Thursday, April 10, 2014

Atheists and Their Capacity for Awe at Life
The emotion of awe is a self-transcendent one, in the sense that the experience of awe entails a feeling of being confronted with something much greater than oneself. Many people think of awe as a particularly religious emotion and therefore seem to assume that people with no religious beliefs at all, e.g. atheists are closed to the experience of awe. This assumption is quite false and reflects a wider prejudice against atheists. An illustrative example of this particular prejudice occurred when Oprah Winfrey told endurance swimmer Diana Nyad that she could not be an atheist, even though Nyad said she was, because Nyad stated that she is “in awe” of life. Research has shown that people who reject supernatural beliefs actually are capable of experiencing a sense of awe. In fact, the experience of awe may be particularly beneficial for those who do not believe in an afterlife.

Diana Nyad seems like a pretty awesome person. She set a world first by swimming from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage on her fifth attempt to do so. In what turned out to be an awkward interview with Oprah Winfrey, Nyad described herself as “an atheist who’s in awe.” She talked of how deeply moved she is by the beauty of the universe, and all of humanity, “all the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved, and hurt and suffered.” Oprah’s rather brusque response was that she did not consider Nyad to be an atheist then, because “if you believe in the awe, and the wonder, and the mystery” then “that is what God is!”

Naturally, many people who do consider themselves atheists felt rather insulted by Oprah’s comments, implying as they do that real atheists are not actually capable of feeling a sense of awe at the wonder and mystery of life. Either that, or they are not really atheists. While some people may well use the word “God” purely as a metaphor for “awe, wonder, and mystery,” most people understand the term differently, more often than not to refer to the existence of a supernatural creator being, so Oprah’s claims are disingenuous.

Atheists have objected to Oprah's attempts to relabel them

Oprah’s remarks are indicative of a widespread social stigma associated with atheism, particularly in the United States. According to a survey of how Americans view minority groups, atheists top the list of people that Americans have a problem with, more so than Muslims or gays. In fact, a 2002 survey found that 54% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of atheists (Zuckerman, 2009). Psalm 14 in the Bible describes people who don’t believe in God as “filthy, corrupt fools, entirely incapable of doing any good” (Zuckerman, 2009). So perhaps Oprah thought she was being kind to Nyad by trying to deny that she was “really” an atheist? In spite of these negative stereotypes, research actually presents a more favourable portrait of what atheists are like, finding that compared to most religious people they tend to be generally less prejudiced and to have more universally inclusive values, e.g. atheists tend to be less racist and sexist, less anti-Semitic, less nationalistic, less dogmatic, and less authoritarian.

Oprah’s statement more specifically reflects a stereotype of atheists as cynical, joyless, and lacking the capacity for awe in particular (Caldwell-Harris, Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2011). Quite the contrary, in response to a survey question asking if one had “ever felt wonderment or felt as if you were part of something greater than yourself,” 73% of atheists said yes. When asked what provoked these feelings, the majority (54%) said “nature”; the next most popular answers were “science” (29%), music/art (12%) and “human cooperation” (8%). The survey also found that contrary to popular beliefs that atheists are alienated and unhappy, atheists did not differ from Christians or Buddhists on measures of sociality, joviality, emotional stability, and happiness. Clearly people who do not believe in a supernatural creator being are as much capable of experiencing awe as people who do. This is just as well, because awe can have a beneficial effect on subjective well-being for reasons that may be of particular relevance to people who do not believe in a supernatural realm.

Researchers who have studied the experience of awe have defined it as a response to the experience of vastness combined with a need to make sense of an experience so vast it surpasses one’s current understanding (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Vastness implies something that is perceived as immense, e.g. in regards to size, scope, number, or even social bearing (e.g. a powerful leader). When this happens, a person may feel overwhelmed and therefore be motivated to acquire new knowledge to accommodate such an awe-inspiring experience into their world-view. According to a series of research studies, one of the consequences of experiencing a sense of awe is that one’s perception of time is expanded, almost as if one feels that time is standing still (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012). This is in contrast to the feeling that one does not have enough time, a great source of mental stress for many people. Hence, experiencing awe can induce a feeling that one does have plenty of time, and a sense of savouring one’s momentary experiences more deeply. Rudd, Vohs and Aaker found that it was possible to experimentally induce feelings of awe in people (e.g. by reading a story about ascending the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris from on high) and that doing so produced not only a feeling of expanded time, but an increase in momentary satisfaction with life.

I think the connections between the sense of awe, feelings of expanded time, and increased satisfaction in the moment are particularly relevant to people who do not believe that consciousness continues after death. To many people, the belief that death is not the end is a source of undeniable comfort. On the other hand, some philosophers have argued that knowing that one’s life has a finite duration provides an incentive to cherish the time that one has available. Contemplating the billions of people who have ever lived, as Diana Nyad speaks of, might not only produce a powerful feeling of awe, but an expanded perception of one’s own time on earth. This may in turn create a deepened sense of contentment with one’s own allotted span, which may help alleviate the sense of existential dread some people experience when contemplating their own mortality. I think testing the effects of inducing feelings of awe on a person’s attitudes to their own mortality would make an interesting research study.

