There are still many unexplored avenues in studying how thinking changes across religions and cultures. One of the limitations of all psychological research is that it is affected by the person doing the research, and an overwhelming majority of data that exists comes from people in the “WEIRD” countries – Western, Educated, Industrialized, and Democratic. The modern-day WEIRD cultures also show the historical marks of the battle between Protestantism and Catholicism for mass cultural influence. There are countless other cultural conflicts in other parts of the world, however, whose effects on thinking styles have yet to be studied.
Sinai and Synapses Fellowship alumni Connor Wood and Jonathan Morgan have continued to have a fruitful collaboration long after their respective cycles of the program have ended. Now they have contributed a chapter to a new book, “The New Reflectionism in Cognitive Psychology: Why Reason Matters,” published by Routledge and edited by Gordon Pennycook. Rabbi Geoff Mitelman spoke with them in a 40-minute interview, which will be published in parts throughout this week. In the transcript for the final part, “The WEIRDness of Studying Thinking,” below, they discuss the limitations of their research and their plans to expand its scope.View Transcript
Geoff Mitelman: It sounds like some of the research that you’ve been doing as well is what’s called often the WEIRD morality of Western, Educated, Intellectual, Rich and Democratic – that a lot of the research is done by and for people in part of that community, and that’s a sort of an assumption of “that’s how the world is,” versus in different places – I’m thinking, you know, you mentioned Turkey, but I’m also thinking about – I think, was it the research of Iceland, or Denmark, one of the Scandinavian countries, of having a lot of happiness and connection there. They’re atheistic, they tend to be more atheistic, but they also tend to be very similar culturally. So it’s not the religion there, but it’s a different culture, and again there are very dense social networks there, versus, I think, in America and a lot of Western Europe, there’s a lot more of an individuality that’s there. I’m just curious if that’s– if that is something that you’ve noticed, or if that’s an accurate statement?
Connor Wood: Yeah, I think we’re definitely looking at that WEIRD phenomenon –that’s Western, Educated, Industrialized, Democratic. That phrase comes from Joseph Henrich and his colleagues at the University of British Columbia. It’s this idea that this small segment of the world, Western Europe and North America, tends to be much more individualistic and more analytically-minded than the rest of the world.
And you know, one of the things that I think that’s attributable to – which I don’t know if the other researchers who really do the WEIRD studies, like Joe Henrich and these other guys, I don’t know if they’ve published anything on this – Jonathan might know – but really it’s a legacy of Protestantism. I mean, the areas that are super WEIRD in that acronym – they’re all Protestant, historically. Western Europe, right, like Northwestern Europe, where the trading cultures have sort of a different cultural context and a need than Southern Europe – that sort of helped exacerbate the splits between Catholic Europe and Protestant Europe. And then North America, which was colonized by France and England, but eventually was sort of taken over by England in this post-Protestant era.
It’s an individualistic version of Christianity, it’s a less ritualistic version – that’s one of the main points of Protestantism, is famously, especially in the reformed tradition, the thinkers who instituted Protestantism downplayed the importance of sacraments like communion, like weddings and marriages, like last rites. So in the Catholic version of Christianity and the Orthodox version, there are seven sacraments. And in Protestantism, even in Lutheranism, which did the least tweaking, there’s only two. There’s only baptism and communion.
And that deritualization of Christianity – if you think back to our talk about institutional thinking and the acceptance of authority and affiliation, the less ritual you have in your religious and social environment, the less reinforcement you’re going to get for the worldview, for the set of norms, the expectations, and for the close social density, right. Like the Catholic countries of Southern Europe are known as being more collectivistic – not in a Marxist sense, but in a specific psychological sense, which means that they’re very closely, densely knit together.
Think about, like, an Italian immigrant neighborhood in New York City in the 1920’s. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody shoulders each other’s burdens, and gossips about one another, and goes to the same church, right. Protestantism sort of loosened that knot, and – didn’t get rid of it, because we humans need that knot – but it loosened it, and I think that that WEIRD phenomenon that we’re looking at now is, in part, a sort of historical legacy of that change to the ritual landscape of the West.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah, and how we often don’t think about how immersed we are in a particular culture until we look at it from the outside of “this is a different God,” like “what we do is the right way, the right thing, and the way everyone else does it is weird” – that’s the lower case “weird” there.
I want to give you a chance for any last thoughts or other pieces that you want to share about this really fascinating work that you’re doing.
Jonathan Morgan: You know, this chapter was an effort of summarizing a lot of the theory and trying to bring different pieces of research that were sort of tangential, but bring them directly to bear on this relationship between intuitive thinking and religious belief. But it was still pretty theoretical.
So right now, Connor and I are in the midst of collecting and beginning to analyze it, and so actually trying to bring some empirical work to bear on this, because I think, so far, the empirical studies that have been done sort of point to this important role of social cognition and social relationships within the broader relationship between cognitive style and religiosity. So we’re trying to bring some new evidence to bear on that and directly test how it is that this embeddedness within socially dense communities impacts that association.
