Psychology Today


The New Brain

How your brain—and our understanding of it—are constantly changing.
by R. Douglas Fields

Religion and Reason

Analytic thinking decreases religious belief.
Published on April 26, 2012 by R. Douglas Fields in The New Brain

analitic thinking promotes religious disbelief

Your answer to the following riddle can predict whether you are a believer in religion or a disbeliever:

Q:  If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

A:  If you answered $10 you are inclined to believe in religion.  If you answered $5 you are inclined to disbelieve.

            Why? Because, according to new research reported in tomorrow’s issue of the journal Science, the $10 answer indicates that you are an intuitive thinker, and the $5 answer indicates that you solve problems analytically, rather than following your gut instinct.

Psychologists William Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, predicted that people who were more analytic in thinking would tend not to believe in religion, whereas people who approach problems more intuitively would tend to be believers. Their study confirmed the hypothesis and the findings illuminate the mysterious cognitive process by which we reach decisions about our beliefs.

Cognitive theory of decision making supports the hypothesis that there are two independent processes involved in decision making. The first process is based on gut instinct, and this process is shared by other animals. The second cognitive process is an evolutionarily recent development, exclusive to humans, which utilizes logical reasoning to make decisions. Their study of 179 Canadian undergraduate students showed that people who tend to solve problems more analytically also tended to be religious disbelievers. This was demonstrated by giving the students a series of questions like the one above and then scoring them on the basis of whether they used intuition or analytic logic to reach the answers. Afterward, the researchers surveyed the students on whether or not they held religious beliefs. The results showed that the intuitive thinkers were much more likely to believe in religion.

To test whether there is a causative basis for this correlation, the researchers then used various subtle manipulations to promote analytic reasoning in test subjects. Prior research in psychology has shown that priming stimuli that subconsciously suggest analytical thinking will tend to increase analytic reasoning measured on a subsequent test. For example, if subjects are shown a picture of Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” (seated head-in-hand pondering) they score higher in measures of analytic thinking in tests given immediately afterward. Their studies confirmed this effect but also showed that those subjects who showed increased analytic thinking also were significantly more likely to be disbelievers in religion when surveyed immediately after the test.

Three other interventions to boost analytic thinking had the same effect on increasing religious disbelief. This included asking subjects to arrange a collection of words into a meaningful sequence. If the words used for the subconscious prime related to analytic thinking, such as “think, reason, analyze, ponder, rational,” rather than control words “hammer, shoes, jump, retrace, brown,” subjects scored higher on tests of analytic thinking given immediately afterward, and they were also much more likely to be disbelievers in religion. This demonstrates that increasing critical thinking also increases religious disbelief.

Norenzayan emphasizes that “Analytical thinking is one of several factors that contribute to disbelief.  Belief and disbelief are complex phenomena that have multiple causes.  We have identified just one factor in these studies.”

Professor and Chairman Terrence Reynolds of the Department of Theology at Georgetown University finds it plausible that analytic thinking could make religious belief more difficult. “If one assumes that all rationality is tied to what we know directly through the five senses, that limits our understanding of meaning questions. Religion tends to focus on questions of meaning and value, which may not be available through analytic verification processes… by definition God is a being that transcends the senses.”

Reynolds and Norenzayan agree that analytic reasoning is not superior to intuitive reasoning. “They both have their costs and benefits,” Norenzayan says. One of the consequences of the costs and benefits is one’s tendency to believe in religion. So whether you answered $5 or $10 provides insight into what you believe and how your beliefs are formed.


2 thoughts on “Psychology Today

  1. Our brains process different kinds of data in the two halves and it is my impression that this adds weight to what information from a simulation is given more weight or trust during analysis.

    Given that our brains run a simulation of the world around us constantly in order to solve cause/effect type problems to survive, if right brain attributes are given more weight/truth in the simulation the brain will tend to solve the problem so that the solution in the simulation ‘feels’ right. This leads away from critical analysis which requires a different simulation creation to model the problem to be solved.

    Being a critical and analytical thinker I can’t think about how a car works without seeing the exploded diagrams of how they are put together in my head. I believe that the right brain thinkers will not get technical or analytical and would instead talk abstractly about how gas makes the engine go around and that makes the wheels turn… minor details, just enough to create the simulation in their head. Like a small child playing with a remote control car – they don’t know how it works, they just push a lever and the car goes forward….

    Higher education leads to more critical thinking… hence the educated are underrepresented in religion. The bat/ball question just seems to be indicating which style of thinking is used but does not explain why the test seems to work so well. It is the willingness to accept the world as it is and not have understanding about how it works that makes one susceptible to accepting magic answers. I’ve just started a series of posts where I’m discussing the mechanics of how this works… well, my idea of how it works.

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