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Predictions, experience and behavior in religion: Three experimental approaches

24-124 | Monday, 9 a.m. | 137
Panel Chair: Jesper Soerensen

It is a common presupposition that religions not only shape people's experience of the world, but also guide their behavior in the world. So far it has been unclear, how this process takes place. How do priming with religious concepts or artifacts, sensory deprivation and representations of authority modulate religious experience? The seminar investigates this questions based on recent neurocognitive models focusing on the brain's predictive abilities.

Jesper Soerensen

Predictions, experience and behavior in religion: a new framework for studying cultural modulation of cognition in religious behavior

How do religious beliefs and models influence believers' experience of their surroundings? How do religious worldviews acquire their status as 'really real'? And, once established, how can they maintain their plausibility and influence believers' behavior? A recent neurocognitive model that focuses on the brain's predictive abilities is a promising way to approach such questions. Accordingly, humans navigate and act in their physical and social environment by matching incoming perceptual information to predictive models specifying what to expect in any given situation. Mismatch between model and sensory information elicits an error signal that demands attentional resources which eventually leads to a modification of the predictive model. Understanding religious ideas as culturally shared predictive models allows us to investigate the intricate relation between expectations and experience, on the one hand, and its impact on human behavior, on the other. This paper gives a short outline of the theoretical underpinnings of the approach.

Kristoffer L. Nielbo

God, Nation, or Gender? – Effects of religious priming and allocation cost on pro-social behavior in anonymous economic games

Several studies have shown that priming with religious concepts (e.g., ‘sacred’, ‘divine’, ‘God’) facilitates pro-social behavioral responses in economic games. Social and evolutionary psychology offer two proximate explanations of how religious primes facilitate pro-social behavior. The dominant explanation states that religious primes activate implicit representations of being observed by a supernatural watcher, which in turn increases pro-social behavior. The alternative explanation is a behavioral priming or ideomotor account. Religious primes, as other cultural primes, activate implicit cultural norms, which increase the likelihood of behaviors consistent with these norms. We ran a series of experiments to test possible effects of religious priming on economic decisions in a Danish student population. Preliminary results indicate that Danes’ default response is more complex than Canadians’, and that religious priming has little if any effect. Gender, on the other hand, seems to influence economic decisions, as well as decision time, considerably.

Uffe Schjoedt

Expert Power In Religious Interactions

The expertise of religious authorities appears to be an important facilitator of religious experience and interpretation among believers. Going further than self-report measures in psychological surveys and anthropological interviews, we present experimental evidence that expertise can, indeed, influence how believers perceive and behave during religious practices. Briefly introducing neurocognitive insights on charismatic authority in intercessory prayer interactions (fMRI), we present a recent study that shows how the translator’s authority affects the reading experience and theological understanding of the Bible among students of theology. Using eye-tracking data we demonstrate how participants’ eye movements predict such effects. Finally, combining neural recordings with eye-tracking we look for new ways to experimentally approach an important hypothesis, namely, that strong beliefs in religious experts may prevent believers from detecting conflicting information in religious practices in order to facilitate authoritative religious experiences and interpretations.