Menus Subscribe Search
cathedral-post

Pope's chair, Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma, Italy. (PHOTO: ERN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Thoughts of Faith and God Decrease Tolerance for Ambiguity

• May 16, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Pope's chair, Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma, Italy. (PHOTO: ERN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

New research finds exposure to Christian ideas—or even standing in the shadow of a cathedral—nudges people in the direction of black-and-white thinking.

It’s clear that religious faith confers a variety of benefits. Being part of a community of fellow believers has been shown to boost both mental and physical health.

But at what cost? New research suggests one disturbing answer: Thoughts of faith and God apparently spur people to view the world in black-or-white terms.

A just-published study finds exposure to Christian concepts or imagery increases one’s intolerance for ambiguity. This dynamic was demonstrated in a variety of experiments conducted in three different countries: Germany, Austria, and the United States.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, psychologists Christina Sagioglou of the University of Innsbruck and Matthias Forstmann of the University of Cologne note that “one prototypical characteristic of Christian morality seems to be the two-tier distinction between ‘virtuous’ and ‘sinful’ behaviors.”

A new study finds exposure to Christian concepts or imagery increases one’s intolerance for ambiguity. This dynamic was demonstrated in a variety of experiments in three different countries.

With that in mind, the researchers reasoned that exposing people to Christian content would “shift a person’s cognitive style” so that he or she thinks in more dualistic terms, and is less comfortable with ambiguity. They present evidence supporting their theory in the form of five experiments.

The first featured 65 participants recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. “Ostensibly to assess word comprehension,” they began by unscrambling 10 sets of words to form simple sentences. For half of the participants, five of the sets contained religion-related words such as faith, church, heaven, prayer, and divine.

Afterwards, they completed a 20-item survey designed to measure tolerance for ambiguity. Participants were asked their level of agreement with such statements as “There is a right way and a wrong way to do almost everything” and “It bothers me when I am unable to follow another person’s train of thought.” Finally, they answered five questions measuring their underlying level of religiosity.

Those who had worked with the religion-related words reported greater discomfort with ambiguity. They also generally perceived less ambiguity, in that they were more likely to agree with statements such as “practically every solution has a problem.”

Among those who did not unscramble sentences containing religious words, higher levels of religiousness “significantly correlated with ambiguity intolerance,” the researchers add. This suggests a black-or-white attitude is intrinsic to the mindset of the very religious, while for others, it can be triggered by exposure to religious concepts.

A second experiment, featuring 49 participants, found this dynamic also held true for visual stimuli. After they unscrambled either religion-related or neutral sentences, as above, participants were shown “two black-and-white pencil drawings of female faces: one ambiguous, the other non-ambiguous.” They then rated how much they liked each, on a one-to-seven scale.

The straightforward drawing featured the face of a young woman, seen clearly from the front. The ambiguous drawing can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a depiction of a young woman, as seen from behind and slightly to one side, or an image of an older woman seen in profile. Neither drawing contained any references to religion.

Those with religious concepts on their mind “liked the ambiguous drawing significantly less,” the researchers report. “Participants primed with religion clearly preferred the non-ambiguous drawing to the ambiguous one.”

Perhaps the most striking experiment featured 81 people who were approached at one of two central locations in Innsbruck, Austria: the cathedral square, or a square surrounded by civic buildings. They filled out a questionnaire measuring their tolerance for ambiguity, and their underlying religiosity.

The results: While there was no difference in religiosity between the two groups, “participants approached at the cathedral indeed reported significantly more ambiguity intolerance than did participants approached at the civic square,” the researchers report.

This echoes earlier research that Americans whose polling place is a church are more likely to support candidates and causes supported by the religious right. The looming presence of religious iconography is apparently enough to influence at least some people’s feelings and perceptions.

One obvious question raised by this study is whether this effect is specific to Christianity. Sagioglou and Forstmann doubt it, noting that a 1981 study found a correlation between ambiguity intolerance and religiosity among Indian Muslims and Hindus. If their thesis is right, any faith that divides people or actions into “good” and “bad” will presumably have the same effect.

It’s worth noting that some experts on Christian ethics, such as Harvey Cox in his sophisticated analysis of Jesus’ parables, find a great deal of nuance. But this research suggests that, in most people’s minds, religion is linked with moral rigidity.

As the researchers write, this attitude no doubt gives people structure in their lives and contributes to their well-being. But it’s also a plausible route to prejudice and general close-mindedness.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the television drama that best dramatizes ethical gray areas, The Good Wife, is also one of the very few in which the lead character is an atheist.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.