Why Believers Kick Atheist Ass at Scrabble

Here’s a fascinating possibility: that people with religious beliefs are better at pattern-matching than those without.

The empirical findings are out of the Netherlands (popsci summary here), and are phrased much more conservatively: when presented with visual stimuli containing two levels of resolution (for example, a big square consisting of a bunch of little rectangles) “Calvinists showed a smaller, but still significant, … global precedence effect than Atheists”. (Basically, they were quicker to recognize the local pattern within the global one.) Like all good scientists, the authors brim with caveats and qualifiers: does religion shape perception, or merely attract those with certain perceptual inclinations? Is this a hallmark of religious belief generally, or merely a feature of the Calvinist eyes-on-the-ground credo of “mind your own business”? The authors defend their choice of religious group on the reasonable grounds that in a country as small as the Netherlands, there just aren’t any other religious groups for whom extraneous variables are comparable; the Catholics mingle too much with the Belgians and the Germans to assume a common cultural context, and Jim Jones’ followers never had a significant Dutch component even before they were all dead. Follow-up international studies, encompassing other religious groups, are currently in the planning stages. In the meantime, Colzato et al admit to being worried about the implications of this whole religion-affects-perception thing:

…it seems possible that religious beliefs may indeed lead to different and sometimes discrepant and incompatible interpretations of the same incident. That this can happen is a well-known empirical fact but that it can originate in basic automatic visual operations that precede conscious representation is surprising and in some sense worrying — as it seems to work against the scientific ideal that careful observation is sufficient to reach agreements about basic facts and what we consider reality.

But here’s the thing. The study focused on whether or not Calvinists had a different “global precedence” effect than atheists, and they pretty much confined their analysis to that question. But I’m not writing for a peer-reviewed journal here1, so I can wander a bit further afield: and if you actually look at the data they present, Calvinists are faster on the draw than atheists on both local and global levels; and their error rate is lower, too:


So I say, screw this global/local bullshit. The take-home message I’m reading here is that Calvinists are just better at pattern-matching than atheists, period. And I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that when Colzato et al get around to testing other religious groups, they’ll find the same pattern: I think they’ll find that ass-hamster fans of any stripe will be better pattern-matchers than us heathens.

You shouldn’t be surprised by this; we’ve talked about it before. A few weeks back — during my recent infamous dissection of fear, religion, and the Republican Right —I cited a couple of sources describing the increased tendency among believers to see patterns and connections in random visual static, to attribute Agency and Cause where none exists. And over a year ago I mused about lateral specialization in our cerebral hemispheres, how one half of the brain seems to look for patterns while the other is more pragmatic. I even raised the possibility that one might deliberately crank up the pattern-matching modules (while giving the pragmatic ones veto power) so that one day we might actually derive legitimate scientific insights from religious rapture.

So these Netherlandian findings give me hope. At the very least, they give me a legitimate peer-reviewed title to stick in Dumbspeech‘s appendix — because it is this exact process which inspires the religious group that figures front-and-center in that book (the Bicameral Order by name, ” a bastard Jainist sect with one foot in ancient India and the other in the splice-and-dice frankenworks of late-21rst-century neuroscience”).

So today is a day to celebrate my shrewd insight, eyesight, and foresight into the future of the Human experience. And also to mention, apropos of nothing in particular, that the Dresden Dolls in general and Amanda Palmer in particular absofuckinglutely rock my world.

1 Well, not that you lot don’t review it to within an inch of its life, of course. Just that your reviews can’t stop me from posting

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday November 17 2008at 11:11 am , filed under ass-hamsters, Dumbspeech, sociobiology . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

14 Responses to “Why Believers Kick Atheist Ass at Scrabble”

  1. Next job: to test whether religious belief affects perception of patterns that aren’t there: does the better skill at pattern matching overextend itself?

    Unless you’ve covered that, in which case I apologize for not paying proper attention.

