GOD: Do I have your attention?

I WAS going to blog on the history of action potentials tonight, but it’s late, I’m really tired (14 hour days in the lab add up), and action potential history is hard. Luckily for all of us, a new and cool article is out in PLoS ONE! Do not fear, I’ll get to that history of action potentials soon enough.
ResearchBlogging.org Colzato et al. “Losing the big picture: how religion may control visual attention” PLoS ONE, 2008.
Unfortunately, this paper has no graphs. Yet again, it’s all tables. I fix for you.

Many people think that when they see the world around them, take in images, process, etc, that they are percieving reality. Sadly, those people are very mistaken. Human perception colors every image and bit of sensory processing that we take in. We aren’t just receptors for stimuli, we interact with them, explore tham, pay attention to stuff that is interesting, and ignore stuff that is not. And what is interesting or relevent to us is often at the mercy of our previous experiences, including our current mood, our needs (you know how when you’re hungry EVERYTHING looks like food?), and our beliefs.
We’ve known for a little while now that culture can have a lot to do with how you percieve the world. Culture shapes how we look at faces, particularly with where we focus. Culture can also change what kind of stimuli we are sensitive to when, say, reading. For the purposes of this paper, focus of attention can be broken into two groups; holistic and analytic. Analytic is known more as the “Western” style of attention, shifting more attention to the features of a landscape or situation, while holistic (which I suppose you could call more “Eastern”, tends to take in the situation as a whole with more equal focus everywhere. You can actually draw attention to these two kinds of focus by something very simple, have people circle words in a sentance. Either have them pick words like “we”, “our”, or “us”, or have them pick “I”, “my”, or “me”. The “we” mentality is a bit more holistic, the “I” mentality is analytic. Or so they say, I personally find that to be a bit overly simplified.
Apparently a lot of people are looking at culture now in how we understand and relate to each other. But what about religion? In many parts of the world, religion is a very predominant feature of culture. And it seems that, since religion causes so many misunderstandings, it might be a bit important. So these authors set out to determine whether the presence or absence of religion changed the way people saw the world.
They took 20 people in each group. Half were Calvinists, and half were atheists. For those of you who don’t know anything about Calvinists: it is a reformed Christian religion which arose pretty much in conjunction with the Protestant Reformation in the 1540’s. They believe that faith has very little to do with whether or not you end up in heaven, and that God makes the decision in all the things you do, even when you make the decision to be a good Christian in the first place. If your life is good, it’s because God has chosen to be nice, and he could well be very mean. Humanitiy is in a fallen state, and is irredeemable without divine intervention. There’s a lot more on it, but it was one of the original Protestant groups to branch off from the Catholic Church. There are a lot of them where this study was done.
All subjects were from the Netherlands, the same age, same IQ, and even were educated in much the same way and were of similar socio-economic class. The hypothesis was that religious upbringing would focus your attention in a way that was different than non-religious upbringing. In a religious upbrining, certain behaviors and attention to certain stimuli will be rewarded, and these things would presumably not be rewarded in an atheist upbrining. they hypothesized that Calvinists would present with a much more independent view of the self, which would facilitate the processing of local details (an analytical style). They had this hypothesis because of the Calvinistic view of “Sphere sovereignty” which is the idea that every sector of society has its own power and responsibility and stands separate from other sectors, promoting an indendent view. This would be contrasted to atheists, who might now have as independent a view of the self, and process in a more holistic manner.
My favorite part of this was the part of the table where they wrote down the number of “daily prays”. Is that even a correct term? Isn’t it more like “daily prayers”? Or even “daily prayer sessions”? Anyway, the Calvinists did it a lot more than atheists (5.6 per day compared to 0).
They found that, indeed, religious belief biased the way people attended to events. People who were Calvinist showed less global precedence (they were more analytic in their processing), than those who were atheist. And here, to make this nice, is my very own pretty graph. Unfortunately they didn’t incude a standard error or anything for their most important group, and so I couldn’t run the stats. But they say it’s significant, and I believe them.
What you need to focus on here is the data set furthest to the right. This is the set for global precedence, and you can see that Calvinists made more errors in this task than atheists. Their conclusion is that religion as part of a culture is capable of changing attentional bias, in this case, of making it more analytical.
I think this is a cool study in that no one has ever looked specifically at religion for attentional processing differences. On the other hand, there is a chicken and egg problem here (and the authors mention this, too). Does Calvinism make people more analytical, or do people who are analytical like Calvinism? They say that it is unlikely that analytical people come to Calvinism because most of them are raised that way. I have to disagree here. It is possible that more analytic people are Calvinist, because those that are LESS analytic have left the faith as adults. This would bias your sample. Also, there are probably some genetic factors are work here. It’s possible that analytic parents will have more analytic children.
The other problem I have is one that I don’t think they will ever be able to get rid of. Religion can never be isolated by itself, it is interwoven into culture in very subtle ways. The authors state that their future directions include investigating Orthodox Jews for changes, which would certainly give some insight, but I think throws them further into the problem of culture. Orthodox Jews tend to form a more insular culture than, say, reform or conservative Jews, and the difference in the culture might lead to far more changes than that of the religious effect.
But on the other hand, I’m not entirely sure that religon SHOULD be separated from culture to look for attentional biases. For example, being raised Catholic in Chicago and being raised Catholic in Italy are very different experiences, and I think you’re going to see bigger effects on attentional bias due to culture, which of course includes religion as a prominent part.
Finally, I thought it was funny that the first thing this paper reminded me of was…religion. Well, not really, more of philosophy. In the study of Zen and Buddhism, one of the emphases is that the world is not what you think it is. The world is how you percieve it, and your perceptions can change the world around you, because your reality is formed by your perceptions. It turns out this isn’t far wrong! Your perceptions, which may arise from things such as your culture, your mood, etc, DO change how you process stimuli! It’s all in the way you look at it!
Lorenza S. Colzato, Wery P. M. van den Wildenberg, Bernhard Hommel (2008). Losing the Big Picture: How Religion May Control Visual Attention PLoS ONE, 3 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003679

