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Concept: Religion


Prior work has established that analytic thinking is associated with disbelief in God, whereas religious and spiritual beliefs have been positively linked to social and emotional cognition. However, social and emotional cognition can be subdivided into a number of distinct dimensions, and some work suggests that analytic thinking is in tension with some aspects of social-emotional cognition. This leaves open two questions. First, is belief linked to social and emotional cognition in general, or a specific dimension in particular? Second, does the negative relationship between belief and analytic thinking still hold after relationships with social and emotional cognition are taken into account? We report eight hypothesis-driven studies which examine these questions. These studies are guided by a theoretical model which focuses on the distinct social and emotional processing deficits associated with autism spectrum disorders (mentalizing) and psychopathy (moral concern). To our knowledge no other study has investigated both of these dimensions of social and emotion cognition alongside analytic thinking. We find that religious belief is robustly positively associated with moral concern (4 measures), and that at least part of the negative association between belief and analytic thinking (2 measures) can be explained by a negative correlation between moral concern and analytic thinking. Using nine different measures of mentalizing, we found no evidence of a relationship between mentalizing and religious or spiritual belief. These findings challenge the theoretical view that religious and spiritual beliefs are linked to the perception of agency, and suggest that gender differences in religious belief can be explained by differences in moral concern. These findings are consistent with the opposing domains hypothesis, according to which brain areas associated with moral concern and analytic thinking are in tension.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Belief, Faith, Autism, Mind, Religion, Spirituality


Though religion has been shown to have generally positive effects on normative ‘prosocial’ behavior, recent laboratory research suggests that these effects may be driven primarily by supernatural punishment. Supernatural benevolence, on the other hand, may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior. Here, we investigate these effects at the societal level, showing that the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. These effects remain after accounting for a host of covariates, and ultimately prove stronger predictors of national crime rates than economic variables such as GDP and income inequality. Expanding on laboratory research on religious prosociality, this is the first study to tie religious beliefs to large-scale cross-national trends in pro- and anti-social behavior.

Concepts: Belief, Truth, Faith, Sociology, Science, Religion, Society, Christianity


Growing evidence indicates that religious belief helps individuals to cope with stress and anxiety. But is this effect specific to supernatural beliefs, or is it a more general function of belief - including belief in science? We developed a measure of belief in science and conducted two experiments in which we manipulated stress and existential anxiety. In Experiment 1, we assessed rowers about to compete (high-stress condition) and rowers at a training session (low-stress condition). As predicted, rowers in the high-stress group reported greater belief in science. In Experiment 2, participants primed with mortality (vs. participants in a control condition) reported greater belief in science. In both experiments, belief in science was negatively correlated with religiosity. Thus, some secular individuals may use science as a form of “faith” that helps them to deal with stressful and anxiety-provoking situations.

Concepts: Scientific method, Belief, Faith, Science, Experiment, Theory, Religion, Supernatural


Humans form beliefs asymmetrically; we tend to discount bad news but embrace good news. This reduced impact of unfavorable information on belief updating may have important societal implications, including the generation of financial market bubbles, ill preparedness in the face of natural disasters, and overly aggressive medical decisions. Here, we selectively improved people’s tendency to incorporate bad news into their beliefs by disrupting the function of the left (but not right) inferior frontal gyrus using transcranial magnetic stimulation, thereby eliminating the engrained “good news/bad news effect.” Our results provide an instance of how selective disruption of regional human brain function paradoxically enhances the ability to incorporate unfavorable information into beliefs of vulnerability.

Concepts: Neuroanatomy, Brain, Natural selection, Human brain, Frontal lobe, Transcranial magnetic stimulation, Religion, Inferior frontal gyrus


Humans show a natural tendency to discount bad news while incorporating good news into beliefs (the “good news-bad news effect”), an effect that may help explain seemingly irrational risk taking. Understanding how this bias develops with age is important because adolescents are prone to engage in risky behavior; thus, educating them about danger is crucial. We reveal a striking valence-dependent asymmetry in how belief updating develops with age. In the ages tested (9-26 y), younger age was associated with inaccurate updating of beliefs in response to undesirable information regarding vulnerability. In contrast, the ability to update beliefs accurately in response to desirable information remained relatively stable with age. This asymmetry was mediated by adequate computational use of positive but not negative estimation errors to alter beliefs. The results are important for understanding how belief formation develops and might help explain why adolescents do not respond adequately to warnings.

