Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Killing for God

New research published in the March issue of Psychological Science may help elucidate the relationship between religious indoctrination and violence, a topic that has gained renewed notoriety in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. In the article, University of Michigan psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues suggest that scriptural violence sanctioned by God can increase aggression, especially in believers.

The authors set out to examine this interaction by conducting experiments with undergraduates at two religiously contrasting universities: Brigham Young University where 99% of students report believing in God and the Bible and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam where just 50% report believing in God and 27% believe in the Bible.

After reporting their religious affiliation and beliefs, the participants read a parable adapted from a relatively obscure passage in the King James Bible describing the brutal torture and murder of a woman, and her husband’s subsequent revenge on her attackers. Half of the participants were told that the passage came from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament while the other half were told it was an ancient scroll discovered in an archaeological expedition.

In addition to the scriptural distinction, half of the participants from both the bible and the ancient scroll groups read an adjusted version that included the verse:

"The Lord commanded Israel to take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the LORD."

The participants were then placed in pairs and instructed to compete in a simple reaction task. The winner of the task would be able to "blast" his or her partner with noise up to 105 decibels, about the same volume as a fire alarm. The test measures aggression.

As expected, the Brigham Young students were more aggressive (i.e. louder) with their blasts if they had been told that the passage they had previously read was from the bible rather than a scroll. Likewise, participants were more aggressive if they had read the additional verse that depicts God sanctioning violence.

At the more secular Vrije Universiteit, the results were surprisingly similar. Although Vrije students were less likely to be influenced by the source of the material, they blasted more aggressively when the passage that they read included the sanctioning of the violence by God. This finding held true even for non-believers, though to a lesser extent.

The research sheds light on the possible origins of violent religious fundamentalism and falls in line with theories proposed by scholars of religious terrorism, who hypothesize that exposure to violent scriptures may induce extremists to engage in aggressive actions. "To the extent religious extremists engage in prolonged, selective reading of the scriptures, focusing on violent retribution toward unbelievers instead of the overall message of acceptance and understanding," writes Bushman "one might expect to see increased brutality."


Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. For a copy of the article "When God Sanctions Killing: Effect of Scriptural Violence on Aggression" and access to other Psychological Science research findings please contact Catherine West at (202) 783-2077 or cwest@psychologicalscience.org.

anticant comments: Interesting - but yet another example of research "scientists" setting up an elaborate rigmarole to "prove" the bleeding obvious!


Jose said...

As I read this article, as always superbly written as Anticant has got us used to, I rightaway thought of the, in most cases, adverse influence parents and education may have in the shaping of consciences.

As I always said belief is something inherent to the individual, nothing to play with of course in the pursuit of organised interests and unconfessable ends.

The students of the story reacted in accordance with what they were taught very many years ago by their parents and teachers, although at those times they might as well have been contrary to the arguments presented to them.

The wrong side of education, indeed, a side that will never permit us to be free in an effective, realistic way.

The problem with education is that educators have not realised, generally speaking, that the real foundations of learning must always be in all cases the pursuit of truth.

toby lewis said...

By the way, the perfect scenario for the use of www.eclecticeccentrics.com is presented here. You wrote a new piece yesterday and one today, this piece could have gone up on EE without getting rid of your other piece of writing from the front page.

anticant said...

JOSE & TOBY: I didn't write this piece, as I thought the context and my footnote made clear. As it was in the public domain, I lifted it from another blog I happened to be reading this morning.....

toby lewis said...

I thought that might be the case. Thanks for clarifying. The thought actually occured to me when I signed in to your webpage.

As to the findings, the anomalous result seems rather strange - "This finding held true even for non-believers, though to a lesser extent." Does this imply that we are all susceptible to violence supposedly commanded by god despite our prior beliefs? Why?

anticant said...

Yes, I thought that was a bit weird, too. Actually the whole operation strikes me as being more than a bit dubious ethically, with the subjects being fed false information. One wonders who designs these projects, and what their biases are.

toby lewis said...

You need the control though. Perhaps it would have been better to provide one group with an ancient violent text and another with a violent text from the bible. The problem there is you end up with problems debating the relative style of writing, etc.

Aphra Behn said...

It's about permission, isn't it?