Christopher Hitchens provides an articulate explanation of  his sense of awe at the natural universe

Perhaps Oprah felt that she was trying to be all-inclusive by incorporating Nyad’s view of the awe and mystery of life into her amorphous spiritual beliefs. In a similar way, there is a trend in the mental health field to redefine the term “spirituality” in an all-inclusive way that bundles together disparate concepts such as meaning and purpose in life along with belief in supernatural spiritual beings in a way that implies that all people are concerned with “spiritual” matters (Koenig, 2008). (I have touched on this issue in a previous post.) The trouble with this is that people may still experience a sense of meaning and purpose in life even if they do not believe in God or a higher power. Similarly, contrary to what Oprah seems to think, people who do not believe in a non-material entity called God can and do still experience a sense of awe at the vastness of the universe we live in. Trying to redefine this experience as being about “God” in some nebulous sense actually marginalises people who do not share her views. If Oprah and people like her wanted to be truly inclusive they would acknowledge that we all share a common humanity regardless of whether or not we choose to believe in something called “God”.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 
This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image Credits
Oprah poster created by Boston Atheists – people are welcome to share these on social media
“Reality is Awesome” poster created at Despair, Inc.
Link to YouTube video featuring Christopher Hitchens

Other posts about the psychology of religion and/or spirituality

Caldwell-Harris, C., Wilson, A., LoTempio, E., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2011). Exploring the atheist personality: well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists, Buddhists, and Christians Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14 (7), 659-672 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2010.509847
Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297-394.
Koenig, H. G. (2008). Concerns About Measuring "Spirituality" in Research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196(5), 349-355 310.1097/NMD.1090b1013e31816ff31796.
Rudd M, Vohs KD, & Aaker J (2012). Awe expands people's perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological science, 23 (10), 1130-6 PMID: 22886132
Zuckerman, P. (2009). Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions. Sociology Compass, 3(6), 949-971. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2009.00247.x

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is Parapsychology a "Taboo" Subject in Science?
Parapsychology has been a controversial subject from its very inception. Many scientists have expressed doubts that psi – the broad term for paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis – is real or that parapsychology is a genuine science. On the other hand, some scientists support parapsychology, and in fact an opinion piece recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, endorsed by 100 signatories calls for a more “open-minded” consideration of the subject. What particularly struck me about this piece was the claim that investigation into the subject is not just controversial, but actually “taboo”. Examination of the history of parapsychology indicates that the scientific mainstream has shown considerable open-mindedness towards the subject, and that claims that it has been treated as some sort of “forbidden” topic are both hyperbolic and disingenuous.

Does "Theresa" possess forbidden knowledge that scientists are not allowed to investigate?

Although parapsychology has been studying paranormal phenomena for over 130 years, currently it exists mainly at the fringes of scientific institutions. Mainstream science largely ignores psi, e.g. physics textbooks make no mention of the possibility that mental events might influence physical objects at a distance and science funding agencies generally will not financially support parapsychology research (Alcock, 1987).[1]

Naturally parapsychologists object to this state of affairs and the authors of the opinion piece (Cardeña, 2014) “call for an open, informed study” of the subject. However, they do not explain what specifically prompted such a call at this particular time. Signatories to the piece include such mainstream psychology notables as Daryl Bem and Phil Zimbardo, as well as researchers into more fringe oriented topics like Dean Radin and David Luke[2]. The article starts off, apparently quite reasonably, arguing that scientists need to consider all evidence in an open-minded manner and “recognise that scientific knowledge is provisional and subject to revision.” This is in contrast to deciding things dogmatically or by appeal to authority figures. No argument from me so far. The author then goes on to bemoan the fact that purported phenomena such as telepathy and precognition have not been embraced by mainstream science. A set of claims is then made to the effect that parapsychology is a valid science and that there is evidence to support the existence of psi. Sceptics such as Ray Hyman on the other hand argue that they find the evidence unconvincing because attempts to reliably replicate initially successful psi experiments have had a history of repeated failure. I have also expressed scepticism about parapsychology in previous posts (see here and here. However, this is not particularly what I wish to focus on here.

What exactly the author and the signatories hope to achieve by publishing this article is not entirely clear. However, the following statement provides some clues: “This research has continued for over a century despite the taboo against investigating the topic, almost complete lack of funding, and professional and personal attacks” (emphasis added). Lack of funding and professional and personal attacks I can well believe. Funding bodies have limited resources and so may have good reasons for declining to fund a field they consider unpromising. Professional and personal attacks, however regrettable, occur in many fields of endeavour, and are hardly unique to parapsychology. But claiming that there is an actual taboo against investigating the topic is a very puzzling one indeed for which the article offers no evidence or even any definition of what this is supposed to mean.[3] In fact, the article actually cites survey evidence to the effect that only a minority of scientists dismiss parapsychology as pseudoscience or an illegitimate area of study. If this is correct, then how could parapsychology actually be taboo? Does this minority group of parapsychology-deniers have some special veto power that they can impose on the majority?

Taboo implies that investigating the topic is strictly forbidden and that anyone who dares to defy the taboo can expect severe punishment. This is a pretty serious charge, as it implies that mainstream scientists have actively prohibited curious investigators from studying the subject with an open mind, contrary to the whole spirit of scientific inquiry. Some parapsychologists have gone so far as to accuse mainstream scientists of being prejudiced against the subject or even having an irrational fear of psi. A google search of “parapsychology taboo” reveals that this claim is not new and has been widely repeated by parapsychologists. Dean Radin, one of the article’s signatories, in particular once gave a lecture called “Science and the taboo of psi” in which he claims flatly that the “This taboo has been sustained for over 100 years.” (About 4:35 in the video.) He also states that “it is extremely difficult to get accurate reporting of this topic in the science media”[4] and implies that the media selectively reports only studies that disconfirm parapsychology but is strangely silent about ones that validate it. (An informative critique of this video can be read here.) A few years after Radin’s lecture, Daryl Bem’s (2011) paper that claimed to provide evidence that people can “feel the future” received an enormous amount of media attention (e.g. in Discover magazine[5]). Perhaps parapsychology is no longer so “taboo” as it was a few years ago? Alternatively, maybe it never was taboo in the first place. The fact that mainstream science tends not to take parapsychology seriously is not proof of an irrational taboo, as scientists may have good reasons for being unconvinced of its claims. Cardeña and company enjoin sceptics to consider the evidence with an open mind, so it would be helpful to examine just what evidence there is that parapsychology has ever been a taboo topic.

According to Alcock (1987), when parapsychology research began in the 1880’s, a number of prominent psychologists, such as Pierre Janet and William James, along with scientists from other fields, were involved in looking for evidence of paranormal phenomena and psychical research societies were set up in France, America and Britain. The Fourth International Congress of Psychology held in 1900 in Paris had an entire section devoted to psychical research and spiritualism. Much of this research focused on investigating the alleged powers of spiritualist mediums, many of whom turned out to be frauds. As a result, many psychologists lost interest in the subject.

Parapsychology attracted attention again in the 1930’s with the pioneering experimental research into ESP by JB Rhine at Duke University. A 1938 poll of psychologists found that 89% of them thought that the study of psi was a legitimate scientific exercise (Alcock, 1989). I suppose they were not aware that this was supposed to be a taboo subject. Unfortunately, methodological problems in Rhine’s studies were exposed that invalidated his conclusions, and psi research failed to gain mainstream scientific support.

Parapsychology received mainstream attention in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1969, the Parapsychology Association became an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The AAAS is a well-respected international institution of mainstream science, rather than some fringe organisation. (It is worth noting that a 1982 survey of “elite” scientists in the AAAS found that only 4% of 339 thought that ESP had been scientifically established (Alcock, 1987).) In 1974, Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, agreed to publish a paper by Targ and Puthoff (1974), which presented results of a series of experiments apparently showing evidence of paranormal phenomena such as clairvoyance and remote viewing. Several of these experiments used the notorious Uri Geller as their test subject. This paper was preceded by an editorial ("Investigating the paranormal," 1974) which noted a number of shortcomings of the paper identified by the peer reviewers, such as weaknesses in design and presentation, “uncomfortably vague” details about the safeguards and precautions against conscious and unconscious fraud, and the criticism that the paper seemed more “a series of pilot studies… than a report of a completed experiment.” The editors go on to say that in spite of these criticisms, two of the three reviewers of the paper felt that it should be published because it was a serious attempt to “investigate under laboratory conditions phenomena which, while highly implausible to many scientists, would nevertheless seem to be worthy of investigation even if, in the final analysis, negative findings are revealed.” The editor goes on to explain that although Nature is a highly respected journal, they occasionally publish “high-risk” papers, and that “the unusual must now and then be allowed a toe-hold in the literature, sometimes to flourish, more often to be forgotten within a year or two.”

What the quotes from the editorial show is that the editors and reviewers of one of the world’s most highly respected journals, far from demonstrating their dogmatic prejudice against a “taboo” topic, went out of their way to be open-minded and allow informed discussion of a controversial topic, even though it was regarded by many scientists as “highly implausible”.

A similar incident occurred again in 2011, when Daryl Bem, one of the signatories to the Frontiers article claiming that parapsychology is taboo, published his paper on precognition (Bem, 2011) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This journal is considered the flagship publication in its field, and news of this paper generated an enormous media response, even before it was officially published. Once again, the editors of the journal were moved to write an editorial explaining the reasons why such a paper was accepted and including this statement:
We openly admit that the reported findings conflict with our own beliefs about causality and that we find them extremely puzzling. Yet, as editors we were guided by the conviction that this paper—as strange as the findings may be—should be evaluated just as any other manuscript on the basis of rigorous peer review. (Judd & Gawronski, 2011)
Yet again, the editors of a respected mainstream journal have gone out of their way to ensure that parapsychological research receives a fair and informed hearing, even though in this case the editors acknowledge that they find the reported findings very hard to believe. Admittedly, it is a rare event for papers on parapsychology research to be published in such top-tier journals. However, the fact remains that they were published. Alcock (1987) also notes that between 1950 and 1987 over 1500 parapsychological papers were abstracted in Psychological Abstracts, which is published by the American Psychological Association. Research on the subject has hardly been suppressed by the mainstream then.

