Looking at the world through religious glasses

Religion impacts people’s visual attention. Even years after becoming an atheist, religion continues to influence the way a person sees things. A study on the effects of religion on cognition has shown that different religions can influence our minds in opposite ways. This may hinder communication and understanding between different religious groups.

Details or the bigger picture?

Lorenza Colzato and her colleagues at the Cognitive Psychology Department & Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition (LIBC) collaborated with researchers from the University of Bologna (Italy) and Ben-Gurion University (Israel). They investigated for 72 Dutch test subjects whether they look at details or at the bigger picture.

Four test subject groups
The test subjects were chosen from four groups:

  •  Conservative Calvinists (a form of Protestantism)

  •  Liberal Calvinists (less strict)

  •  Former conservative Calvinists turned atheist

  •  Subjects who had always been atheists

Test subjects' task

The task was fairly simple. The test subjects were shown squares consisting of small triangles, or vice versa. They were asked to indicate as fast as possible what the larger shape or the smaller shapes were. A person with an eye for detail should react faster when identifying the smaller shapes, while someone who focuses on the larger picture would conversely be quicker in identifying the larger shape.

Effect of religion

Strongest preference for the larger picture in atheists
Clear differences could be observed between the four groups: the atheists displayed the strongest preference for the larger picture, followed by the Liberal Calvinists, then the Conservative Calvinists and the Conservative Calvinists turned atheist. The last two groups displayed the same behaviour. This seems to suggest that more than seven years without religion is still not enough to erase the effect of religion from a person’s thinking patterns.

Why would Calvinism result in a focus on details?
Colzato’s team considered/weighed the possible correlation between a focus on details and the emphasis on rules, individual responsibility and control within Calvinism. In addition, the team suspected that religions which place more stress on communal solidarity and external authority (fate lies in the hands of God) might have the opposite effect of creating a focus on the larger picture.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers turned to Orthodox Jews in Israel and Roman Catholics in Italy, in order to compare their preference for detail versus the larger picture with non-believers from these same countries. As expected, they found that this time round, it was the religious subjects who displayed a preference for the larger picture as compared to their non-believing counterparts. As in the first study, this difference in preference could not be traced to differences in level of education, IQ or age.

Not a conscious choice

This study does not prove that different religions cause these different ways of thinking. The researchers consider it equally unlikely that the correlation would work the other way around: that people with a certain preferred way of thinking would choose a religion that suits them. Many people are born into a particular religion, rather than it being a conscious choice on their part.

Effect on communication

Colzato’s team is of the opinion that their results have consequences in the ‘real world’: ‘A preference for the global properties or the details of a given event can probably in and of itself result in different perceptions, interpretations and, in the end, different conclusions. It is highly probable that this difference in perception will hinder effective communication between people from different religious backgrounds. This becomes particularly relevant once we realize that religion impacts many issues besides the ones we have investigated.’

More about Lorenza Colzato's research

Colzato 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

Colzato's research has been extensively discussed on various blogs in England, the USA and Spain, and it has even been related to the Pope.

Cognitive psychology

Research profile area
Brain function and dysfunction over the lifespan

Last Modified: 29-09-2010