    I completely agree with your musical commentary – Amanda Palmer rocks. If you haven’t watched them, she’s posted a number of videos from the new album on YouTube. The dedication of “Oasis” to Sarah Palin made my day.

  2. I don’t see why anyone would be surprised that religious people are better at seeing patterns than atheists. After all, atheists don’t claim to see the image of Darwin or Einstein in a potato chip, and an atheist would definitely not buy one on eBay.

    I don’t think that you even have to go as far as major religions to demonstrate this phenomenon. Elvis fanatics still claim to see Elvis at every turn; conspiracy theorists (a religion all their own) still believe that the moon landing was a hoax and that Kennedy was killed by a second gunman, and they will show you a preponderance of “evidence” to support the argument. And don’t get me going on Jethro Tull fans!!

  3. I even raised the possibility that one might deliberately crank up the pattern-matching modules (while giving the pragmatic ones veto power) so that one day we might actually derive legitimate scientific insights from religious rapture.

    You mean using drugs such as LSD, DMT, Mescaline, Psilocybin etc?

    Some have already carried out these experiments and posted results.

    Some even claim to have derived significant scientific insights.

  4. There are days you freaking terrify me. …I’m not sure if this is one of them.

    As a skeptic, I generally run rings around the believers that I know. Any time a testable question comes up in conversation, a year or less later I get a “You were right all along” email. I was hoping that meant my pattern matchers were better.

    The (small n, non random) people of faith who I know tend to see patterns quickly but then they stick to their guns later. Good at the local pattern! Lousy, very lousy at global ones.

    I want to see this experiment done on time series. Maybe people of faith are better at seeing things all at once. But I’d bet money they can’t handle information spread out over time.

  5. Some of the stuff I’m reading for the latest chapter of my thesis relates to how people reading fiction look for cues about romantic/predatory intents among characters, in an attempt to match patterns of behaviour and yield foresight about possible future behaviour (will there be kissing/killing). So this makes me wonder if romance or mystery readers would fall into the same category, somehow, or if they would even be conscious of a engaging in a similar process. (The book’s on how autism patients read fiction — you might like it.)

    Then again, this could just be my Jesuit-trained mind seeing a similarity that isn’t quite demonstrable.

  6. bec_87rb says:

    Mr. smelz says:

    I generally run rings around the believers that I know. Any time a testable question comes up in conversation, a year or less later I get a “You were right all along” email. I was hoping that meant my pattern matchers were better.

    haha – wouldn’t you imagine it means that your friends are good at generating matches, and you were good at testing or winnowing out those matches?

    I have to caution in all of this that people use mixed methods in problem-solving. Everyone looks for patterns, for concordances and things that match, and everyone then winnows them out according to what is plausible, workable, or likely.

    This study might be catching a group of people who are slightly more adept at the pattern generation, but we should be careful not to take the next step and divide humanity into pattern/no-pattern or global/local thinkers, since people who truly were one and not the other would be highly abnormal. Schizophrenics generate connections at lightening speed, then are unable to sort and weed out those connections.

    phiala says:

    does the better skill at pattern matching overextend itself?

    I think this is a good question, because I would imagine that different loading of skills would tend to cause different types of error in problem-solving. Failure to cleave off pattern matches that were not meaningful is one kind of error, and failure to see pattern matches that were actually there is quite another.

    e.g., anonymous’ failure to “to see the image of Darwin or Einstein in a potato chip.” A potato chip might look like Einstein, the question is how meaningful that likeness is, versus what does it say about someone that they couldn’t see a likeness that is really there.

  7. May I inquire whether anyone knows why Peter Watts calls believers “ass-hamster fans”?

    I’m not a native speaker of English, I just don’t get why..

    BTW.
    Does anyone know whether the nationalist’s inability to think critically about his nation is some kind of evolutionary adaptation, such as the inability of people in love to think critically about their mates?