In summary, the claim by Cardeña and colleagues that investigating parapsychology has been taboo, and Dean Radin’s claim that “this taboo has been sustained for over 100 years” due to dogmatic prejudice and close-mindedness appears to be nonsensical. Parapsychology has had multiple opportunities for over a century to earn mainstream acceptance. Furthermore, when parapsychologists have had studies published in mainstream journals, scientists have responded to them by subjecting them to careful scrutiny rather than ignoring them. As this Discovery article points out, after Daryl Bem published his paper on precognition, other teams of scientists (see here for example) independently attempted their own experiments to see if Bem’s results could be replicated. In 2012 a meta-analysis of all known attempts to replicate Bem’s findings was published (Galak, LeBoeuf, Nelson, & Simmons, 2012) which concluded that the average effect size for precognition was no different from zero. Some parapsychologists such as Dean Radin, have accused critics of parapsychology of being “scientific fundamentalists” who are unwilling to consider that their model of the world might be wrong. On the contrary, Smith (2011) points out that mainstream science has actually advanced by accepting challenges to its model of the world. He gives the recent example of the discovery of dark energy. Prior to this discovery, the conventional view in cosmology was that the expansion of the universe was slowing down. However, astronomical observations led to the observation that the rate of the universal expansion was actually accelerating instead, suggesting that a previously unknown antigravity force exists. Five years of observation was all that was needed to completely revise our understanding of cosmology and now dark energy is being studied intensively and receives massive funding. Compare this to the over 130 years that parapsychologists have had to establish the existence of psi. It seems to me that if parapsychology has not won widespread acceptance it is most likely because of the emptiness of the subject itself and its repeated failures to create an evidence base rather than because of alleged bigotry on the part of scientists or some supposed unspecified taboo for which no evidence has been provided.


[1] On the other hand the United States government provided millions of dollars of funding into military uses of psi research, particularly remote viewing, for over 20 years, only to abandon it in 1995 after it had produced no useful applications.
[2] Examples of David Luke’s interest in fringe topics include this paper on non-human entities perceived under the influence of psychedelic drugs (see here and here for my own, less esoteric, views on the subject) and this paper “Parapsychology as a science of magick: An occult perspective on psi.”
[3] The quote from the article includes a citation by Cardeña (2011) which gives examples of professional and personal attacks against (and by) parapsychologists, but contains no mention of a “taboo” or issues with funding.
[4] As an example of faulty reporting of parapsychology in the “science media” he cites an article from The Boston Globe, an online newspaper. Why he considers a general news source to represent the “science media” is not exactly clear.
[5] Which has a more credible claim to represent “science media” than The Boston Globe which Radin cites.


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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

My previous articles on parapsychology:

Precognition: Science or Fanta-Psi? Science meets Alice in Wonderland - has parapsychology gone mainstream?

Further reading 
Editorial by psi researchers calls for open mindedness - interesting take on the Frontiers letter by Doubtful News site.

There is no taboo on studying psychic phenomena, just boredom - this was written before the Frontiers letter, but provides a good debunking of claims about a "taboo."

The Elusive Open Mind: Ten Years of Negative Research in Parapsychology by Dr Susan Blackmore. A remarkable account of how a parapsychologist became disillusioned by the search for psi after a decade of sincere but fruitless attempts to find evidence for it.

Image credits: Psychic by John Stephen Dwyer via Wikipedia; Zener Cards via Wikipedia

Alcock, J. E. (1987). Parapsychology: Science of the anomalous or search for the soul? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 10(4), 553-643.
Bem, D. J. (2011). Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(3), 407-425. doi: 10.1037/a0021524
Cardeña, E. (2011). On Wolverines and Epistemological Totalitarianism. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 25(3), 539–551.
Cardeña, E. (2014). A call for an open, informed study of all aspects of consciousness. [Opinion] Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00017
Galak, J., LeBoeuf, R. A., Nelson, L. D., & Simmons, J. P. (2012). Correcting the past: Failures to replicate psi. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029709
Investigating the paranormal. (1974). Nature, 251(5476), 559-560. doi: 10.1038/251559a0
Judd, C. M., & Gawronski, B. (2011). Editorial Comment. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 100(3), 406.
Smith, J. C. (2011). A challenge to psi researchers Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit: Wiley-Blackwell.
Targ, R., & Puthoff, H. (1974). Information transmission under conditions of sensory shielding. Nature, 251, 602-607. doi:

Friday, December 27, 2013

Life History Strategy and the Allure of the Dark Side: Evidence against a General Factor of Personality
In a previous post, I discussed evidence for and against a general factor of personality (GFP). Existing theories of personality organise personality traits in a hierarchical structure, in which a small number of broad factors, say five or six, subsume a vast number of narrower traits. Some psychologists have proposed a higher order general factor that combines all the broad traits into one super-factor composed of all the socially desirable features of personality. According to one theory, the general factor of personality represents an evolved “slow” life history strategy associated with long-term mating as opposed to a "fast" strategy associated with short-term mating. However, a recent study suggests that both slow and fast life history strategies each combine mixtures of desirable and undesirable traits. The findings of this study might help explain not only why so many people have “dark personalities” embodying socially undesirable traits, but why these traits can actually attractive. The so-called general factor of personality might represent an imagined ideal that few people embody rather than a single underlying dimension of human personality variation.   

The Dark Side has a strange allure for many people

Currently, the most widely accepted model of personality traits model is the Big Five, which consists of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, all of which are considered to be separate and distinct from each other. A more recent model which has become increasingly popular, the HEXACO, adds a sixth factor of honesty-humility to the Big Five.[1] Although they disagree about the exact number, both of these models agree that the top of the personality hierarchy consists of multiple and distinct factors. However, some psychologists, have argued that these broad factors are not actually independent and that there is higher order super-factor atop the personality hierarchy that combines all of them into one (Musek, 2007). For example, Rushton and Irwin (2011) argued that this general factor is a dimension of “good personality” as opposed to a “difficult personality”, with desirable traits manifested at one end, e.g. someone who is friendly, cooperative, relaxed, reliable, and clever compared to someone who does not get along with others, and is selfish, manipulative, irritable and dense. Studies on the GFP have found that it is positively correlated with subjective well-being, self-esteem, trait emotional intelligence, and even general intelligence apparently. Perhaps, this combination of traits should be called the “best” personality rather than merely “good”?  

Rushton and Irwing proposed that this general factor of personality reflects a single broad dimension that has been selected for in human evolution they call the K-factor. This K-factor supposedly applies to a whole range of human characteristics that are said to have co-evolved, including altruism, intelligence, attachment styles, growth, longevity, sexuality, and fecundity and which “form a coherent whole” (Rushton & Irwing, 2011). The idea of a K-factor is the basis for what is called life history theory which looks at individual differences in human reproductive strategies. According to this theory, people with a “slow” life history strategy (characterised by a preference for long-term mating) exhibit a high K-factor, whereas people with a “fast” life history strategy (characterised by a preference for short-term mating and promiscuity) exhibit a low K-factor.

According to a number of studies, slow life history strategy is associated with better mental and physical health and subjective well-being and with greater relationship satisfaction. On the other, fast life history strategy has been linked with socially undesirable characteristics, such as criminality and antisocial behaviour including sexual coercion (Sherman, Figueredo, & Funder, 2013). If this is true, then it would seem that from an evolutionary standpoint the slow strategy is desirable in every way, while the fast strategy is completely undesirable. This is problematic because if one strategy is “better” in every way, the alternative strategy should have died out long ago for failure to compete. However, the fact that so many people still utilise a fast strategy suggests that it may be adaptive under some circumstances.

In spite of the alleged global adaptive superiority of the slow strategy, there is evidence that this strategy involves costs as well as benefits and conversely that the fast strategy enjoys its own advantages, in spite of its drawbacks. This is because socially desirable behaviours are generally those that are good for other people but not necessarily oneself, while socially undesirable behaviours inflict costs on other people rather than on the self. Social norms then tend to favour behaviour that is closer to the slow end of the continuum. Hence, even though the slow strategy is desirable from the viewpoint of society, it is not always in the interests of the individual. For example, being honest and altruistic benefits society but may be costly to the individual. Conversely, lying and cheating are costly to society but may benefit the individual, at least in the short term. The slow strategy might be smarter in the long-term, but generally requires individuals to make sacrifices for the good of others.

This might be taking the slow strategy a bit too far

Recently Sherman et al. (2013) tested the idea that the slow and fast strategies respectively combine both adaptive and maladaptive traits. Previous studies on life history strategy that found that the slow strategy was associated with just about every benefit one could want have been based on self-report measures of behaviour and personality. Similarly, most studies that have been used to validate a GFP have relied on self-report as well. A problem with self-report measures is that people’s responses may reflect evaluative biases. Because the slow strategy is so socially normative, people’s responses may be biased towards reporting what is considered “normal”. This could explain to some extent why the slow strategy is supposed to be associated with physical and mental health, considering that the latter are also normative. Sherman et al.’s research therefore used studies based on direct observations of behaviour as well as participants’ reports of their behaviour in the last 24 hours to overcome some of the limitations of self-report measures. Trained raters were asked to assess how closely individual participants matched a template for either a slow or fast life history strategy based on assessments of their behavior. The template for the slow pattern included qualities such as responsible, warm, compassionate and capable of close relationships. The fast template included qualities of unpredictable, deceitful, manipulative, and non-conforming. The resulting pattern that emerged was that those who more closely matched the slow template were described as kind, considerate, and hard working, yet also socially awkward, insecure, shy, lacking expressiveness and emotionally over-controlled. Those who more closely matched the fast template were described as unpredictable, hostile, moody, manipulative and impulsive, yet also talkative, socially skilled, dominant, assertive charming and interesting.

What these results suggest is that both the slow and fast strategies have their respective strengths and weaknesses. This is consistent with the idea that each one may be adaptive under some circumstances, yet maladaptive under others. On the other hand, the results appear to contradict the notion that one strategy is globally better than the other. Furthermore, in terms of personality traits expressed, neither strategy appears to fit in with the notion of a general factor of personality which combines all socially desirable traits in a uniform way. Participants who demonstrated a slow strategy could be described as agreeable, conscientious, and honest, yet also introverted and to a certain extent neurotic. On the other hand, those who demonstrated a fast strategy showed the opposite pattern of disagreeableness, dishonesty, and low conscientiousness, but were also more extraverted and emotionally stable. The fast life history strategy also seems consistent with a group of socially undesirable traits known as the “dark triad” of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. One study found that people who are high in “dark triad” traits tend to manifest a pattern of being selfish, disagreeable and low in conscientiousness, yet also extraverted, confident and socially dominant (Jonason, Li, & Teicher, 2010). This particular pattern of traits may allow people to successfully exploit others for selfish reasons and yet escape social punishment due to their social skills and charms. The authors of this paper compared this personality configuration to James Bond. Another real life example is the Italian adventurer Casanova. This fascinating fellow, notorious for his many love affairs, was noted as a sparkling conversationalist who stated that the chief business of his life was cultivating sensory pleasure. He also admitted to swindling people who he managed to convince that he had magical powers.  

Why do bad boys have all the fun?

Researchers have argued that “dark triad” traits may have evolved to facilitate short-term mating. Evidence for this comes from a study which found that women rated men with dark triad traits as having more attractive personalities than men who were low in these traits (Carter, Campbell, & Muncer). Another study found that men who were high in psychopathic traits (one of the components of the dark triad) were rated by female observers as being more physically attractive than men who were low in these traits (Visser, Pozzebon, Bogaert, & Ashton, 2010). Perhaps, these findings might help to explain why so many people are so fascinated by “dark” characters both from fiction and real life. Casanova for example was not the most moral person but he knew how to live in style!

What these findings suggest that the traits associated with the slow life history strategy represent a “good” personality in the traditional sense of being unselfish and of respecting society’s rules of good behaviour but not in a global sense of being generally better implied by JP Rushton. However, people who follow a slow strategy seem to be less socially skilled and may not experience as much immediate pleasure as their more selfish fast strategy counterparts, who are more focused on having a good time, often at the expense of other people. One of the differences that emerged between the two strategies, is that people with the slow style appear over-controlled and lacking expressiveness, whereas those with the fast style are more lively and impulsive. This suggests that one of the key differences may be in how much people inhibit expression of their impulses. Some people may be overly concerned with not doing anything that might give offense to others, whereas other people are more focused on expressing themselves, being less anxious about what other people might think.

The findings from Sherman et al. suggest that neither a fast nor a slow life history strategy is associated with a complete set of desirable traits that a general factor of personality would entail. In my previous post, I suggested that a general factor of personality might not represent a unitary dimension underlying all personality traits, but instead a particular cluster of separate traits combined in a way that maximises a person’s well-being. Perhaps this entails a personality type that can strike a balance between the conflicting demands of expressing the self on the one hand and exercising the self-control needed to comply with social expectations and rules for getting along with other people.


[1] Another minor difference from the Big Five is that in the HEXACO model neuroticism is replaced with “emotionality”. 
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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image Credits

Darth Vader by Dualspades at DeviantArt

Sacrifice poster created at using image from Flickr

Sean Connery as James Bond from Wikia


Carter, G. L., Campbell, A. C., & Muncer, S. The Dark Triad personality: Attractiveness to women. Personality and Individual Differences(0). doi:
Jonason, P. K., Li, N. P., & Teicher, E. A. (2010). Who is James Bond? The Dark Triad as an Agentic Social Style. Individual Differences Research, 8(2), 111-120.
Musek, J. (2007). A general factor of personality: Evidence for the Big One in the five-factor model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(6), 1213-1233.
Rushton, J. P., & Irwing, P. (2011). The General Factor of Personality: Normal and Abnormal. In T. Chamorro-Premuzic, S. v. Stumm & A. Furnham (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Individual Differences ( First ed.): Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Sherman RA, Figueredo AJ, & Funder DC (2013). The behavioral correlates of overall and distinctive life history strategy. Journal of personality and social psychology, 105 (5), 873-88 PMID: 23915038
Visser, B. A., Pozzebon, J. A., Bogaert, A. F., & Ashton, M. C. (2010). Psychopathy, sexual behavior, and esteem: It’s different for girls. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(7), 833-838. doi:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Atheism, Openness to Experience and Dogmatism: A Puzzling Relationship
Dogmatism has usually been related in research to low levels of openness to experience, a personality dimension associated with interest in new and non-traditional ideas. Dogmatism has mostly been studied in relation to religious beliefs but some recent research has looked at dogmatism among non-religious people. One surprising finding was that among self-identified atheists, higher levels of openness to experience were actually associated with greater dogmatism, contrary to the usual pattern. This suggests that the personality dimension openness to experience might not be a marker of open-mindedness as such but more of a preference for unconventional and complex ideas. Perhaps there needs to be a distinction made between humble versus arrogant forms of openness to experience.

Some people do not respond well to disagreement. 

Dogmatism refers to rigid certainty about the correctness of one’s views, along with refusal to consider alternatives and a conviction that any intelligent person who has thought things through would agree with one’s own opinions. The opposite of this is the willingness to consider that one’s own views are not the only reasonable way of looking at things and that it is possible that one could be proven wrong. This does not mean that a non-dogmatic person must be wishy-washy, only that they are willing to consider that other people might have good reasons for believing what they do and that it is alright for intelligent people to disagree.

Dogmatism and openness to experience: polar opposites?
People can be dogmatic about any subject, e.g. political and lifestyle views, but dogmatism has mostly been studied among religious believers. Religious beliefs in general tend to be held more dogmatically than other kinds of beliefs, and people with fundamentalist beliefs are generally the most dogmatic of all, virtually by definition. Not surprisingly, religious fundamentalism tends to be associated with low openness to experience (Saroglou, 2010). Openness to experience is a broad and somewhat heterogeneous dimension of personality that refers to the breadth and complexity of a person’s mental life (McCrae & Sutin, 2009). People low in openness to experience tend to prefer rather black-and-white views of the world that are not too complex or intellectually demanding. In contrast, people high in openness prefer more nuanced ways of looking at things, and feel comfortable with complex ideas. Openness to experience encompasses a diverse number of narrower traits, and one of these traits, openness to values, refers to readiness to “re-examine social, political and religious values” and has even been considered to represent “the opposite of dogmatism” (Costa & McCrae, 1992, cited in) (Smith, Johnson, & Hathaway, 2009).

