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Religion, political party & cognitive reflection ... hmmmm

I posted some stuff recently (here, here & here) looking at CRT, ideology, & motivated reasoning. (Indeed, the posts wiped me out so completely that I've been laying low ever since.)

Here is one additional thing I found; I don't really know what to make of it, so I  invite comment.

It has been shown in multiple papers (here & here & here) that CRT and religiosity are negatively correlated. This finding is treated as evidence that there is a causal link of some sort between religion and the more intuitive, less reflective reasoning style associated with "system 1" in Kahneman's dual process scheme.

In my dataset (a nationally representative panel of 1700 U.S. adults), I find that same negative relationship. But it's moderated by partisan self-identification. The negative impact of religiosity (measured by a scale that combined importance of religion, importance of God, and self-reported church attendance) on CRT gets bigger as respondents' identification with the Democratic Party increases.

Any ideas about what's going on here? I don't really have any.

I'm also not sure what the significance of this relationship is, if any, for the studies that find religion is associated with low-level or system 1 processing. One difficulty for me in that regard is that I'm sort of puzzled by what the psychological theory is behind the religion/low CRT finding generally (I mean, historically, plenty of really highly reflective types have been religious, right Rev. Bayes?); it only seems harder, for me at least!, to articulate a theory if it has to incorporate the religiosity/partisan-identification interaction at the same time.  

One other important thing to note is that at least a couple of the studies on religion & cognitive style also included experimental elements, in which manipulations of subjects' reliance on reflection or intuition influenced expressed indicia of religiosity or vice versa. So it's not as if everything about those studies turns on inferences from correlations. But one would still think that interactions between religiosity and other characteristics have to fit with whatever the theory is that connects religiosity to less reflective modes of cognition.

Now I could, of course, go on & try all sorts of additional combinations of demographic variables, including additional cross-product interaction terms. But frankly, I see that sort of approach as pretty mindless. The sorts of demographic variables that predict CRT will tend to co-vary; that goes not double but rather exponential for the various cross-product interactions one can form with them. When all of those get stuck indiscriminately into the regression, it starts to become very unclear what is being modeled (uh, let's see-- how might the simultaneous increase in religion and gender influence CRT holding both race and its interaction with religiosity constant at their "means...")

So if others have suggestions about tests, I'm happy to run them. But before I do, the test requester has to say why the particular combination of variables proposed (including cross-product interaction terms) makes sense. What or who does that combination of variables model given the the sorts of covariances that are being partialed out? Researchers who "over-control" in regressions -- putting everything one can think of onto the right-hand side without any thought of what such a model models -- is something that really gets me steamed!

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Reader Comments (2)

This is just a hypothesis...

People can be religious/non-religious either by default, because that's the way they've been brought up, or because they've thought carefully about it. People are more likely to be triggered into thinking carefully about it if their default belief conflicts with their cultural context.

You're more likely to switch from religious to non-religious by thinking about it than vice versa. You're more likely to experience a cultural conflict as a democrat than a republican.

So the more reflective people are more likely to switch from default religious belief to considered non-belief, and the more reflective democrats especially so. Religious democrats would only be religious because they were brought up that way, and were particularly insensitive to discordant or conflicting beliefs, or less inclined to self-doubt.

The questions I'd ask would be how were they brought up - religious or non-religious. Is their social group overtly religious or non-religious. Have they switched between being religious and non-religious. Under the hypothesis I would expect joint CRT-social conflict to be correlated with switching positions, and low CRT with sticking to the default position. I'd also expect switching to be more strongly correlated with CRT than social conflict, since there are many other reasons why someone might reconsider religion besides their in group.

It's also possible highly reflective people are changing political affiliation in the event of conflict with their religious context. Only very non-reflective democrats stick with their religious upbringing, the reflective ones change either their religion or their politics.

Another question would be whether CRT is related to self-doubt, which may incline people to follow other people's opinions without thinking if they're available, or to a more general scepticism, which may make them less inclined to follow others. Do people respond differently if asked the question themselves, or if they first witness someone else being asked it (a stooge who gives the 'obvious' answer) and are asked if they agree?

Is CRT related to how they judge the probability of being right or the importance of being right? Maybe people check their thinking because they're more concerned about being embarrassed by getting it wrong, or maybe they don't check because they don't care - it's just a question, there's no penalty if they get it wrong.

If there is differing social pressure on democrats and republicans to conform, then those who care what other people think will be more widely split in the party that applies the greater pressure. Or conversely if there's more social pressure among either the religious or non-religious.

It's an interesting question. But to be honest I don't think I know enough about what the variables measure, and what personality factors influence religious or political choices to even be doing this sort of hypothesis test yet. I'd start with more exploratory free-text interviews, asking people to say why they hold the positions they do, what pressures they experience, how they judge, what things are important to them, before I'd even want to start forming hypotheses to test. Otherwise it's like shooting arrows in the dark. Even if you hear the sounds you expected, you still don't know if you actually hit the mark.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV: these seem like promising conjectures assuming the interaction is really measuring something. I think you could figure out ways to test such things.

August 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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