A few years ago, psychologists William Gervais and Ara Norenzayan published one of those eye-catching, headline-grabbing articles that can make an academic career. Specifically, they found that analytical thinking suppressed belief in God.
This interesting effect held steady both for “trait” cognitive style (how analytically minded people are in their day-to-day lives) and for “state” cognitive style (how analytically minded people are in the present moment, usually because of a lab manipulation). Perhaps most arrestingly, one of their studies found that even looking at pictures of Rodin’s statute “The Thinker” made people temporarily less confident in their belief in God, compared with looking at a control image. Gervais and Norenzayan reasoned that “The Thinker” primed people with the concept of analytical thinking.
This splashy result caught readers’ eyes and led to reams of media coverage. But the past couple of years have shown us that splashy results in academic psychology don’t always hold up to scrutiny. So a team of psychologists from Dominican University in Illinois recently conducted a replication attempt of Gervais’s and Norenzayan’s “The Thinker” study. To increase the reliability their findings, the new team collected data at three different sites – a Catholic university, a Lutheran university, and a community college – and pre-registered their protocol in a psychology database. They also massively increased the original sample size, from less than 60 to more than 900.
Analyzing their results, they found that viewing “The Thinker” had no statistically significant effect on people’s beliefs in God. In fact, the only significant effect they found was in the opposite direction: at the Lutheran university, students who viewed “The Thinker” reported more belief in God. But this result washed out when combined with the results from the other samples. In sum, looking at pictures of fictional people thinking very hard does not, in fact, undermine religious faith.*
* To his credit, Will Gervais published a humble and informative blog post on this replication failure as soon as it came out. It’s good when scientists are willing to publicly acknowledge their mistakes. The world would be a better place if more scientists did that.
ORBITER seeks not only to create, but also to curate, the best online content on science, scholarship, and life’s most enduring questions. This article was originally published at Patheos and has been reprinted with permission from Connor Wood.