Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sexual Strategies Underlie Religious Inclinations

The positively correlated associations between religiosity (of a Christian-centric nature) and low levels of promiscuity and high levels of abstinence and marriage-centricity are generally quite clear enough. We often see that religion seeks to suppress sexual promiscuity through its doctrines that promote a monogamous sexual reproductive strategy characterized by low promiscuity, exclusive heterosexuality and high premiums on marriage and fertility.

Intuitively, we might guess that our sexual inclinations owe to how much exposure we have towards our adopted religion. Thus, we might, quite reasonably, suppose that someone who regularly attends Sunday school and comes from a religiously devoted family with staunch practices in the home would more likely be shaped into a long-term mating, marriage-inclined and sexually abstinent person, than someone who does not observe those traditions and customs. Indeed, it was found that treating premarital sex as sinful creates incentives to marry earlier, and condemning abortion and birth control as sin makes people have children.

However, when we look at the US, which is considered the most religious nation compared to its other western counterparts, what is fascinating is that it is remarkably evenly divided - approximately 42% of adults never attend religious services, 18% attend intermittently, and 40% attend services regularly (information from the 2006 US General Social Survey).

This suggests that, while a country may adopt non-secular values to predominantly guide its affairs and inform its citizens, not everyone may agree or be inclined to go along with those values. In the case of the US, this divide is exemplified by the emergence of the Religious Right and the Liberal Left.

As evolutionary psychologist Kenrick (2011) colloquially and aptly states it, "the prototypical member of the Liberal Left ... may wait until at least the end of college before marrying and beginning to have children and then may delay even a few years longer to go to graduate school, law school or medical school. Because the human ability to resist sexual urges has a hard time outlasting all that postponement, these folks do not like the Religious Right's attempts to impose rules against premarital sex [or] tools of family planning. ... [The Liberal Left pose a problem for the Religious Right] because a large number of sexually loose young people playing the field threatens to disrupt the strict system that religious folks have set up to enforce and reinforce family bonds."

Working on that insight, Weeden, Cohen and Kenrick (2008) proposed the reproductive religiosity model - instead of religiosity affecting our mating strategy (whether we can be promiscuous short term maters, or should be committed, abstinent long term maters), it is instead our mating strategy that makes us calculate the costs and benefits of adopting a religion, or remaining devoted to our current religion. If I am unable to bear the cost of abstinence from premarital sex and I do not want to marry early, my exit strategy is to drop my impeding religion.

By analyzing data from two large sources - 21,131 respondents in the 2006 US General Social Survey and 902 undergraduate students who were probed about their family plans, sexual attitudes, religious attendance, and moral feelings about issues ranging from lying to stealing - it was found that the strongest predictors of religiosity were factors related to sexual and family values. While there were other typical variables that predicted for religiosity, such as being female, older, or a non-drinker, and being high in conscientiousness and low in sensation-seeking, statistically controlling for sexual and family value items made the links between these other typical variables with religiosity disappear. In other words, everything we might have assumed to be associated with religiosity can be boiled down to sexual and family values. The study by Weeden, Cohen and Kenrick (2008) thus provide evidence that, on average, whether we are religious or not in the first place depends on how promiscuous we want to be.

If that causal link is true, could it be possible to manipulate people's mating strategy and thus alter their religiosity, in the psychology laboratory no less?

A study by Li, Cohen, Weeden and Kenrick (2010) sought to test that idea. A cleverly deceptive cover story and elaborate experimental design was used, but in brief, participants were ultimately made to look at either desirable members of their own sex or desirable opposite sex members (such a priming method has been found to be effective in conjuring either a mating motivation state - when we check out attractive opposite sex persons - or a mating threat state - when we are made to look at attractive same sex persons). Participants were also made to fill out a survey on the pretext of finding out their attitudes; embedded in the survey were questions pertaining to religiosity.

The results showed that when the men looked at attractive ladies and when the women looked at attractive guys, there was no discernable effect of mating motivation on religiosity. Interestingly, the laboratory setting was unable to capture any desire to give up religion when participants were made to feel more motivated to mate. However, what was more interesting was that, instead, participants who looked at attractive members of one's own sex expressed greater belief in religion. Being primed with mating insecurity leads people to become more religious.