Concepts: Psychology, Human, Critical thinking, Epistemology, Risk, Religion, Core issues in ethics, Philosophical terminology


Punishment offers a powerful mechanism for the maintenance of cooperation in human and animal societies, but the maintenance of costly punishment itself remains problematic. Game theory has shown that corruption, where punishers can defect without being punished themselves, may sustain cooperation. However, in many human societies and some insect ones, high levels of cooperation coexist with low levels of corruption, and such societies show greater wellbeing than societies with high corruption. Here we show that small payments from cooperators to punishers can destabilize corrupt societies and lead to the spread of punishment without corruption (righteousness). Righteousness can prevail even in the face of persistent power inequalities. The resultant righteous societies are highly stable and have higher wellbeing than corrupt ones. This result may help to explain the persistence of costly punishing behavior, and indicates that corruption is a sub-optimal tool for maintaining cooperation in human societies.

Concepts: Evolution, Sociology, Science, Religion, Political philosophy, Ecological economics


BACKGROUND: Previous work has noted that science stands as an ideological force insofar as the answers it offers to a variety of fundamental questions and concerns; as such, those who pursue scientific inquiry have been shown to be concerned with the moral and social ramifications of their scientific endeavors. No studies to date have directly investigated the links between exposure to science and moral or prosocial behaviors. METHODOLOGYPRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Across four studies, both naturalistic measures of science exposure and experimental primes of science led to increased adherence to moral norms and more morally normative behaviors across domains. Study 1 (n = 36) tested the natural correlation between exposure to science and likelihood of enforcing moral norms. Studies 2 (n = 49), 3 (n = 52), and 4 (n = 43) manipulated thoughts about science and examined the causal impact of such thoughts on imagined and actual moral behavior. Across studies, thinking about science had a moralizing effect on a broad array of domains, including interpersonal violations (Studies 1, 2), prosocial intentions (Study 3), and economic exploitation (Study 4). CONCLUSIONSSIGNIFICANCE: These studies demonstrated the morally normative effects of lay notions of science. Thinking about science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms and exhibit more morally normative behavior. These studies are the first of their kind to systematically and empirically test the relationship between science and morality. The present findings speak to this question and elucidate the value-laden outcomes of the notion of science.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Human, Science, Religion, Social sciences, Nature, Morality


Many beliefs about obesity persist in the absence of supporting scientific evidence (presumptions); some persist despite contradicting evidence (myths). The promulgation of unsupported beliefs may yield poorly informed policy decisions, inaccurate clinical and public health recommendations, and an unproductive allocation of research resources and may divert attention away from useful, evidence-based information.

Concepts: Health care, Scientific method, Epidemiology, The Canon of Medicine, Avicenna, Policy, Malnutrition, Religion


It’s not often that California, West Virginia, and Mississippi are politically aligned, but that unlikely trio formed on June 25, 2015, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 277, substantially narrowing exceptions to school-entry vaccination mandates. With that law, California becomes the third state to disallow exemptions based on both religious and philosophical beliefs; only medical exemptions remain. The move represents a stunning victory for public health that affects not only California schoolchildren but also the prospects for strengthening vaccination requirements nationwide. In 2014, California tightened its personal-belief exemption by requiring parents seeking such exemptions to obtain . . .

Concepts: United States, United States Congress, United States Constitution, Religion, Bill, Veto, Bill Clinton, Jerry Brown


Prosocial behaviors are ubiquitous across societies. They emerge early in ontogeny [1] and are shaped by interactions between genes and culture [2, 3]. Over the course of middle childhood, sharing approaches equality in distribution [4]. Since 5.8 billion humans, representing 84% of the worldwide population, identify as religious [5], religion is arguably one prevalent facet of culture that influences the development and expression of prosociality. While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and prosocial behavior, the relation between religiosity and morality is a contentious one. Here, we assessed altruism and third-party evaluation of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm in 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), the religiousness of their household, and parent-reported child empathy and sensitivity to justice. Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.

Concepts: Family, Psychology, Human, Child, Childhood, Religion, Morality, God