A series of four studies published in Frontiers in Psychology looked at individual differences – such as analytical thinking – known to predict epistemically suspect beliefs. This research was conducted in both Western and Eastern cultures, revealing that the link between thinking style and such beliefs vary as a function of one’s culture.
“Previous research on everyday beliefs has shown a negative association between irrational beliefs and analytic (reflective) thinking. However, some studies, including ours, failed to replicate the existing findings,” explained study author Yoshimasa Majima, a psychology professor at Hokusei Gakuen University. “Therefore, we wondered whether the relationship between beliefs and thinking styles might differ across cultures and examined the differences in the association between beliefs and thinking styles by comparing participants from the so-called WEIRD populations and those from different cultural backgrounds.”
WEIRD populations refer to those that are predominantly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Most studies that have examined the association between cognitive style – i.e., intuitive (Type-1) vs. analytic (Type-2) thinking – and epistemically suspect beliefs have been conducted in such samples. These studies have forwarded that epistemically suspect beliefs are rooted in Type-1 processing, which can be overridden by Type-2 processing. However, this has been challenged by recent findings; for example, “promoting analytical thinking does not promote religious disbelief.”
In this work, Majima and colleagues examined whether prior research linking analytic thinking and epistemically suspect beliefs extend to non-WEIRD populations. The authors suggest that understanding cultural differences in thinking styles can have implications for potential interventions.
Across the four studies, the researchers recruited 666 Japanese participants, and 650 Western (i.e., United States and United Kingdom) participants.
In Study 1, participants completed measures assessing the degree to which they endorsed numerous paranormal beliefs (e.g., How likely is it that you possess some form of ‘psychic ability’?) and endorsement of various pseudoscientific beliefs (e.g., Homeopathic remedies foster spontaneous healing). A number of Cognitive Style Measures were administered to assess participants’ tendency to engage in analytic and intuitive thinking (e.g., I enjoy intellectual challenges; I like to rely on my intuitive impressions); this also included the short-form Cognitive Reflection Test, which behaviorally assesses participants’ tendency to override intuitive incorrect responses in favour of the analytically correct one. As well, participants completed a scale assessing analytic-holistic modes of thinking. Cognitive ability was measured with eight syllogisms which featured “conflict between the logical validity of the syllogism and the believability of its conclusion.” Lastly, numeracy (i.e., mathematical skills) were measured via a self-report scale.
Study 2 involved largely the same tasks. However, in place of the Analysis-Holism Scale, participants completed a measure assessing dialectical thinking – the ability to synthesize competing viewpoints (e.g., When I hear two sides of an argument, I often agree with both).
Study 3 largely followed the procedure of Study 1. A new addition was that for five paranormal and five pseudoscientific belief items (e.g., Some people can have a dream that has predicted some future events), anti-belief statements were created (e.g., No one can have a dream that has predicted future events). These 10 pairs were divided into two sets, with each set featuring 5 pro- and 5 anti-belief items that did not correspond with each other. Dialectical thinking was measured by obtaining a score based on the believability ratings participants provided for pro- and anti-belief statements.
Study 4 included the Cognitive Reflection Test, Analysis-Holism Scale, the Modified Snowy Pictures Task, and a profundity judgement task. The pictures task measured participants’ ability to detect real patterns and avoid detection of illusory patterns. The profundity task involved providing profundity ratings to 10 pseudo-profound bullshit statements (e.g., Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty), 10 genuinely profound motivational statements (e.g., A wet man does not fear the rain), and 10 mundane statements (e.g., New born babies require constant attention).
The researchers found that Eastern individuals endorsed paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs to a greater degree than Western participants. However, pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity did not vary between the two populations. Further, “individual differences in the holistic understanding of causality (i.e., multiple and complex causality)” partially explained the differences in epistemically suspect beliefs and bullshit receptivity. Contrary to what the researchers expected, attitude toward contradictions did not explain epistemically suspect beliefs or bullshit receptivity. This finding suggests that the stronger endorsement of epistemically suspect beliefs among Japanese individuals cannot be explained by “cultural difference in receptiveness to contradiction.”
A greater tendency to engage in Type-2 analytic thinking was negatively associated with endorsement of both epistemically suspect beliefs and pseudo-profound bullshit statements as profound in meaning. However, this association differed across the two cultures. Among Western participants, those who scored high in analytic thinking were also less likely to endorse such beliefs and statements. Contrarily, analytic thinking made no difference in endorsing epistemically suspect beliefs or bullshit receptivity for Japanese participants. Thus, while analytic thinking may have a protective element in Western populations, this might not extend to Eastern cultures.
“Previous psychological research has shown that everyday irrational beliefs, such as belief in the paranormal and pseudoscience, can be suppressed by analytical (reflective) thinking that does not jump to intuitive (often incorrect) answers that immediately come to mind,” Majima told PsyPost.
“However, this idea is based on data obtained primarily in so-called WEIRD cultures. This may not be necessarily true for all cultures. Further research is needed to examine the data from more diverse perspectives, such as differences in the way of thinking about causal relationships.”
With regard to study limitations, the researcher explained, “In the present study, the Japanese (to which the first author himself belongs) are taken as a non-WEIRD cultural group. Although cultural psychologists have pointed out that there are differences in thinking styles between East Asian and Western cultures in terms of holistic-analytic thinking, I don’t believe that these differences in thinking styles alone can explain the endorsement of irrational belief. Furthermore, the differences between East Asian and Western cultures are often discussed in terms of differences between collectivism and individualism, but I believe that it is inappropriate to discuss this issue from such a simple bipolar perspective. ”
He added, “In the study of everyday beliefs, data from participants collected from populations with more diverse backgrounds is essential. We hope to see an acceleration of collaborative research in which researchers from diverse backgrounds can work together across boundaries.”
And what questions still need answers? Majima said, “Our study showed that the negative association between analytic thinking and irrational beliefs is stronger in the West but weaker among Japanese participants. However, we have yet to identify specific cultural differences that could explain the differences in the tendency. For example, we suspect that the East Asian tendency to perceive causal relationships as complex, or the tendency to think holistically, including such tendencies, may be involved in the cultural differences, but further investigation is needed. Irrational beliefs can also be categorized into various forms, such as belief in the paranormal, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fake news, and so on, which are manifested in real-life situations. We would like to examine to what extent common mechanisms are involved among different beliefs in these domains, and to what extent there are differences among them.”
The research, “Culture as a Moderator of Epistemically Suspect Beliefs”, was authored by Yoshimasa Majima, Alexander C. Walker, Martin Harry Turpin, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang.