Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Understanding other religions: Of perceptual filters and cognitive biases

Matt Nisbet has an excellent post up at Age of Engagement, explaining some of the findings in this week's Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.  His argument is that "atheists are [not] smarter or superior to other groups, but instead, the social climate in the United States encourages and motivates atheists to acquire higher levels of religious knowledge."

And I think Nisbet's analysis is right on target. Communication research has long studied cognitive tuning effects, i.e., more careful information processing and potentially learning among individuals (or minority groups) who anticipate their viewpoints to be challenged in discussions with others:

"In this process, individuals try to make sense of information—especially contradictory or incomplete information ... —to be able to better describe the information to others or perhaps to defend it during future discussions." (Scheufele, 2002).
In addition to these more social-level interpretations, however, there may be a second explanation for some of the Pew findings, rooted in cognitive psychology. In a recent article in Cognition, for instance, Colzato et al. show that religious practice can have  a measurable and and long-lasting impact on attentional processes. And many of their findings show distinct differences across denominations and between religious and secular respondents.

On the one hand, this line of work provides an interesting explanation for the role that religion plays as a "perceptual filter" (e.g., Brossard et al., 2008), i.e., the idea that there are distinct differences between highly-knowledgeable religious and non-religious audiences with respect to how they translate what they know into particular issue stances. More directly related to the Pew findings, however, are the direct impacts that Colzato et al. suggest different religious beliefs can have on perceptual biases:
"'Even a rather abstract bias ... is likely to cause diverging perceptions, interpretations and, eventually, conclusions. Very likely, this divergence stands in the way of effective communication between people with different religious background.