We see support here for the classic antagonism played out between the Religious Right and Liberal Left. Once again, Kenrick (2011) states it best, so he will be quoted here: "When you become aware that there are a lot of highly attractive mating competitors out there, it reduces the perceived benefits of playing a fast and loose mating strategy ... For women, a lot of attractive competitors means less attention from the attractive men who might provide good genes, and fewer fellows vying to support your offspring. For men, on the other hand, an abundance of especially handsome and available guys means that if you are playing the field, you may be playing with yourself for most of the game. Under circumstances of limited opportunities, any normal person - who does not look like a fashion model - could benefit from the religion-based supports for monogamy."

This is not to say that religious practices do not reduce sexual promiscuity - all other things equal between two people who are subjected to different levels of religious piety, we would expect the one who has been told that things like premarital sex are sinful would be less inclined to do the deed. However, these studies highlight another crucial direction in the causation, that sometimes people may choose how religious they want to be based on the perceived cost of carrying out sexual "transgressions" under the religion they are affiliated to. And at the heart of the differing values the Religious Right and the Liberal Left promote, each camp is sustainable because they encourage and reinforce different mating patterns; there is antagonism only because a clash of these value systems is highly disruptive to each side's foundations for their own reproductive status quo.

Weeden, J., Cohen, A., & Kenrick, D. (2008). Religious attendance as reproductive support Evolution and Human Behavior, 29 (5), 327-334 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.03.004

Li YJ, Cohen AB, Weeden J, & Kenrick DT (2010). Mating Competitors Increase Religious Beliefs. Journal of experimental social psychology, 46 (2), 428-431 PMID: 20368752

Monday, August 1, 2011

We're back!

We're back! After a long hiatus as a resultant mish-mash of graduation, traveling and everything else in between, Psychothalamus is ready to churn out more interesting reads once again.

Before that, we thought it'd be nice to share with our readers what we've been up to and where we're headed.

Jose wasted no time hitting the road the moment his final finals ended. Within hours of his last examination paper, he was jetting off on his graduation trip from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City. Over the course of some very crazy 45 days, Jose traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Bangkok, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Nong Khai, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Kathmandu and Pokhara. The traveling didn't end there though; upon settling down back home, he was off again to Washington DC to attend the 2010 APS Conference, where he presented a poster on the findings of his Honours Thesis. Officially graduated, Jose will be spending the next year working on a few projects at the Behavioural Sciences Institute of Singapore Management University before applying for graduate studies.

To celebrate getting admitted into graduate school, QH travelled over 6000km by rail and road on his epic tour of China, spanning 28 days, visiting a grand total of ten UNESCO sites. He suffered a severe bout of Montezuma's revenge on the trip and came back with a 100RMB counterfeit currency in his wallet. He is now trying to get himself fired up for the long road ahead as he prepares to pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience in the fall of 2011.

Shawn did not have all that much money to travel, so he satisfied his travel cravings with a three-day trip to Japan, of which two days were spent in Akihabara, the otaku mecca of anime and videos. The rest of his time was filled up by compulsory physical training to maintain his fitness levels for the Singapore Army, and preparation for his PhD at the National University of Singapore Graduate School for Integrative Sciences and Engineering, where he will be combining his love for Neuroscience and Genetics.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Professional Distaste for Administration?

Ever had to deal with difficult administrative personnel pressing you to adhere to some (@?$&#!!) company policy? Regardless of your own personal experiences, the euphemisms abound for administration (the powers that be, the higher ups, paper tigers, tai chi masters, etc) suggest that the administrative department is difficult, bureaucratic, meddling and restrictive. As a young employee joining a company, one of the first few things an attached mentor often shares in a "between you and me" moment is his or her gripe with administrative policy.

Administrators do have a crucial role to play in organisations. They set the boundaries and parameters within which organisation members are allowed to play. Administrators are often (either perceived as or truly) detached from the idealisms of the organisation, as their primary function is to regulate the workflow and processes of the organisation, in the hopes of ensuring that certain outcomes (often mundane ones) are achieved, such as neater procedures, safety, transparent accounts, etc. It therefore often makes sense to employ administrators who might not share the same essential pursuits of the other members of the organisation, so that a more objective and strict execution of implementations, policies, rules and regulations can result. Enforcing the red tape, so to speak.

How do people respond to difficult, strict and/or assertive administrators, particularly when those administrators are attempting to necessitate certain policies? According to a 2009 study done by Hekman (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Steensma, Bigley and Hereford (University of Washington), our likelihood of responding positively to administrative pressure (such as to adopt new work behaviour) depends on the degree to which we identify either with our profession or our organisation.

