Tag Archives: Cognitive dissonance

Reflecting on religion and psychology

24 Nov


I delivered my annual lecture on Darwin and Evolution this week, and almost inevitable it led me to think again about psychology and religion. I’ve written before about the strange absence of ‘religious belief’ from most UK undergraduate psychology degrees, and delivering my lecture of evolution main me think about what a fascinating it would be for psychologists.

As part of my evolution lecture I look at why ‘anti-science’ might be so focused on a theory that is over 150 years old, and so heavily supported by the weight of evidence. As part of the lecture I played a Youtube video of Ken Ham, a young-earth creationist who advocates a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. I also looked at Ham’s web site ‘Answers in Genesis’, which provide scholarly explanations for the content of the first book of the Bible. I was particularly drawn to a very detailed exposition of how Noah’s Ark would have worked, including an apparently serious consideration of the necessity of rounding in young dinosaurs as adults would be so difficult to accommodate. If one discounts the terrifying sight, for a rationalist, of young children being told that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time I was drawn to the question of why a literal belief in Genesis might be necessary in order to be a ‘good’ Christian.

For me, as a fully paid up atheist, I can see that much of the New Testament provides a perfectly good guide to how to lead one’s lift, and the spirit of community engendered by organised religion surely ought to be positively viewed by a psychologist of any background. Yet, the insistence on rabid opposition to ‘Science’, and the extraordinary efforts to ‘prove’ the contents of genesis would seem to have no connection to all of the positives of Christianity (or indeed any other religion). All of this led me to wonder (aloud in the middle of my lecture), what drives apparently sincere religious people to focus on what appear to be details irrelevant to their core beliefs. The best I could come up with at the time was ‘cognitive dissonance’. In the same way that some American politicians have made seemingly bizarre statements about abortion I wondered if what might be driving ‘anti-evolution’ was a need to reconcile the dissonant beliefs in the literal truth of Genesis and the weight of evidence for evolution.

One might expect such a thought to provoke concern from religious students, but in fact it produced an entirely rational and very interesting discussion with a group of students after the lecture. All of which leads further down the line that teaching ‘controversial’ topics is a really useful way to get students involved in rational debate. I wouldn’t advocate it unless you have the environment to develop students’ skills in advance, but it you have that it does really seem to work. I’m definitely going to work-up a ‘Psychology of Religion’ lecture for next year

Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ???

30 Apr

I’ve been thinking this week about why we don’t teach the psychology of religion to undergraduate students. A few things conspired to send me in this direction, a colleague of mine is looking at ‘the teaching of controversial topics’, I’m heading for the end of the academic year and so I’m thinking about new material for next year and finally, I read an excellent article in ‘The New Yorker’ by Gary Marcus on Psychology and Religion. It’s difficult to think of a universal human behavior that we don’t address an undergraduate level, which makes religious belief even more conspicuous by its absence from our curriculum. I’d did think about whether my own institution was odd in some way, but a quick Google search threw up only one undergraduate module at a UK HEI, what sound like a really interesting course at Newcastle.

So, if undergraduate psychology courses are avoiding ‘religion’, why might that be the case. Well , I think you can discount the idea that it isn’t very interesting to psychologists, after all it’s difficult to think of a more universal and persistent human behavioural trait. This seems to leave ‘fear of causing offence’ as the most likely explanation for its absence. Given that over the last year I’ve discussed evolution, evil, conspiracy theories and terrorism in lectures without causing obvious offence it makes me wonder why religion should be such a taboo topic.

Having given it a lot of thought, in my own case I think the avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ is a product of an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance. I spend a lot of time encouraging students to think about everyday issues in a ‘scientific’ manner (i.e. weighing all of the evidence, reading original sources etc etc) and yet some of the very scientists I encourage them to emulate seem to bypass thinking ‘scientifically’ when it comes to religion. The most obvious culprit here is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ enormous contribution to science is obvious, and yet when it comes to religion he seems  increasingly to exhibit the same ‘fundamentalist’ tendencies that  he rails against in others. Most recently he has said that he has never read the Quran, but this is OK as he didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to understand that the Nazis were evil. Avoiding for a moment the lovely example of Godwin’s Law, this line of argument might work in a ‘pub’ discussion and indeed might have logical validity, but in a scientific discourse surely ‘I haven’t read the primary source material but I know your wrong anyway’ wouldn’t stand up.

SO I’m left with the ironic situation that the reason I don’t teach about ‘the psychology of religion’ is that the one of the prime examples of exactly the sort of thinking I want students to develop (Dawkins) doesn’t use that sort of thinking when it comes to religion. I’d love to know what other people think :

Is an avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ widespread ?

Could you teach ‘the psychology of religion’ without causing offence ?

Am I right that it could be Dawkins’ ‘fundamentalism’ that is putting me off ?

Leave a comment below, I’d be really interested to hear what people think

Reflections on teaching the ‘Psychology of conspiracy theories’

8 Mar

Just finished another really interesting teaching session looking at the psychology of the belief in conspiracy theories. A number of things came out of it that seem worth of discussion here :

1) The prevalence of belief in at least one conspiracy theory

Initially it was quite surprising how widespread belief in at least one conspiracy theory was amongst my students, and how many of them seemed to have quite detailed knowledge of some of the ‘evidence’ supporting conspiracy theories. However, when you look at recent research things become a bit more explicable. Swami & Coles’ (2010) paper in The Psychologist is a nice summary of the research, and talks about recent studies finding relationships between ‘Big-Five’ personality traits and conspiracy theory belief particularly ‘Openness to experience’. You’d hope that students were high on ‘openness to experience’, and thus maybe their overt interest in conspiracy theories isn’t as inexplicable as it initially looked.

2) Cognitive Dissonance Example

I’ve previously written about US Republican politicians getting themselves in all sorts of trouble when talking about abortion as being a great example of cognitive dissonance at work. I had the chance in this lecture to show students the examples I’d collected. Both videos seemed to work well to illustrate what a very powerful effect cognitive dissonance can be.

3) Historical Background knowledge

Academics make a lot of implicit assumptions about the background general knowledge that their students have, and on more than one occasion this year I’ve questioned quite how reliable these assumptions are. In yesterday’s lecture I showed the ‘Zapruder’ film of Kennedy’s assassination, and was surprised by the number of audible gasps of shock that it elicited. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most academics would assume that this film is so ‘well worn’ that everybody would have seen it many times, and yet yesterday’s evidence would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. It does make me wonder about how many more assumptions we make might be flawed. Sometimes I think we forget that events like the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred 23 years ago i.e. long before the birth of undergraduate students !

4) ‘Conspiracy Theories’ are a great way to engage students in rational thinking

I written before about the habit of some ‘scientists’ of cherry-picking evidence to suit their own pet theory, and conspiracy theories seem like a great way of getting students to see that you have to consider ALL of the available evidence.

All in all it seemed like a really successful teaching session to me, although final ‘proof’ will have to wait until next week’s mid-module feedback and May’s exams !

Trying to think rationally about US gun laws

4 Jan


Since the dreadful attack on The Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut just before Christmas I’ve been thinking about the debate that followed might be integrated into my rational thinking teaching. I’m sure that for those teaching in other disciplines there will be other parts of the debate that will seem relevant, but for my students (who are studying psychology) I’ve settled on two points. Firstly, the idea that the attack was ‘evil’, and secondly the question of the cultural differences between Europe and the USA.

The Psychology of ‘Evil’

In the immediate aftermath of the attack the Connecticut State governor Dannel Malloy visited Newtown and was reported to have said ‘Evil visited this community today’. I was immediately struck by how unhelpful this was in trying to explain the attack. It seems to me that calling the attack ‘evil’ removes any requirement to understand why to attack happened i.e it happened because the attackers was evil. It will be interesting to discuss this idea with students, particularly as psychology does have something to say about the aetiology of ‘evil’ acts whether it be Zimbardo’s ‘Situationist’ approach or Baron-Cohen’s more recent work on ‘evil’ and the absence of empathy.