Some atheists can’t stand disagreement
While it seems generally true that people high in openness to experience, particularly in the values facet, are least likely to be dogmatic, there may be some notable exceptions. Re-examining traditional values, for example, does not necessarily guarantee that one will not become tolerant of differences in opinion. Some people might reject traditional values and then become dogmatic adherents of non-traditional ones. One example that I believe fits this description is an online movement called “Atheism Plus”. This movement, which emerged just over a year ago in the atheist blogging community, bills itself as a “positive” approach that aims to combine atheism/scepticism with a variety of left-liberal political causes associated with the term “social justice.” Responses to this movement in the atheist/sceptical community have been less than totally positive. Atheism Plus has been criticised by other atheists as a divisive movement, and a commonly expressed concern is that members of this group have demonstrated intellectual arrogance and intolerance of dissent, even on minor matters.[1] They would seem to be high in openness to values yet appear very dogmatic in their views. A recent research study may sheds some light on when and why high openness to experience and dogmatism sometimes go together.

Parody of Atheism Plus. See here for another good parody.

Dogmatism and openness to experience among the non-religious
Studies on non-religious people have found that they are generally considerably higher in openness to experience than those who are religious (Galen & Kloet, 2011). People who are non-religious vary greatly in how they define their lack of religiosity so it can be useful to make broad distinctions. A recent study did this by comparing people with “no beliefs in particular” (which I will call “nones” for convenience) and those self-identifying as atheists (Gurney, McKeown, Churchyard, & Howlett, 2013). Those who describe themselves as atheists are more likely to identify themselves as members of a specific group, whereas nones have no particular group identity. Membership of a group tends to promote a sense of loyalty to the values of the group along with a sense of separateness from outsiders, and this can foster dogmatism about the beliefs and values of one’s group to some extent. A distinguishing feature of an atheist identity is that qualities associated with openness to experience, such as challenging traditional beliefs and appreciation of intellectual activity, are highly valued. This is in contrast to a religious identity, which is more likely to emphasise conformity to tradition and submission to authority in matters of belief. Individuals atheists vary in how central atheism is to their identity overall. Some regard their atheism as simply an absence of belief in gods, and one attitude among many others they may have. For others though, being an atheist is a more central and defining part of their self-concept tied to their core values, such as a belief in the social importance of scepticism and reason. Gurney et al. therefore argued that insofar as atheists have a social identity that values high openness to experience, dogmatism among them may be positively correlated with openness to experience, as opposed to religious social identities that devalue such openness. They performed a survey to confirm this, so let’s look at what they found.

The survey compared a group of atheists, nones, and Christians on measures of dogmatism and openness to experience. Additionally, atheists and Christians were asked to rate how strongly they identified with their respective groups. (Nones have no clear group membership, so this question would not be meaningful to them.) The number of atheists in the sample (37) was on the small side, so the study should be seen as a preliminary investigation rather than something definitive. The measure of dogmatism (the DOG scale) used is content neutral in that it includes generic statements like “The things I believe in are so completely true, I could never doubt them” and “It is best to be open to all possibilities and ready to evaluate all your beliefs” (the latter indicates low dogmatism). The openness to experience measure provides an overall score and scores on the subscales of inquisitiveness, aesthetic appreciation, creativity, and unconventionality. The three groups scored similarly on overall openness, although atheists scored significantly higher than Christians on inquisitiveness and unconventionality. Considering atheists’ particular interests, this result is as expected. The Inquisitiveness measure refers to intellectual curiosity, such as interest in science, history and political discussion. Items used to measure it also suggest that is particularly associated with intelligence, e.g. “have a rich vocabulary” and “avoid difficult reading material” (the latter indicating the low end of the trait). Unconventionality indicates non-conformity with social expectations. Unconventionality appears somewhat similar to openness to values as it includes items such as “rebel against authority” and “swim against the current” but also includes several items referencing unusual characteristics, e.g. being eccentric and odd, which may not be quite as relevant to dogmatism though.

On the dogmatism measure, atheists did score slightly higher than nones, although they were substantially lower than Christians. The graph below depicts dogmatism scores for the three groups.

Dogmatism levels among atheists, nones and Christians. Error bars represent standard deviations.

Dogmatism was also positively correlated with group identification in both atheists and Christians. That is the more strongly a person identified as either an atheist or a Christian, the more dogmatic they were about their respective beliefs. So atheists who do not attach much significance to their unbelief were less rigid in their views than those who see atheism as more central to their identity. Additionally and as expected, correlations between dogmatism and openness to experience differed among the three groups. Dogmatism was negatively correlated with openness to experience among nones, and to a lesser extent among Christians. In the latter group, inquisitiveness in particular was significantly negatively correlated with dogmatism, indicating that among Christians, the more dogmatic they were, the less interest they had in intellectual pursuits. This pattern was reversed among atheists, as overall openness to experience, and the facets of inquisitiveness, unconventionality, and creativity were positively associated with dogmatism. That is, atheists who considered themselves more intellectual, more non-traditional, and more creative even, were more dogmatically certain about the correctness of their views and presumably less tolerant of dissenting ones.