  8. y.t

    I believe that ass-hamster is a reference to the rumour about Richard Gere inserting live hamsters up his ass. What this has to do with believers I do not know.

    But this brings up another point. Who gave the evangelicals ownership over words such as belief, values, morality, ethics (I could go on).

    Now that I think of it, maybe ass-hamsters does apply.

  9. bec_87rb strokes chin thoughtfully:

    He made a declaration that he did not believe there were giant purple hampsters living up his rectum, and giving him divine guidance. I think it has to do with slinging some degradation upon people who believe that a Jewish carpenter from 2000 years ago was in-dwelling and directing their lives.

    It is also a more profane verson of Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon, I believe, if you remove “garage” and substitute “rectum”?

  10. Phiala said…

    Amanda Palmer rocks. If you haven’t watched them, she’s posted a number of videos from the new album on YouTube.

    Seen them. Bought the tee-shirt. Even bought “The Big Book Of Who Killed Amanda Palmer”, coauthored by Neil Gaiman, although it hasn’t arrived yet. Will be seeing her in TO at the end of the month.

    Is there any truth to the rumor that she’ll perform topless for $600 in onstage contributions?

    Anonymous said…

    And don’t get me going on Jethro Tull fans!!

    Sadly, most tacos aren’t hi-resolution enough to accurately portray a bunch of old guys hunched over with bad backs. Even if one of them is standing on one foot

    rayp said…

    You mean using drugs such as LSD, DMT, Mescaline, Psilocybin etc?

    Yeah, good point. I’ll have to do more extensive research along those lines.

    Keith David It’s-a-Taylor-Series! Smeltz said…

    The (small n, non random) people of faith who I know tend to see patterns quickly but then they stick to their guns later. Good at the local pattern! Lousy, very lousy at global ones.

    I’m thinking maybe they’re just more primed to see specific sorts of patterns. So yes, they'd be more sensitive to a grease stain that bears a superficial resemblance to a face— but then they'd slot any such face into the Blessed-Chick-Who-Got-Knocked-Up-While-Joseph-Was-Away-At-Caperneum, or her bastard child. The rest of us would be just as likely to see Nixon, or Bozo the Clown.

    Anonymous said…

    e.g., anonymous’ failure to “to see the image of Darwin or Einstein in a potato chip.” A potato chip might look like Einstein, the question is how meaningful that likeness is, versus what does it say about someone that they couldn’t see a likeness that is really there.

    First off, you’re ‘Anonymous’. But yeah, good point; the study seems to be talking about first-level pattern-matching, but obviously the interpretation of those matches is just as important.

    Y.T. said…

    May I inquire whether anyone knows why Peter Watts calls believers “ass-hamster fans”?

    It hails from a challenge Christians frequently throw down to the effect that atheism is an act of faith, because after all you can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. I once responded by saying that you can’t prove that I don’t have an invisible purple hamster living up my ass who tells me how to live my life, so Christians are pretty much obligated to believe in ass-hamsters as well.

    In hindsight (so to speak), there are a number of problems with this analogy. One could, in fact, test for the presence on an invisible hamster up my ass if you could just strap me down on a board and slip on a latex glove; invisible hamsters cannot, by definition, be purple; and no one is claiming in my counterexample that the hamster created the entire universe. But all of these failings only highlight the greater absurdity of religious belief; the invisible purple ass-hamster is, in fact, infinitely more plausible a construct than God, and yet people who’d (quite rightly) consign me to the loony bin for such a belief think nothing of abasing themselves before an imaginary friend that makes ass-hamsters look sensible as shoes.

    By a curious coincidence, Stephen Colbert (who evidently teaches Sunday School, and who I suspect would hand me my own ass-hamster on a plate in a debate setting) did a bit last night in which he explained that the DSM definition of “delusion” actually contains a caveat to let religious folks off the hook: it’s not a delusion, regardless of how absurd it is, as long as a lot of people believe it. (Wikipedia backs this up, for whatever that’s worth.) I find this an astonishingly cowardly stance even for psychiatrists; it assumes that scientific truth is a matter of social consensus. By the DSM’s standards, the belief that the Earth was round would have been delusional up until a few centuries ago; while the belief that it was created in six days, or that all women are descendants of a rib, is perfectly sane.