Formalising administrative pressure as Administrative Social Influence (ASI), the authors found that professional employees were most receptive to ASI to adopt new work behaviour when they strongly identified with the organisation and weakly identified with the profession. Conversely, ASI was counterproductive when professional employees identified strongly with the profession while identifying themselves weakly with the organisation.

The authors showed this by looking at a sample of about 200 primary care professionals from a large, non-profit health maintenance organisation. ASI was carried out to get the health professionals to adopt a new internet-mediated email-based technology called secure messaging, designed to reduce patient demand for office visits which in turn lowers expenses. Compliance with ASI was thus the measured dependent variable - whether the health professionals responded promptly (within 24 hours) to secure messages from their patients. The health professionals' organisational and professional identification was measured, and their identification was correlated with their tendency to follow through on the call to use secure messaging. Additionally, their perception towards ASI pressure was measured as well.

The results of their study showed that the more health professionals thought of themselves as part of an organisational team (strong organisational identification), the more they were likely to comply with new work behaviours solicited via ASI, and the less likely they were to perceive ASI as pressuring. The authors cite evidence that administrators are generally seen as "organisational guardians" (Freidson, 2001) and as "prototypical organisational members" (Golden et al., 2000), and when organisational identification is high, "professional employees’ sense of self is tied closely to a group that includes administrators. As a result [...] organizational identification leads professional employees to believe that organizational administrators are like them and on their side." On the other hand, people who identify strongly with their profession care very much about their professional responsibilities and tend to be skeptical of the interests and agenda of administrators who appear to care more about efficiency and profitability rather than high quality service. So, when health professionals have a greater sense of oneness with the nature of their profession rather than the bigger organisation they work within (strong professional identification), they were less likely to comply with new work behaviours solicited via ASI, and were also more likely to perceive ASI as meddling and demanding.

The authors thus conclude that ASI is effective only in limited contexts (i.e., only when one type of identification was relatively high while the other was relatively low). While the authors prudently keep away from commenting on their personal feelings towards "the powers that be", their study implies that organisations should consider encouraging greater social identification of their employees with the organisation if they want to increase employee compliance with new implementations. Might prove less of a problem with professional administrators...

Hekman, D., Steensma, H., Bigley, G., & Hereford, J. (2009). Effects of organizational and professional identification on the relationship between administrators’ social influence and professional employees’ adoption of new work behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94 (5), 1325-1335 DOI: 10.1037/a0015315
Golden, B., Dukerich, J., & Fabian, F. (2000). The Interpretation And Resolution Of Resource Allocation Issues In Professional Organizations: A Critical Examination Of The Professional-Manager Dichotomy* Journal of Management Studies, 37 (8), 1157-1188 DOI: 10.1111/1467-6486.00220

Freidson, E. (2001). Professionalism: The third logic. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sacred Values as Heuristics

Can being faced with a decision involving morals be a good thing? Research has shown in the past that morally-laden decisions are perceived as difficult and unpleasant. Therefore, conventional wisdom suggests that people would react characteristically when faced with decision-making with moral considerations, such as avoiding being placed in a position to make moral decisions, or effortfully spending more time deliberating over difficult moral decisions.

However, perhaps there's more to it than meets the eye, and Hanselmann and Tanner from the University of Zurich think so. In a very concise study, Hanselmann and Tanner (2008) sought to show that the involvement of moral issues and values can, instead, actually facilitate our decision-making. By invoking what are known as sacred values (absolute and inviolable values), we may end up spending less time thinking about the dilemma simply because an option that has sacred value makes us think that it cannot be compromised.

Every dilemma or decision involves some extent of trade-off. The authors conceptualized three types of trade-offs for the study:

Taboo trade-off
a situation that pits a secular value (i.e. a value that does not hold moral worth) against a sacred value

Tragic trade-off
a situation that pits two sacred values against each other

Routine trade-off
a situation that pits two secular values against each other

One might thus think of a routine trade-off in the case of a typical job dilemma. Faced with employment in Company A vs Company B, one might consider trading off mundane items such as salary, distance or working environment. On the other hand, an extreme (though commonplace) example of a tragic trade-off would be to decide whether to save one's parent or an offspring instead in the event of a fire.

In the first experiment, 84 students from the University of Zurich were presented with three scenarios representing a taboo, tragic or routine trade-off. Each scenario provided a choice between two options. An example of a taboo trade-off scenario was as follows:

Imagine that you are the president of the local authority of a village that has been severely affected by a flood. The local authority is discussing whether to invest a considerable amount of the annual budget in improved flood protection measures. In this case, however, the village would have to forego a planned facelift for the village square. As president, you have to decide between the improvements in flood protection (option 1) and the facelift for the village square (option 2).