Open to experience does not always mean open-minded
The association among atheists between higher dogmatism and higher openness to experience, especially the inquisitiveness facet, is in a way rather surprising. As previously noted, people high in inquisitiveness are comfortable with complex concepts so would be expected to have the cognitive flexibility to steer away from black-and-white thinking usually associated with dogmatism. They also tend to express an interest in science, and one of the guiding principles of science is that one should be willing to question one’s preferred theories rather than cling to them rigidly. Nevertheless, even great scientists sometimes become overly attached to their pet theories and may defend them dogmatically. Furthermore, the unconventionality scale refers to being an unusual person with off-beat ideas but says nothing about the flexibility or rigidity of one’s beliefs. Perhaps it would be fair to say that high openness to experience indicates a preference for complex and unusual ideas, but this does not always mean that one will not be receptive to challenges to these ideas.

Intellectual arrogance versus intellectual humility
Another possibility is that there are different varieties of openness to experience that might be relevant to whether or not a person is dogmatic. Openness to experience comprises a broad array of traits, some of which combine features of openness with traits from other distinctive personality dimensions (Johnson, 1994). For example, openness combined with introversion defines the trait of introspectiveness, whereas openness combined with extraversion defines a preference for variety and originality. Dogmatism implies a lack of humility about the rightness of one’s views, an arrogant assumption that one cannot possibly wrong and that anyone who disagrees is either stupid or evil. There does not appear to be any research that has explored what a combination of high openness to experience with low humility might be, but it sounds like this combination of traits would describe intellectual arrogance. Perhaps openness to experience in atheists who are also dogmatic involves a blend of unconventionality and lack of humility that facilitates an unusual form of dogmatism.

Well, I can think of much more arrogant beliefs...

A limitation of the Gurney et al. study was that it did not address whether identity strength (how strongly a person identified as an atheist) and openness to experience were equally important as predictors of dogmatism or whether one was more crucial than the other. That is, does openness to experience still predict dogmatism in atheists when taking into account identity strength or does it become non-significant? Or conversely, does identity strength still predict dogmatism when taking openness to experience into account? This could be tested statistically with a larger sample of atheists. A more difficult question to answer is why some people have a stronger atheist identity than others. There was a positive correlation between identity strength and openness to experience. Do people identify more strongly as atheists because they are high in openness to experience or does having a strong identity increase openness to experience? And what is the relationship, if any between low humility and identity strength? Does adopting a strong identity lead to an arrogant dismissive attitude towards people who disagree (which I believe to be a problem with Atheism Plus)? Or is it the case that arrogant people are drawn to a polarizing identity? Perhaps it is a combination of both, where adopting such an identity reinforces pre-existing tendencies towards arrogance? Longitudinal research studies would be needed to answer these questions.

I want to make it clear that I have no problem with people having a strong atheist identity, or even people combining atheism with particular political views or an interest in social justice. What I am concerned about is when people hold their views in a dogmatic and arrogant manner. One Atheism Plus blogger claimed that atheism implies not just disbelief in gods but a view of reality in which highly specific political and economic beliefs are to be regarded as certain and inconvertible truths. Even in the hard sciences, theories are open to debate, so I find it incredible he would claim to have certain knowledge in highly complex and soft disciplines where experts disagree. I think it is definitely possible for people to have strong well-defined views about things and yet also realise that their own beliefs are ultimately provisional and subject to change according to new evidence. Finally I want to acknowledge that I am aware of many good examples of atheist bloggers[2] who do acknowledge that people who disagree with them are not necessarily stupid or evil and who do understand the meaning of being reasonable. 

[1] Well known blogger PZ Myers stated for example that critics of Atheism Plus should call themselves “asshole atheists.” He is also notorious for banning dissenting commenters from his blog, among other things
[2] For example, Triangulations, Atheist Revolution, and The A-Unicornist have all been non-dogmatic in my experience. 

Note on layout: Please accept my apologies for any inconsistencies in the appearance of the text. Blogger does strange and unpredictable things to text copied from Word. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Other posts about the psychology of (non-)belief

Image credits
Snarling dog image care of The Daily Telegraph
Poster created at
The creator of the A+ parody is currently unknown.
Atheism galaxy poster from Atheist Pictures.

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Gurney, D. J., McKeown, S., Churchyard, J., & Howlett, N. (2013). Believe it or not: Exploring the relationship between dogmatism and openness within non-religious samples Personality and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2013.07.471
Johnson, J. A. (1994). Clarification of Factor Five with the help of the AB5C Model. European Journal of Personality, 8(4), 311-334. doi: 10.1002/per.2410080408
McCrae, R., & Sutin, A. R. (2009). Openness to Experience. In R. H. H. Mark R. Leary (Ed.), Handbook of Individual Differences in Social Behavior (pp. 257-273). New York/London: The Guildford Press.
Saroglou, V. (2010). Religiousness as a Cultural Adaptation of Basic Traits: A Five-Factor Model Perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 108-125. doi: 10.1177/1088868309352322
Smith, C. L., Johnson, J. L., & Hathaway, W. (2009). Personality Contributions to Belief in Paranormal Phenomena. Individual Differences Research, 7(2), 85-96.