Cultural Differences between Europe and the USA

Possibly of more general interest is the apparent difference in reaction between Europe and the USA. I’ve previously written about the idea that students tend to not differentiate between Europeans and Americans, and yet this is an example where the vast majority of Europeans struggle to grasp the attachment of many  (50%) Americans attachment to the right to bear arms. For the average European the post-attack reaction of the American National Rifle Association (NRA), suggesting that the attack could have been prevented had the school teachers been armed seems so extreme as to be difficult to believe.

Trying to uncover rational thought about US Gun Law is difficult, and often confounded by the lobbying power of the NRA, but I’ve come across a few articles that are of interest :

Silencing the Science of Gun Research – From the Journal of the American Medical Assocation takes a look at the avaialble research

The Riddle of the Gun – By Sam Harris is an interesting take on why some completely rational Americans might have to desire to own a gun, and an excellent critique of Sam Harris’s article

Finally, I found “Should Gun Owners Have To Buy Liability Insurance?” a really intriging idea that balances the need for regulation with the sense of so many Americans that they ‘need’ to own a gun.

I’ll report back after I’ve taught this stuff in February.

More on cognitive dissonance and abortion. Pregancy from rape is ‘something God intended to happen’ !

29 Oct

A few weeks ago I wrote about an American politician Todd Akin, and suggested that the somewhat bizarre views about rape and abortion that he had expressed might have been a product of cognitive dissonance. I’ve now come across a second example of what seems to be the same phenomena.

Richard Mourdock is a Republican candidate for an Indiana Senate seat who holds very firm views on abortion believing that there are no circumstances in which it should be allowed. However,  the interesting stuff began when Mr Mourdock was questioned about his views on rape. As any right thinking person would be said that he ‘abhorred rape, as did God’. When the discussion moved to his views about pregnancy as a result of rape you see the dramatic ‘problems’ caused by cognitive dissonance. Mr Mourdock was confronted with on one-hand his ‘abhorrence’ of rape (and presumable the view that it wasn’t part of God’s plan) and on the other hand his opposition to abortion under any circumstances. It seems to me that cognitive dissonance can be the only rational explanation for Mr Mourdock’s subsequent statement that pregnancy as a result of rape was ‘something that God intended to happen’.

Both Akin and Mourdock’s statements over the last few weeks seem to me to be great illustrations of quite how powerful an influence on the mind cognitive dissonance is. It’s all to easy for European liberals to dismiss such statements as being slight ‘mad’, but I think that seeking rational explanations for them is much more interesting.

Equally, this seem like another useful example to get students to think about differences between American and Western European culture. All to often students are prepared to uncritically accept evidence from the USA when these examples seem to illustrate another gaping cultural difference. It’s difficult to imagine a ‘mainstream’ British politician of any party making statements similar to those of Akin and Mourdock without seeing a rapid end to their political career.

Abortion and cognitive dissonance

24 Aug

One of my favourite teaching topics is ‘why do smart people do and think dumb things’, and I was reminded of this during the week when I read about the latest, slightly bizarre, twist in the ongoing US abortion debate. As you will have undoubtedly read,  in a discussion  about pregnancy ( and thus potential abortion) after rape Missouri Congressman Todd Akin said “in cases of legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”. Avoiding, for the moment, the horrific use of the word ‘legitimate’ in that sentence I was draw to the question of why an apparently reasonably intelligence person could end up so confused about female biology as the available evidence seems to point in completely the opposite direction.

This made me think about a lecture I did last year, on the psychology of conspiracy theories. I spent a long time looking for an interesting example of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort felt when an individual holds conflicting beliefs, and in particular Festinger’s idea that individuals would modify their cognitions to resolve the dissonance.

It seems that Congressman Akin passionately believes that abortion should be banned, and no exceptions to this ban should be allowed. Equally he believes that rape is wrong. He is thus left with the dissonant cognition that a pregnancy might result from a rape. In order to resolve these dissonant beliefs it seems reasonable to suggest that Congressman Akin’s brain has concocted the seemingly baseless idea that the female reproductive system can shutdown in the face of rape in order to resolve the cognitive dissonance. There may, of course, be other explanations of this but it does look like a nice classroom illustration of the concept.

If you are interested in a rational look at the US abortion debate material is very difficult to find, as the debate is so polarised. However, I did come across this twenty year old paper from the arch-rationalist Carl Sagan that is well worth reading.

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