Participants were then asked to rate how they felt about the decision, such as how emotionally negative the decision was and how difficult it was to decide on an option. The following results were gathered:

As can be seen, the difficulty of decision-making was lowest when sacred values were pitted against secular values, showing that, although decision-making involving some degree of moral choice is still emotionally unpleasant, it can lead to easier decision-making. A second experiment, which was a more complex (with multiple traits to access decision difficulty and affectiveness) but fundamentally similar experiment, was conducted and the results were replicated.

Tetlock (2003) had assumed that the mere contemplation of trade-offs that involve sacred values elicits distress and disturbance. There could very well be an adaptive or functional purpose to our negative perception of moral choices which makes us acutely aware that compromising on sacred values can have adverse consequences. In a sense, we are psychologically 'punished' for even contemplating the trade-off of sacred values, so let alone act against our instinct to preserve sacred values. These findings thus suggest that reliance on sacred values may therefore work as a heuristic that we use to increase the efficiency of our decision-making.

ResearchBlogging.orgMartin Hanselmann, & Carmen Tanner (2008). Taboos and conflicts in decision making: Sacred values, decision difficulty, and emotions Judgment and Decision Making, 3 (1)

Tetlock, P. (2003). Thinking the unthinkable: sacred values and taboo cognitions Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7 (7), 320-324 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(03)00135-9

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Existential Neuroscience

Is it reasonable to fear death? If you agree with Lucretius, you will say no. In what is known as the Symmetry Argument, Lucretius contends that that the time before our existence is similar to the time of our future non-existence. And since we do not fear the time before we existed, it is not reasonable to fear our future non-existence i.e. death. (See Rosenbaum, 1989 for a more detailed exposition)

However, even if you concede to Lucretius’s argument, the fact remains that the awareness of our mortality generates a significant threat to our psychological well-being. A large corpus of research on terror management theory details how mortality saliency affects our self-esteem, worldview, among others.

In a recent fMRI study, Quilin and colleagues (2011) extends our knowledge on terror management theory by exploring the neural correlates of mortality salience. They were interested in the activity of the amygdala, rostral anterior cingulated gyrus (ACC), ventral tegmental & caudate nucleus (CN).

In this within-subjects experiment, thoughts of death were induced in the participants by requiring them to agree or disagree with a statement such as I am afraid of a painful death. Statements about dental pain were used in the control condition.


The authors found higher activations in:

  • Right amygdala
  • Left ACC
  • Right CN
They suggested that the activations in the amygdala and ACC may indicate ‘non-conscious, latent markers of threat aroused by mortality salience’ and that further investigations may reveal the role of the CN in regards to the defensive mechanisms that we employ against mortality threat.

This area seems promising to me and more research needs to be done to help us better understand how we deal with threats of mortality. It would also be interesting to look at how religious affiliations affect the way the brain deal with existential fears. If indeed 'mortality threats functions as a potential for anxiety rather than as experienced anxiety', what can neuroimaging techniques tell us about whether believing in a higher being help us deal with the potential or experienced anxiety resulting from mortality threats?

Quirin M, Loktyushin A, Arndt J, K├╝stermann E, Lo YY, Kuhl J, & Eggert L (2011). Existential neuroscience: a functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of neural responses to reminders of one's mortality. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 21266462

Rosenbaum, S. (1989). The Symmetry Argument: Lucretius Against the Fear of Death Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 50 (2) DOI: 10.2307/2107964

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Beauty-is-Good Stereotype in the Brain

Leo Tolstoy once said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” And how complete is this delusion? In a recent study, Tsukiura & Cabeza (2011) provides an insight into this question by investigating the neural mechanism underlying the Beauty-is-Good stereotype. They were interested in the activity of the medial orbito frontal cortex (associated with positive stimuli, reward processing etc); the insular cortex (associated with negative stimuli, punishment processing etc) and the interaction between these two regions.

This fMRI study required participants to engage in 3 different tasks:
  1. Face attractiveness rating (beauty judgment task)
  2. Action goodness rating (moral judgment task)
  3. Brightness rating (control condition)

The 3 tasks. Click to enlarge

Conforming to their hypothesis, the authors found that activity in the mOFC increased linearly as a function of both attractiveness and goodness rating. Activity in the insular cortex also decreased linearly as a function of both types of ratings. In both regions, the strong correlation between the activations caused by both judgments also supports the idea that similar neural regions are engaged when we are processing attractiveness and moral goodness.

