Wednesday 14 August 2013

Religion, belief, probability and intelligence


A recent meta-analysis has shown that there is an inverse relationship between religious belief and intelligence. This is hardly news, since the papers reporting this link go back many years. Brighter people are less likely to be religious believers. Some commentators on the meta-analysis have pointed out that most of the studies have been conducted in “the West” and so mostly apply to Americans and Christians, so the observation only holds true of that group. This may be true. Indeed, most psychology is conducted by Western countries, and is mostly on Westerners, usually young American college kids. We cannot be sure how much the findings apply to the more populous Rest of the World, for both cultural and genetic reasons.

Nonetheless, it would be strange if psychology could not, at the very least, find some things which all people have in common. For example, the basic emotions are recognised around the world. All children learn a language, and those languages include large numbers speaking Mandarin, English and Spanish. Every variety of human seems to have mastered the art of looking at television, understanding soap operas, watching games like football, and knowing how to drive a car, even if they don’t already own one. There are 6 billion mobile phones (measured by SIM cards) and 2 billion people on the internet, so many non-American Christians are logged in. Cultures are partly converging, genetic groups more slowly so.

Physics, of course, is in a better position. Any discipline is right to envy it. They do not restrict their observations to our sun, but pronounce upon all suns. They declare that the laws of physics apply throughout the universe.

Do the laws of probability apply throughout the universe? The notion of probability is certainly a social construct. A thing may be a social construct and yet be as real as gravity. What is more, for those who worry about such things, probability is the product of an elite, and what an elite! Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat puzzled over a gambling problem posed by Chevalier de Mere in 1654, about how to distribute the earnings of an unfinished game. (It has it all, doesn’t it? It even riles those opposed to gambling). Although people had gambled for aeons, there were no extant theories of probability (though Cardan  had made a start in 1550). So, the theory of chance is an invention, and it is also in part a discovery, which was sitting under the noses of all gamblers.

Anyway, can a gambler nowadays understand the workings of probability? This was tested in a very interesting paper, over 30 years ago. I mention it precisely because it offers us a way of solving the underlying question in different cultures, without running up against difficulties in judging religious belief. It would allow us to answer a basic question: do groups differ in their capacity to understand chance?

I will be answering this question by means of a contrast analysis: contrasting two papers to make one point. This is less comprehensive than a meta-analysis, but can sometimes be more informative. By using old papers I can reiterate the point made in a previous post that some old papers deal with important issues we ought to factor into contemporary debates.

Blackmore, S. and Troscianko, T. (1985). Belief in the paranormal: Probability judgements, illusory control, and the 'chance baseline shift'. British Journal of, 81, 455-468.

Blackmore and Troscianko found a relationship between defective probability judgments and paranormal beliefs, the former determined from studying subjects who played a game of chance. The authors argued that a specific ability, the capacity to make accurate judgments about chance, reduced the likelihood that subjects would make the error of interpreting chance events as being due to paranormal forces. This is a testable finding in a cross-cultural sense, in that subjects can be asked about a whole set of beliefs about religion and superstition, and can then at a later stage play a game or set of games and give their informed judgments about how much of the resultant scores were due to skill (their agency) and how much were due to chance.

Musch, J and Ehrenberg, K (2002) Probability misjudgment, cognitive ability, and belief in the paranormal. British Journal of Psychology, 93, 169–177.

The additional contribution of Musch and Ehrenberg was to show that when you factored in general intelligence, as determined by grades at school completion, then there was no specific ability in estimating chance, but rather a general overall ability which explained probability misjudgment. Brighter students called the odds correctly, and as a consequence were less likely to accept paranormal explanations. A scientific approach to life requires the capacity to compute coincidence and to propose and evaluate alternative explanations for phenomena.

So, here is a research project for some one: replicate these findings in different cultural and groups and see if it is a solid finding in the non-Christian world. I think it will be. I am not ready to argue that it must be, but it will certainly damage our current conceptions of probability and intelligence if it turns out not to be. Testable prediction.

Finally, how does understanding chance relate to holding a religious belief? Religions often make claims which fly in the face of everyday evidence. Rising from the dead, Virgin Birth, divine revelation and so on would be examples. In such a case belief or disbelief may have several components, but being able to judge the probability of such a thing being possible will be a key component.

In summary, the overall argument is that superstition, belief in the paranormal, religious belief and a non-scientific world outlook are all related points on the lower part of the intelligence spectrum. They have in common an inability to calculate probability and to evaluate other possible causes, many of them mundane.

In a phrase: The mundanity of inanity.


  1. A university course in basic anthropology 30 years ago had a reading contrasting the superstitious behavior of Amazon natives and American baseball pitchers. What I took from it was that the Stone Age natives used superstition as a replacement for knowledge about their world. The baseball pitchers had the most rational and scientific training available, but even so their performance was dependent largely on chance, or at least factors they couldn't understand or control, and superstition helped them deal with the anxiety this caused them. Golfers are in much the same situation but as far as I know aren't superstitious, so I don't know what accounts for the difference there. But even intelligent people are subject to forces they can't understand or control, which is maybe while I'm highly intelligent I'm also somewhat religious.

  2. Magical thinking flourishes when the outcomes are chancy but important. Gambling is the best example, particularly among the destitute.

  3. you have awesome post........!!!!

  4. Another explanation I've seen is that it's smarter people who are likely to persist in holding beliefs which oppose those of the community at large. So in the U.S., atheists are likely to be smarter than Christians. In thoroughly atheist societies, or those where religion is suppressed, religious people are likely to be smarter. This, to, is testable, but I don't know if it has been.