5 Responses

  1. That ‘holistic’ is the atheist view confuses me. I’m not religious by any measure, but then neither do I consider myself holistic.
    Is this confusion of the terms on my part? ‘Holistic’ carries with it new age nonsense baggage (ie, crystals) that may not be correct. I’m guessing this is not what is meant in the study.
    Then again, I’m confused by the term ‘analytical’. Do I misunderstand it? Is it not a desirable process?
    Am I wrong in some way thinking that a synthesis of both thought processes is possibly a good thing… likely to lead to understanding if not specific discoveries?

  2. Donna: Sorry, I should have explained that better. Don’t let the holistic term confuse you! What they are referring to is attentional focus. So someone with a more analytical focus will take in certain key points of a situation (say, if you’re looking at a car accident: car, flames, crumpled hood, glass), while someone with an analytical focus might take in less particular foci and more of the general view (for instance, it was raining and the car was smashed up against the guard rail and on fire), though they might not focus attention on some of the specifics (like broken glass and the crumpled hood). In the case of face recognition, “analytical” will focus on the eyes and mouth, while “holistic” will focus on the center of the face. Do you see what I’m getting at?
    In these terms, “holistic” and “analytical” have nothing to do with religious viewpoints or anything, they are just words used to define attentional focus. They aren’t supposed to mean or imply anything about someone’s belief system or what they think or anything like that. Perhaps they should have picked better words…

  3. I actually think picking orthodox Jews would be an interesting test. “Social solidarity” aside, they have a reputation for being analytical.
    I’d also be curious to see what Talmudic study would do to one’s attentional focus.
    It is a pity there is no real control group for orthodox Jews- we’d have no idea if it was religious thought or other cultural factors (but as you point out, I’m not sure it’s worth trying to control for that).

  4. Becca: gotta remember that we’re not think “analytical” in the traditional sense, here. It only relates to the manner in which people focus attention, and has nothing to do with the actual processing of the sensory input. And Orthodox Jews being analytical is more of a social stereotype, really.
    Eh, Talmudic study, Zen meditation, I think all of those (even endurance training) might have some interesting affects on attentional focus. Anything that really sets you into a strong path or way of thinking might be worth looking at. Maybe grad school?

  5. Thanks for the clarification on terms. Now that I think I understand it a little better, I’m back to my baseline state of confusion 🙂

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