Religion affects decisions by shaping how we perceive

How do we make decisions? It may seem to be a question more suited for philosophical treatises or neuroscience journal articles than the study of religion, but there’s no denying that religion plays an important role in many people’s everyday choices (such as, say, in political decision-making…for better or worse). Now, researchers in the Netherlands suggest that religion may play a fundamental role in people’s choices by helping determine how we see our options to begin with.

Religious beliefs and practices shape people’s decisions – that much has been obvious since scholars first began investigating religion. For example, countless studies have shown that religious believers are generally less likely to smoke, drink, or engage in risky sex than nonbelievers. The question is, how does religion bias people towards certain decisions and away from others?

Researchers Bernhard Hommel and Lorenza S. Colzato, both of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, decided to find out whether religious frameworks could affect people’s decision-making processes at the level of perception – that is, by selectively affecting what we find important or relevant about our environment. By focusing on this first step, their hypothesis differed in an important way from many other theories of choice, which tend to emphasize higher, cognitive-control functions. In other words, instead of altering how we think about things and helping us to make choices based on those thoughts, Hommel and Colzato wondered whether religion actually helps shape the base-level context for decision-making: perception.

To test whether their conjecture held water, the researchers investigated Dutch neo-Calvinists and atheists to see if their perceptual strategies differed. Neo-Calvinism in the Netherlands encourages adherents to strictly compartmentalize life into different spheres – separating its religious facets from secular, professional, or civic concerns – while atheists are relatively more integrated in their conception of life’s various domains. Thus, Hommel and Colzato theorized that neo-Calvinists would be more likely to perceive the component parts of a geometrical image, while atheists would be quicker to see the total shape composed of the various parts. And, in fact, as reported in a recent article in the journal Zygon, their hypothesis was validated – neo-Calvinists were much quicker to focus on the basic, separate components of the image than the atheists.

This might be chalked up to cultural quirks of the religious landscape in the Netherlands, except for one thing: Hommel and Colzato also tested Italian Catholics and Italian atheists and found similar results, with one important difference. Since Italian Catholics are taught to value social harmony and communal identity, the researchers hypothesized that they would be more likely to see the unified image than the atheists. They were right – in the Italian sample, atheists were quicker to focus on the component parts of the images than the devout Catholics were.

So what does the ability to see different aspects of geometric images have to do with human choice? In essence, the authors of the paper suggest that people must constantly not only make decisions but decide how to make decisions. These meta-decisions are made using “control parameters,” which determine which model course of action is best suited to a given context. But people don’t just choose randomly which set of parameters to use in any given situation. Their choice of parameters is based on what they know about that situation – which, in turn, is based on what they perceive about it. If religious training generates reliable biases in what people focus on in their surroundings, it stands to reason that it affects decision-making processes at the most fundamental levels.

In their paper, Hommel and Colzato conclude that choosing parameters for decisions is “the main target of religious training.” While many religious teachers and faithful might take issue with that statement, it does have a certain logic. After all, nobody argues that religion doesn’t affect people’s choices. And any glance through the holy scriptures of, say, Christianity, Islam, or Judaism makes it clear that the writers wanted to sway people’s decisions, from the basic level of how they treated their neighbors to the ultimate level of how they thought about life. Changing how they saw the world might have been the best first step.

Photo credit: Svilen Milev

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