I've thought for years that the phrase "peer pressure" is pretty meaningless. What happens is peer permission.

A colleague of mine (a moderate muslim woman, for the record) had a cold last week. I told her to go home. She was reluctant. I said "you need permission don't you?" She said "yes, I do".

Permission. Powerful stuff. Think of the Stanford Prison Experiments. Now those were the days when you could do completely unethical experiments on students, pay 'em $10 a day, and thoroughly mess with their minds.

These days we have reality TV to do that instead.


toby lewis said...

I don't know much about the ethics of psychological experiments but what I do know is that deception goes on the whole time to get a control. For example, doing a test on the effects of nicotine on reaction speeds, one person would be given an inhaler with nicotine in, the other would be given an empty inhaler. As long as people know this may be the case it should be OK. Perhaps in this test they were informed afterwards about the misleading information.

anticant said...

Hello Aphra - so much in life is about seeking/giving permission, isn't it? Therapists and counsellors function as lay priests in this respect. In the days before AIDS appeared on the scene, much of what we did was around alleviating guilt, and encouraging exploration. Then all of a sudden we had to say "No, no - or only if you get into rubber." You can't win really - nothing stays the same for long!

toby lewis said...

The odd thing about sexuality is that the permissive culture we essentially live in has left many people struggling to find meaningful relationships. After the initial shock of Aids (which I'm sure caused a brief dampening of promiscuity) the logical attitude is to use rubber with a casual partner and not bother with someone with whom you are in a long-term relationship. This isn't greatly worrying in that firstly, it encourages people not to be outrageously promiscuous, with all the negative psychological as well as corporeal effects this can bring, secondly, it may actively encourage stable relationships in a consensual age. Somehow the breaks placed on heady bohemia by the increased focus on STDs might lead to more long term happiness for the greater number even if such utilitarian calculations are rendered suspect by ignoring the great tragedies experienced by individuals.

Interestingly despite the rise of AIDs and STDs worldwide attitudes to "safe sex" have amongst the people become more liberal. Somehow medical scares like AIDS, Bird Flu, Sars, etc, seem to lead to a short term panic and catastrophism but when it turns out over time that these diseases only (in relative terms to world population the figure is not so serious) kill a few million, people become accustomed to the disease.

As to the original point about permission, this may be a key aspect in people developing vaguely batty attitudes, Armageddon has come because birds are being burnt at a Bernard Matthews farm. Yet hopefully many think for themselves basing their judgements on facts rather than taking the opinions of authority or their peers.

Jose said...

Mea culpa, indeed. I can only offer my horrible flu as an excuse.

anticant said...

Tut, tut Toby - sexual desire and logic are like chalk and cheese, or oil and water. Do be reasonable!

toby lewis said...

Yet why not have logical reasoning and desire? When I was single I was definitely not celibate, or anti-risk but any action I took that was risque would be tempered by an element of caution and I learnt from these experiences, happily without an STD or a baby.

In the obesity debate the same problem comes up. Clearly you can push the boundaries every so often but to do so all the time is crazy and so despite being free to eat what we like our personal well-being may be served by not binging but simply living moderately. Love is undervalued in our age of pleasure doing a great disservice to the happiness of people generally. Stds end up being unpleasant things to contract, but their existence may happily encourage monogamy, which is no bad thing.

toby lewis said...

BTW - You might find the debate I've been having with Zola at EE interesting. Frank put a typically pugnacious piece up about education, I partially agreed and Zola believes we are neo-victorians.

anticant said...

Why not indeed? But I fear you oversetimate the willingness of most people to BE rational in this respect. Thirty years' professional experience as a therapist and sexual counsellor has convinced me that for most people, passion predominates over reason for much, if not most, of the time.

anticant said...

I'm not joining in the education debate, Toby! My own education was too long ago, and in a very different social climate. A young relative [2 or 3 years older than you] who works with "socially disadvantaged" kids from a city council housing estate, tells me that after several years' "schooling", the majority of them can't even write their own names. And these are mostly white kids...What to do about it?

Jose said...

"Socially disadvantaged" may encompass anything from lunatics to Down Syndrome or Autistes.

The scale of values of these people is diametrically opposite to ours in many aspects, perhaps where they win is in love. Something we "simple mortals" tend to forget too often.