Humans have an unusual capacity for detecting faces where none exist. Looking at the clouds or a tree or even a rock can lead someone to imagine a face. Some Christians believe to have seen Jesus appear on a piece of toast and Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. While this is obviously not mainstream Christianity, it does make one wonder whether religious believers tend to see such things when nonreligious people would not. Investigating this matter, psychologist Tapani Riekki (University of Helsinki, Finland) and colleagues found that religious and paranormal believers are indeed more vulnerable to facial illusions.
More technically, seeing faces in non-human objects is called “illusory face detection.” People detect a face, but the object they see has no face.
Concerning illusory face detection and religion, the researchers made two hypotheses. First, in contrast to nonreligious people and skeptics, religious people and believers in the paranormal would have more active illusory face detection. In other words, when asked in “yes or no” fashion whether a face could be found in a picture, religious and paranormal believers would say Yes more than their counterparts. Second, paranormal and religious believers would rate illusory faces as more facelike than skeptics and the nonreligious. That is, even when everyone sees an illusory face, believers in the paranormal and religion will rate that illusory face as being more genuinely facelike than their counterparts.
To test these hypotheses, the researchers designed two experiments. Both involved the same group of 47 participants whom the researchers selected based on their healthy eyesight and their beliefs. To gather data on the participants’ religious and paranormal beliefs, they filled out the Revised Paranormal Belief Scale. This scale includes items that measure religiosity (such as “I believe in God”) and the paranormal (such as “Astrology is a way to accurately predict the future”).
With this preliminary data collected, the participants would then go through the two experiments. In the first, a series of photographs would flash on a computer screen, and the participant would have to decide whether the photo contained a face or not. All of the photos contained natural, non-human objects, and so all of the faces were illusory. The point of this experiment was to see if religious and paranormal believers would perceive faces more often than the nonreligious and skeptics. Put another way, the participants were asked to see if they could find a face in the picture. The researchers determined beforehand which photos really had “faces” and which did not.
In the second experiment, the researchers instructed the participants as follows: “Next you will be shown pictures in which a face-like area can or cannot be found. Rate the possible face-like areas using the following scales.” In other words, participants still saw a series of photographs, but instead of simply saying “yes/no” as to whether they could see a face in the photograph, here they had to rate how facelike the face (if any) was.
As expected, religious people and those who believed in the paranormal more frequently detected faces where, as far as the researchers could tell, none existed, compared to nonreligious people and skeptics. Interestingly enough, the only other factor that mattered here was age: older people tended to be less sensitive to illusory faces than younger people. However, regarding the second hypothesis, while the paranormal believers rated the illusory faces they saw as more facelike than skeptics, no significant difference arose between how the religious and nonreligious rated the facelikeness of these illusory faces. In short, the second hypothesis found only partial support.
The researchers conclude as follows: “As a whole, the results hint at the possibility that the believers may be overly sensitive to social information and that only a small amount of information is sufficient to activate their social information processing.” They go on to suggest that this sensitivity to social processing may mean that religious people tend to see agency in the world where there is none, and that this may form the basis of religious belief. In other words, religious belief may come from overactive social processing. But of course reducing something as complex as religion to social processing is a risky business. Oversimplifying religion might even be its own kind of illusion.
For more, see “Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers” in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.