Religion causes a chronic biasing of visual attention

As the Pope arrives in the UK, a provocative new study claims that religious practice changes people's attentional mindset (how much they're focused on detail vs. the big picture), not just while they're still a believer but even for years after becoming an atheist. What's more, it's shown that different religions can tune the mind in contrasting ways, potentially hindering communication and understanding between different religious groups.

Lorenza Colzato at the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, and her colleagues, tested the bias of 72 Dutch participants towards either global or local processing - that's the big picture vs. the detail. The participants were from four groups: Conservative Calvinists (a form of Protestantism), Liberal Calvinists (who aren't so strict), Conservative Calvinists turned atheist and life-long atheists.

The task was straightforward. Participants were presented with squares made up of little rectangles, or vice versa. Depending on the condition - global vs. local processing - they had to indicate as fast as possible with a key press what the big shape was or what the little shapes were. Someone with a bias towards local processing would be expected to perform more quickly when identifying the little shapes, whereas someone with a mind tuned to the big picture should be faster when identifying the big shapes.

Clear differences emerged between the groups: the life-long atheists showed the strongest bias for the big picture, followed by the Liberal Calvinists, and then the Conservative Calvinists and the former Conservative Calvinists turned atheist. The latter two groups performed similarly suggesting that more than seven years without religious practice wasn't enough to remove the effects of the religion on a person's attentional mindset.

Why should Calvinism encourage a mindset focused on details? Colzato's team said it could be because Calvinism places an emphasis on following rules and on individual responsibility and control. They further speculated that religions that place more emphasis on communal solidarity and an external locus of control (with destiny seen as being in God's hands) could have the opposite effect. To test this, they recruited Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics in Israel and Italy, respectively, and compared their big picture/small details bias with secular citizens from the same countries. Consistent with their predictions, this time the researchers found it was the religious folk who showed a bias for the big picture when compared with the performance of their secular compatriots. As in the first study, these differences were observed even though the participants had been matched for educational background, IQ and age.

Although this research can't prove that different religions cause these different mindsets, the researchers think it's unlikely that the causal direction runs in the other direction (with people having a certain mindset seeking out a religion that suits) - not least because many people are born into their religion rather than choosing it.

Colzato's team said their findings have real-world implications. 'Even a rather abstract bias such as towards local vs. global attributes of a perceived event is likely to cause diverging perceptions, interpretations and, eventually, conclusions,' they said. 'Very likely, this divergence stands in the way of effective communication between people with different religious backgrounds, especially if we consider that religion may impact many more ... parameters than investigated here.'

ResearchBlogging.orgColzato LS, van Beest I, van den Wildenberg WP, Scorolli C, Dorchin S, Meiran N, Borghi AM, and Hommel B (2010). God: Do I have your attention? Cognition, 117 (1), 87-94 PMID: 20674890
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