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Thinkers and Feelers

by WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

We might call this article old news, for two reasons. One, these findings are from a study published in 2011, and two, most of us have suspected the conclusions all along. Still, I thought many of you would still find this “news” interesting.

The study, titled, “Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God,” was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and was performed by Amitai Shenhav, David G. Rand, and Joshua D. Greene all of Harvard University.

What these guys did was determine their subjects’ relative propensity to form their judgments intuitively, or through reflection (reason). This propensity they called “cognitive style.” They tested this using a series of math problems that, although easily solvable, have intuitively compelling incorrect answers. For example, “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The response $0.10 springs immediately to mind, but the correct answer is $0.05. Choosing the attractive but incorrect answer signals greater reliance on intuition and less reliance on reflection.”

Their results were controlled for IQ, personality aspects, education level, income, political orientation, and other demographic variables.

While their results are in the form of various arcane statistical measures that I’m not familiar with, so I can’t quantify them for you, they found that people with a cognitive style favoring intuition were more likely to be god believers, and for their beliefs to become stronger as they grew older. Those who favored a reflective cognitive style were less likely to be god believers.

Here’s a common definition of intuition: Knowing or considering likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning. And here are some interesting synonyms for intuition: hunch, feeling (in one's bones), inkling, (sneaking) suspicion.

Here’s a particularly interesting paragraph in their study: “By intuitive judgments we mean judgments made with little effort based on automatic processes, and by reflective judgments we mean judgments in which the judge pauses to critically examine the dictates of her intuition(s), thus allowing for the possibility of a less-intuitive or counterintuitive conclusion. Reflection is typically assumed to be more effortful than intuition…”

That last sentence pretty much proves what most of us have suspected all along, that thinking takes more effort than feeling, so people less inclined to heavy thinking just naturally gravitate toward god belief. Have you ever noticed that when god believers explain why they believe, they tend to stress their feelings, their emotional reactions to the hypothesis? In short, nobody reasons their way to god belief, they feel their way to it by following their hunches, and most do little serious reflecting; in fact, believers are generally instructed to avoid thinking too hard on questions of belief.

So, while this study produced no surprises, it’s still nice to have one’s suspicions vindicated, isn’t it?


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