May 7, 2012

What Do You Think of These Recent Findings by Social Scientists?

I subscribe to several online sites that send reports on the latest scientific research. Several of  last week's  stories were particularly interesting. I'll just summarize them below without adding my comments, since I'm more interested in getting yours.

Highly Religious People Are Less Motivated by Compassion Than Are Non-Believers
In three large, systematic experiments, researchers from the University of California / Berkeley found that compassion drove less religious people to be more generous.  For highly religious people, however, compassion was largely unrelated to how generous they were.

"Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not," the research report says. "The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors, such as doctrine, a command  identity, or reputational concerns."

The study did not directly examine why highly religious people are less compelled by compassion to help others. But the researchers hypothesize that deeply religious people may be more strongly guided by a sense of moral obligation than their more non-religious counterparts.

Homophobic? Maybe You're Gay
This was the headline for a New York Times story last week about a report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology describing six studies done in the U.S. and Germany involving 784 university students. The participants were given a computer-administered test designed to measure their implicit sexual orientation.

Using this methodology, the researchers identified a subgroup of participants who, despite self-identifying as highly straight, indicated some level of same-sex attraction. Over 20% of self-described highly straight individuals showed this discrepancy.

Moreover, these "discrepant" individuals were also significantly more likely to favor anti-gay policies, to be willing to assign significantly harsher punishments to perpetrators of petty crimes if they were presumed to be homosexual, and to express greater hostility toward gay subjects.

Participants who reported having supportive and accepting parents were more in touch with their implicit sexual orientation and less susceptible to homophobia. Individuals whose sexual identity was at odds with their implicit sexual attraction were much more frequently raised by  parents perceived to be controlling, less accepting, and more prejudiced against homosexuals.

Thinking Can Undermine Religious Faith
One reason why some people are less religious than others may be that they think more analytically, according to a study published last month in the Journal of Science.

One theory of human thinking suggests that the brain processes information using two systems, according to the study's lead author Will Gervais, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia. The first system relies on mental shortcuts using intuitive responses -- gut instincts -- to quickly reach a conclusion. The other employs reasoned, deliberative analyses to arrive at a conclusion.

Past studies have suggested that religious beliefs are rooted in the intuitive system of thinking. So, Gervais wondered, would thinking analytically undermine religious belief as it overrides intuitive thought?

To find out, his research team had college students perform three thinking tasks, each with an intuitive (incorrect) answer and an analytic (correct) answer. After answering these questions, the students were asked to rate a series of statements on belief, such as  "In my life, I feel the presence of the Divine," and "I just don't understand religion."

Students who answered the three questions correctly -- presumably making better use of their analytic skills -- were less likely to claim strong religious feelings in the study's second phase.

A series of additional experiments were conducted to verify that analytic thinking actually caused belief to  decrease.

Gervais makes clear that the study doesn't question the value of religious belief, and it doesn't suggest that such beliefs are inherently irrational.

I said at the outset I wasn't going to comment on any of these studies, but I will suggest you check out the comments on this study by science writer Phillip Ball in the journal Nature.  See

And I can't resist posting this quote from Ball's commentary:
My experience is that it seems to be extreme views of any sort, whether religious or the opposite, that are the real enemy of analytical thinking.
And now, a drum roll please, for the most important scientific study of the week, if not the year!

Mice That Eat Yogurt Have Bigger Balls and Exhibit "Mouse Swagger"
This block-busting (or ball-busting?) study was done by two MIT researchers, Susan Erdman and Eric Alm, who had seen a Harvard study showing that yogurt could help prevent age-related weight gain. They decided to replicate the study with mice, but soon noticed something else.

The surprise findings are summarized in a Scientific American article:
Then the researchers spotted some­thing particular about the males: they projected their testes outward, which endowed them with a certain “mouse swagger,” Erdman says. On measuring the males, they found that the testicles of the yogurt consumers were about 5 percent heavier than those of mice fed typical diets alone and around 15 percent heavier than those of junk-eating males. 
More important, that masculinity pays off. In mating experiments, yogurt-eating males inseminated their partners faster and produced more offspring than control mice. Conversely, females that ate the yogurt diets gave birth to larger litters and weaned those pups with greater success. Reflecting on their unpublished results, Erdman and Alm think that the probiotic microbes in the yogurt help to make the animals leaner and healthier, which indirectly improves sexual machismo.
The quote notes that the study's results are unpublished. But not for long once the yogurt companies learn about it!

Care to comment on any of these studies?

No comments: