In general, most Western Christians and non-believers alike tend to associate God with “upper space” (i.e., heaven, higher power) and the devil with “lower space” (i.e., depths of hell, underground). New research published in Religion, Brain, & Behavior provides more support for these associations by demonstrating that these associations do exist and become stronger when people are reminded of their own death.
“The systematic use of vertical space when expressing religious contents is not merely an artistic feature but rather reflects a strategy of knowledge representation. According to the conceptual metaphor theory, verticality is a basic aspect of human life, and is therefore co-opted for various metaphorical associations such as valence, power, numerosity, or religious values,” wrote study author Michael Rihs and colleagues.
One’s religious beliefs extend beyond the belief in God. For example, religiosity can influence beliefs about death, the afterlife, and general existence. Terror management theory suggests that being aware of or reminded of one’s own death (i.e., mortality salience) can result in inner fear, which can then lead people to cling more strongly to their personal and cultural worldviews as a defense mechanism.
Research recruited 150 undergraduates to participate in this study for course credit. All participants took an implicit association test (IAT), which measures automatic associations between two concepts by having participants categorize words into appropriate categories. In this case, participants categorized words like “Lord” and “Satan” to the categories of “God” or “Devil.”
They then tested associations between words like “Top” and “Bottom” with categories of “Up” and “Down.” Lastly, they combined these tests and had participants associate words like “Almighty” and “Lucifer” with the categories described in the previous tests. The target-concept association was also reversed, and participants did the trials again, but associating words in the opposite categories. Half of the participants did the reversed tests first.
After the first IAT session, participants were randomly assigned to either the mortality salience or control condition. Mortality salience was introduced by having participants describe the emotions they felt when they think about their own death. The control group wrote about the emotions they feel when they think of a tooth root treatment. After this and two distractor tasks, participants completed the second IAT session. All participants also filled out measures of self-esteem at the beginning of the experiment and measures of general positive or negative mood in between the IAT sessions as a distractor task.
Results show that implicit associations of “God” with “Up” and “Devil” with “Down” did not differ between the groups on the first IAT session. However, these associations were stronger for the second IAT session for those in the mortality salience group compared to the control group. Interestingly, the control group showed a reduction in these associations at the second session.
Researchers recruited a smaller sample of 16 people to do the same procedure but instead of writing about a tooth treatment they copied a neutral text. Results show this group to have similar results to the original control group: a reduction in the expected implicit associations. Further analysis on effects of self-esteem showed that mortality salience did affect IAT scores in those with low and medium self-esteem scores, but not those with high self-esteem scores.
“The results are in line with earlier evidence that [mortality salience] automatically increases religious belief on an implicit level. In addition to this, the results provide insights into the cascade of cognitive processes triggered by [mortality salience]. Specifically, the results show that the activation of the target-concepts (God and devil) by [mortality salience] automatically activates the spatial association of these concepts (i.e., the source-concept).”
The researchers cite some limitations of their work and recommendations for future research such as the inclusion of a measurement of belief in God as changes to these implicit associations may vary depending on a person’s level of belief.
The study, “God is up and devil is down: mortality salience increases implicit spatial-religious associations“, was authored by