Furthermore, the negative correlation between right mOFC and right insular cortex provides support for the “dual process hypothesis” of the Beauty is Good stereotype in that we display both a positive bias of attractiveness as being good and a negative bias against unattractiveness as being bad.

That is to say, the stereotype is driven by two opposing mechanism whereby we tend to think that an attractive person is more moral and an unattractive person is less moral, rather than a singular bias towards attractiveness or unattractiveness.

Click to enlarge

Our delusion that beauty is goodness then appears to have been built into how our brain processes both type of judgments and the completeness of this delusion may surprise even the great Leo Tolstoy.

ResearchBlogging.orgTsukiura T, & Cabeza R (2011). Shared brain activity for aesthetic and moral judgments: implications for the Beauty-is-Good stereotype. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 6 (1), 138-48 PMID: 20231177

Thursday, January 13, 2011

When it's moving, it's hard to see it changing.

Change blindness is a phenomenon whereby people fail to detect sizable changes in a visual scene. This can occur even when they are actively trying to locate the change (Simons & Ambinder, 2005). If you are unaware of this phenomenon, you can go to UBC's psychology department where they have some interesting video examples.

In a new study, Suchow & Alvarez (2011) demonstrates a novel visual illusion whereby motion induces failure to detect change - or what they call 'silencing'. Look at the video embedded below. Initially, the dots are visibly changing in colour but once the rotation begins, the dots appear to stop changing or at least appear to change at a slower rate. Additional video demonstrations looking at brightness, size and shape can be found here.

Motion silences awareness of color changes from Jordan Suchow on Vimeo.

They found that the faster the rotation, the slower the dots appear to change (i.e. stronger silencing).
Click to enlarge

In an additional set of experiments, they further determined that motion on the retina and not motion in space is responsible for silencing. Pretty nifty visual illusion huh.

*We are glad to have our first post based on a reader article submission and welcome additional submissions. Spread the word!

ResearchBlogging.orgSuchow JW, & Alvarez GA (2011). Motion Silences Awareness of Visual Change. Current biology : CB PMID: 21215632
Simons, D., & Ambinder, M. (2005). Change Blindness. Theory and Consequences Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14 (1), 44-48 DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00332.x

Friday, January 7, 2011

Birth Order Influences the Formation of Long-Term Relationships

134 years since Francis Galton opened the birth order effects debate by observing that first-born sons and only sons were over-represented among English scientists, controversy has shrouded the issue such that we haven't quite gotten past whether birth order effects exist or not, let alone properly consider what they are or how they work.

Some scholars assert that the lack of conclusive evidence is due to methodological biases that may allow the researcher to find the result that he or she is looking for. So, in that sense, a researcher who seeks to confirm that the birth order effect exists may find it just as well as a researcher who seeks to disconfirm it might.

In Birth Order Effects in the Formation of Long-Term Relationships, Hartshorne, Salem-Hartshorne and Hartshorne seek to probe the birth effect in a manner that is as methodologically neutral as possible by simply determining if there are any correlations between the sharing of birth order and the likelihood of long-term relationship formation. Their results provide new research material that weighs in favour of the presence of birth order effects, though what drives this effect is still speculative.

By drawing on a sample of 900 US undergraduate students, the researchers found that people are more likely to form and be in long-term relationships, both friendly and romantic, if they share the same birth order than would be expected by chance. For instance, if I were a first-born child, the likelihood of me being close friends with another first-born child is higher than the likelihood of me being close friends with another second- or third-born child. This tendency was also found for romantic partners.

A second and similar web-based study was conducted which gathered responses from American participants (1,911) as well as participants from other parts of the world (713). Similar results were garnered. There was no significant difference detected between American and non-American respondents, suggesting that birth order effects on long-term relationships are not culturally variant.

The researchers also controlled for socioeconomic status and size of family, which is a progressive extension from other earlier studies. This eliminates the confounds of number of siblings one has and the socioeconomic class one belongs to, which can potentially influence one's development because it is a commonly known social phenomenon that wealthier and upper class families tend to have less offspring.

The authors surmise that birth order underlies personality traits and having the same birth order results in greater compatibility between personality types, leading to the formation of closer bonds in both friendships and romantic relationships.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgJoshua K. Hartshorne, Nancy Salem-Hartshorne, and Timothy S. Hartshorne (2009). Birth Order Effects in the Formation of Long-Term Relationship Journal of Individual Psychology, 65 (2)