I think – our hope is that that provides sort of the crucial factor, so that as we go, and are comparing different cultures and different social contexts, researchers can be attuned to that as an important variable that’s going to change which way this association goes, and where we should expect it to hold or not hold.
Geoff Mitelman: Connor?
Connor Wood: Yeah, so that’s one thing I wanted to mention, which is this project that Jonathan and I have going on, also with John Shaver from the University of Otago. So there is a kind of group of us who are pursuing a related number of tracks down this path together. We actually, I think, just finished collecting data. Is that right, Jonathan?
Jonathan Morgan: Yeah.
Connor Wood: I’ve been away on my honeymoon, so I’ve been out of contact in the desert for a while, but I think – so now we have a bunch of data that we pre-registered, which is a new practice in the social sciences where you go online and you list exactly which analyses you’re going to do on the data before you even collect it.
Geoff Mitelman: Oh wow.
Connor Wood: So that when you do the analyses, you don’t get to kind of like, tweak it, or look for another connection, or do what they call “p-hacking,” which is looking for significant correlations by looking at all the connections you can. And that project is looking at the relationship between holistic and analytical thinking and religiosity, especially the social dimensions of it, to apply that social foundation’s hypothesis to real world, self-report data.
So, I think that’s one last thing – well, actually two last things – that I wanted to mention, is from our chapter, we also draw on the work of a psychologist from Yale named David Rand and his workers – he’s actually a colleague of Gordon Pennycook, who edited the book and shepherded us through the publication process. David’s work at Rand has found some pretty interesting correlations between analytical thinking and cooperation, namely that analytical thinking seems to make people a little more transactional in the way that they deal with cooperation. So when you’re – if you’re cooperating in a little group, where you’re all going to see each other again, day in and day out, it makes a lot of sense to cooperate. Because if I don’t cooperate with you today, then tomorrow you’re not going to cooperate with me, and you know, we both hurt.
But if it’s just a one-off scenario, like I’m visiting your big city for one day, and I buy something from you at your store, and I’m never going to see you again, you’re never going to see me again, then in a purely rational format, it would make sense for me to try and cheat you, and vice versa, because we’re never going to see each other again and there’s no danger of losing a potential beneficial relationship down the road.
Well, the work that David Rand and others have done at Yale seems to show that analytical thinking makes people a little more likely to choose that defection option in the context where it makes sense. And I don’t mean that in a moral sense – I mean that in a, you know, just transactional sense. Whereas intuitive thinkers, or intuitive thinking, seems to be associated with choosing the cooperative option, regardless of whether it benefits the doer, the agent at that particular time.
So one of the conclusions we suggest in our chapter is that religious beliefs, because they are tethered to intuitive acceptance of a social norm, of the beliefs that are instituted by authorities that we accept, they also are a fairly credible signal that the person who espouses them is not going to defect on cooperative expectations opportunistically. That is, that somebody who’s very – seems very devout, and very much believes in whatever religious system, you know, you’re talking about, they’re probably also not going – they don’t, so they’re showing, by definition, that they don’t question the authority of the circle, right.
So that means that it’s pretty likely that they’re also not going to question the cooperative expectations that come with that, right, like I’m not going to, like “I’m going to pay the tithe, I’m going to offer my home to guests if that’s what’s expected – if it’s not, then I won’t.” We’re not saying that religious people are better morally, we’re saying that they’re more likely to just follow the social norms without questioning. That can be good or bad depending on what the norms are, but it’s just an important aspect of this theory that we put together, or this hypothesis.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, what’s interesting – and thank you both for taking the time to talk – what’s fascinating about a lot of the research that you’re doing is obviously using the analytic elements to understand a lot of the intuitive questions, because you’ve got to be analytic to be able to be a good scientist, but looking at questions of religion from a social perspective, because a lot of the religion and science discussion, as I know both of you know, is trying to prove why religion is useless or worthless, or why there’s no God. And the work that you’re doing, I think, is designed to be “here’s what the good science is going to say,” and religious communities can use this or not, but it’s really interesting and valuable data for us to be able to explore, anyone who identifies as a religious person or a religious leader, to be able to say “what does this data mean about the community that I’m a part of, and how do I build a sense of trust and connection and community, as we all try to balance what does it mean to be an individual who is also a part of a society – where do we draw that balance?”
And it’s not that there’s necessarily always the right/wrong conversation, but when is it going to be appropriate to be pushed in one direction or the other? And the research that you’re doing is really helping us shed a lot of light on that dynamic. So thank you both for the fascinating work you’re doing and taking some time to talk this morning.
Connor Wood: Thanks a lot, Geoff.
Jonathan Morgan: Yeah, thank you Geoff. It’s always fun.