Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Brief Post: Research on Analytical Thinking and Disbelief

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Image not associated with the study.

In April of this year, the journal Science published a brief but strong article by two Canadian psychologists, Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, entitled, Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief.  Essentially, the researchers have been looking scientifically at how the analytical mind promotes disbelief.

What they did for their study was set up dual-process experiments to test a subject’s level of analytical reasoning and compare it to their level of belief regarding religious faith.  In psychology, dual-process experiments attempt to show a single phenomenon can occur in two distinct ways. That is, implicitly (automatic, instinctual or unconscious) and explicitly (controlled or conscious).  The idea being the higher functioning analytical mind using explicit processes, the less likely the subjects would have faith and consequently have higher cognitive levels of religious disbelief.

According to the authors of the study:

“Scientific interest in the cognitive underpinnings of religious believe has grown in recent years. However, to date, the experimental research has focused on the cognitive processes that may promote religious disbelief.  The present studies apply a dual-process model of cognitive processing to this problem, testing the hypothesis that analytical processing promotes religious disbelief.”

Gervais and Norenzayan make it clear that they do not make a leap regarding the rationality, value or truth of religious beliefs.  However, they do suggest that there is a strong correlation between the analytical mind and disbelief, and that cognitively such analysis may influence decisions and discussions regarding those who have faith (lower analytical reasoning)  and those who do not (higher analytical reasoning).

In addition, the authors do caution that although the results of their experiments show a strong correlation between analytical reasoning and thinking and low levels of religious disbelief, that the sample size, while diverse, should be expanded prior to making great leaps. This is the expected and plausable scientific hedge used in a great many research papers. It allows for further research using the same methodology on a greater scale. It also frees other researchers to conduct similar research using different variables and tools to test the hypothesis.

I agree that the study should be expanded. In this way we will be able to show a true correlation between faith and its two chief antagonists, reason and rationality. Not that this research devalues a religious individual’s worth or their contribution to humanity. But it does provide those without faith a deeper understanding (perhaps) of the psychological underpinnings of why people accept a faith-based way of life or religious identity to support their roles and actions in society.

The actual article is behind the website’s firewall. But I was intrigued enough to spend a few dollars and get a copy to review and share what I view as solid, well-designed, and well written research paper.   


  1. These two sentences seem to contradict each other: "they do suggest that there is a strong correlation between the analytical mind and disbelief" and "their experiments show a strong correlation between analytical reasoning and thinking and LOW levels of religious DISbelief". Which is correct?

  2. Sorry for the confusion. Basically, the research suggests that when subjects use their explicitly controlled consciousness which is analytically based that their religious disbelief rises. Whereas, those who use their implicit mental skills have a higher correlation towards religious belief. Hope this helps.