, small effects or both, lead to low statistical power that negatively affects the probability that a nominally statistically significant finding actually reflects a true effect. Therefore, the results should be treated with some caution and replications of the results would be of great value.”

The study, “Religious Fundamentalism Modulates Neural Responses to Error-Related Words: The Role of Motivation Toward Closure“, was authored by MaƂgorzata Kossowska, Paulina Szwed, Miroslaw Wyczesany, Gabriela Czarnek and Eligiusz Wronka.