Science on Religion

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Ominous moods may improve ritual performance

Black KnightTo the uninitiated, religious ritual seems like frivolous play-acting. Priests and acolytes follow obscure rules and manipulate symbolic objects, similar to team sports like soccer, or board games like Risk. This connection isn't meant to trivialize the intense subjective meaning of religious rites, but only to point out that both ritual and play are elaborate, seemingly superfluous pastimes that consume enormous amounts of otherwise productive energy. Of what use are either? Yvan Russell, Fernand Gobet, and Harvey Whitehouse hypothesize that the connection between ritual and games is quite significant. Skills acquired by performing rites and playing games should carry over into real world abilities. Their study suggests that the more disturbing a performer's mood is, the more effective that transference will be.

The researchers on this project are a powerhouse team of cognitive and evolutionary psychologists. Harvey Whitehouse is credited as a founder of the cognitive science of religion. The current experiment is part of Oxford University's “Explaining Religion Project,” organized through the school's Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology. This project aims to identify the various components that make up the psychological repertoire we call “religion,” establish causal links between the mind, behaviors, and the environment, and to discern the variations of these components across cultures. Basically, the goal is to break “religion” down to its fundamental components in order to understand what makes the spiritual brain tick.

The methodology employed in this study packs as much fun as any random sample could hope for. Sixty-seven Brunel University students—with a slight female majority—were selected from volunteers who responded to posters tacked up around campus which read “Playing Games.” The sample was religiously diverse, being 43% Christian, 21% Muslim, 15% non-religious, 12% Hindu, 4.5% Sikh, and 4.5% Buddhist. Those selected spent an exciting afternoon watching short films of either Mr. Bean or scenes of nuclear war, then played games involving Siberian shamans or cannibals eating Christian missionaries. Before I explain further, a word on the experiment's purpose.

The authors begin with the assumption that learning to play games is an acceptable proxy for learning and executing religious rituals. Both involve exacting rules, cultural ambiance, and a sense of satisfaction upon successful completion. The second assumption is that the analogical reasoning required to learn and employ a religious ritual (or game) carries over into other abilities in the real world, thus conferring an advantage upon the ritualist (or player). Real-world applications could be anything from hunting to intertribal diplomacy to wooing a mate—or in a modern context, successfully navigating an urban social environment. The idea is that, far from being empty incantations and wasted energy, religious rituals prepare the participant to better engage daily life.

Russell, Gobet, and Whitehouse lay out four independent variables by which they organize their sixty-seven subjects. The first is mood. Not emotion, which is fleeting, but subtle background feelings, which they distinguish generally as being either euphoric or dysphoric. Relying on previous research, the team anticipated that euphoric players would tend toward more global, big picture abilities, while dysphoric players would show more attention to detail. Since the experiment involves games of skill—in particular the classic Tower of Hanoi brain-bender—the subjects' abilities at solving this puzzle were assessed. This leaves us with four subject types playing these games:

  1. Expert euphoric
  2. Expert dysphoric
  3. Non-expert euphoric
  4. Non-expert dysphoric

This mood distinction is meant to mimic feel-good rituals like community festivals on the one hand, and torturous rituals such as invoking demonic imagery or ceremonial scarification on the other. Previous research by Whitehouse suggests a general pattern linking large-scale societies with casual feel-good rituals, and small-scale tribal societies and cults with more torturous rites. One speculative conclusion is that the former facilitates social bonding across large anonymous groups, while the latter primes people to engage in intense, risky behaviors. It should be noted that these are only tendencies and aren't mutually exclusive. For instance, an evangelical megachurch may sing and dance on Sunday, while gathering for an intimate exorcism the following Wednesday.

Which brings us to Bear Gods and nuclear war.

The experimental procedure began with participants watching a 10-minute film in a dark room. Half watched the goofy antics of Mr. Bean. The other half witnessed scenes of nuclear annihilation in the British anti-war film Threads. The subjects were then given a “memory test” which was actually to gauge their relative moods. Unsurprisingly, the former were fairly euphoric while the latter felt pretty dismal. But the fun didn't stop there.

The Tower of Hanoi features a board with three pegs and five disks of increasing size placed on the left-hand peg. (Image here.) The goal is to get all five disks onto the right-hand peg in as few moves as possible and without placing a larger disk onto a smaller one. It's like a more complicated version of the little wood-peg intelligence tests people play while waiting for their grits at Cracker Barrel. The best players can solve the Tower of Hanoi in a minimum of 31 moves. The worst may never complete the puzzle at all. Those participants who had played TOH before were put in the “expert” grouping—some euphoric, others dysphoric.

Having played this game, the experts were then given a new game with identical rules: Bear God. This simply replaces the disks and pegs with shamans and an ordered set of ritual behaviors. Non-experts were given Missionary Cannibal to play, in which players are presented with three missionaries and three cannibals. The objective is to get them across the river on a two-person raft without the Christians getting eaten.

The experimental goal was to detect any differences in performance between euphoric and dysphoric participants. If the cognitive mechanisms activated by dysphoric rituals enhanced analogical reasoning and primed ritual participants for detail-oriented activity, this test should uncover that tendency.

In the end, the expert dysphoric players showed a remarkable increase in ability, while the other three categories showed little or no improvement.

How far does this experiment go toward explaining religion? One single centipede step, but hopefully there are a hundred more coming behind it.

The authors acknowledge that their experiment relies on two huge inferential leaps. The first is that games are a reliable proxy for performing deep religious rituals. The second is that these skills transfer to an advantage in real world abilities. The small sample size is another huge limitation. However, the purpose of this study wasn't to grasp the big picture, but to isolate one psychological component—the tendency for dysphoric mood to enhance analogical reasoning—and test for an effect. In that, Russell, Gobet, and Whitehouse succeeded. Images of children getting fried in atomic explosions seem to improve people's abilities to shuffle disks on pegs. Establishing a more concrete causal link between, say, hellfire preaching and military prowess will require further research. With any luck, future experiments will also involve fictive missionaries being eaten by cannibals.

For more, read “Mood, expertise, analogy, and ritual: an experiment using the five-disk Tower of Hanoi ” in Religion, Brain, and Behavior.

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