Dr. Grossi's Blog

Cultural Influence on Cognition

Dr. Philip Grossi
Saturday, 28 August 2010

I came across an interesting article in press in the journal Cognition. It is entitled "God: Do I have your attention?" by Lorenza Colzato  and colleagues.  The authors look at the connection between religious upbringing and visual perception in three different populations: neo-Calvinists in the Netherlands, Roman Catholics in Italy, and Orthodox Jews in Israel and found that their perceptions differ from atheists of the same origin. 

illustration to cultural influence blogIn these times we are often exposed to religious targets, religious victims, religious terrorism arising from religious convictions of assorted types.   Religion is thought of as a set of rules informed by a culture that leads to formation of belief and determines an individual's response to rules and feelings.  The authors have selected religion as a proxy for cultural influence because of the over-broad inclusion of cultures and thus the difficulty of studying its influence in a convincing and clear-cut manner. Religions have the advantage of being better described and being relived in widely shared rituals and practices making the identification of splinter groups  possible.

Colzato and colleagues speculate that "religious training may induce particular cognitive-control strategies, and establish default control parameters that generalize to situations that have no bearing on religious belief."   On the one hand is the focus on the individual and away from global features such as other people's behavior or events or objects; on the other is a focus on a global precedence, social solidarity response.

In the first study, carried out in the Netherlands with its strong neo-Calvinist influence which is based on the concept sphere sovereignty which emphasizes that each sphere of life has its own responsibilities and authority which is equal to every other sphere.  Spheres other than your own should be left alone.  This has led to the compartmentalization of Dutch society with permissiveness toward abortion, euthanasia, and drug usage, but also the development of Apartheid in South Africa.  Reinforcement of these attitudes and "rules" would lead one to expect neo-Calvinists to chronically bias local attention compared to atheists.  The findings of the study support the idea that bias of attention is indeed a chronic by-product of ongoing religious practice.  The atheists (who had been Calvinists but were atheists for seven years) scored similarly to the conservative Calvinists.  Their visual perceptions were unchanged after seven years of non-practice.

Other types of religion with a different set of rules may bias attention and perception to a different direction.  If the type of bias acquired and learned by means of a particular practice is identified, it should be possible to demonstrate an increased precedence effect for religions that stress community and social cohesiveness.  To share this rule requires a "rule" of global attention should lead to a stronger precedence effect.  Roman Catholicism and Judaism have religious rituals mediated by priests and rabbis and pray in  social ways.  Both groups tend to be collectivists.  The findings were that the atheists differed from the religious groups in the way they attend to global and local features of visual stimuli. The effect of the religions on the global precedence effect is long-lasting, a matter of degree, and considering all the corrections to the groups likely reflects emphasis on social solidarity which is manifest in the emphasis on global processing events.  The core difference of individual vs. community is a particularly strong factor shaping the behavior of these communities.