Religious belief – faith in the existence of someone or something that is beyond the ability of science to prove or disprove – is one of the hallmarks of the human race. The vast majority of the planet’s population (75%-99% by some estimates) identify themselves as having some kind of religious belief.
So it’s no wonder that researchers are fascinated with the mental underpinnings of this uniquely human trait. The question “why do people believe?” is right up there with “why do people love?” – for those who study the human brain and try to unravel its deepest riddles.
But a surprising new report by psychologists William Gervais and Ara Norenzayan, of the University of British Columbia, would seem to indicate that your inclination to be religious can be – at least in part – determined by how you approach a math problem.
Here it is:
If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?*
Okay, now that you’ve given it some thought, I’ll let you in on what this is all about.
It turns out nearly everyone who answers this question come up with one of two possible responses.
Some people say the ball cost $10.
Others say it cost $5.
The mathematically correct answer is $5.
If that was your answer, you are an analytical thinker and – according to results of this study – more likely not to have any religious beliefs.
If you said the ball cost $10 (and I confess to being one of those people), you are an intuitive thinker and thus more likely to hold a religious belief of some kind.
I guarantee that some of you, regardless which answer you came up with, will feel anger, resentment or some other kind of negative emotion after reading the study’s findings. If you proclaim to be an atheist and you said “$10” you’re might feel as though you haven’t lived up to your usual analytical behaviour – the kind of questioning and skeptical nature that led you to your current views on religion. Likewise, if you are religious and said “$10,” you might feel like the study is saying your belief is an indicator of how smart you are.
I doubt this has much to do with religion — more to do with how much time you spend reading a question before answering, which is usually based on the consequences of a wrong answer which in this situation is next to none.
To be fair, the study’s authors are quick to point out that analytical thought (or a lack thereof) should not be considered the be-all and end-all factor when it comes to how likely someone is to be religious. They freely acknowledge there are many more areas of influence that come into play.
The full study, which was performed using 179 Canadian undergraduates, is available here and it’s well worth a read for those of you who want to learn more about the different ways these psychologists tested their hypothesis.
Now, if it pleases you our readers, let’s perform our own much less scientific survey…
P.S.: I have a favour to ask. It has been my experience that any articles here on Sync that touch remotely on the question of religion tend to ignite passionate and sometimes hostile debates over the existence of God or other deities. Given that the study in question did not make any judgement calls about the validity of religion or a lack of religious belief, I would very much appreciate it if comments on this article could be equally respectful. Thanks!
*The original math question from the study was “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” which is mathematically the same as the question above, but changed by the author of the Psychology Today article so that he could track references back to his piece.