    Shakespeare was wrong. The first thing we should do is kill all the therapists.

    Does anyone know whether the nationalist’s inability to think critically about his nation is some kind of evolutionary adaptation, such as the inability of people in love to think critically about their mates?

    I haven’t read any actual research on the subject, but just off the top of my head I’d say it’s pretty much the same thing; attitudes that improve social cohesion in a social species will be selected for, all other things being equal. Fitness trumps truth every time.

  11. Thinking about it, Phil Dick wrote several stories where individuals deliberately self-induced ‘fugue states’ or mental disorder so that they could solve complex mental tasks.

    Good luck with any consciousness experiments you undertake in the future.

  12. P+Watts+says:

    you can’t prove that I don’t have an invisible purple hamster living up my ass who tells me how to live my life, so Christians are pretty much obligated to believe in ass-hamsters as well.

    Bec_87rb replies:

    Hm, well, only if we want to avoid hamster purgatory or hamster hell. Wonder what fresh Hells the tiny little purple hamster Satan will think of.

    *aaawwwww* He is so adorable with his little hamster horns and his teeny tiny DSM-DCLXVI. Now, my pretty, lay on the couch and tell me about your childhood, he directs, his bright black beady eyes reflecting the sulfurous flames.

    further spake Peter:
    it’s not a delusion, regardless of how absurd it is, as long as a lot of people believe it. (Wikipedia backs this up, for whatever that’s worth.) I find this an astonishingly cowardly stance even for psychiatrists; it assumes that scientific truth is a matter of social consensus.

    Haha – The DSM is not rendering a judgement about Absolute Truth; that is most assuredly not within its scope, although I am sure psychology is flattered that you are vesting their general diagnosis guide with higher order powers. *psychology looks pleased but puzzled, and smiles nervously*

    I mean, it’s just a diagnostic tool to help categorize patients whose lives include the miseries of poor mental health. I doubt its authors assumed that people’s weird religious intuitions are true, simply because the beliefs are common. They are trying to spot the symptoms that taken in the aggregate help discriminate one type of mental problem from another, in order to give the proper meds, etc.

    Believing what everybody else believes doesn’t make you factually right (it makes you social) but the DSM doesn’t ask that kind of question.

    I also have to ask why we are impugning the Absolute Truth value of the DSM based on the well-known fountains of Absolute Truthiness -Stephen Colbert and The Mighty Wikipedia. I mean …really.

    First off, you’re ‘Anonymous’.

    I can no longer post under LJ auspices for some reason. If your rectal hamsters are into merry Loki-like tomfoolery, such as impeding the OpenID, what can I do but accept their teeny-tiny divine will?

    Shakespeare was wrong. The first thing we should do is kill all the therapists.

    Oh no! Your therapist-sampling technique has rendered you a bad sample!

    Okay, you have publicly threatened to take up the offer a free crash couch for liberal Canadians until the government turns Mr. Harper out – come on down, therapist-hating Canada, use the spare bed at the top of the stairs, and I will introduce you to lots of smart, funny, kind, wise therapists who have helped lots of miserable unhappy people feel better and become better human beings.

    We could just kill em, and, as the saying goes, let your rectal hamsters sort em out, but I feel, if you do some serious rectal praying, your furry friends will agree that Some Therapists are Nice, and Should Not Be Killed. I really do.

  13. Readers of this blog might enjoy:

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2008/12/win_ben_steins_mind.html

    ~bec

  14. Dammit!

    Fie on you, truncation!

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/
    ebert/2008/12/win_ben_steins_mind.html

    ~bec