Why Intuition Makes People More Likely to Believe in God

The nature of faith is often a thorny topic for psychology and other sciences to grapple with, but a new study indicates a powerful link between how we think and what we believe. It all goes back to intuition.

Harvard researchers have found that people with a more intuitive thinking style tend to believe in God more strongly than those with a more reflective thinking style. For the purposes of this study, intuition is thought of as the tendency to rely on first instincts and to reach decisions quickly and then stick by them. Reflection, on the other hand, is a slower process that involves questioning initial instincts and looking at a wider range of alternatives. The researchers argue that these two thinking styles can deeply influence how people understand the nature of the universe.

Researcher Amitai Shenhav explains:

"We wanted to explain variations in belief in God in terms of more basic cognitive processes. Some say we believe in God because our intuitions about how and why things happen lead us to see a divine purpose behind ordinary events that don't have obvious human causes. This led us to ask whether the strength of an individual's beliefs is influenced by how much they trust their natural intuitions versus stopping to reflect on those first instincts."

The study enlisted 882 participants with an average age of 33 and 64% female composition. The participants first filled out an online survey about their belief in a higher power and were then given a cognitive test. There were three math questions, all of which had an obvious but incorrect intuitive answer. Here's a sample question

"A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?"

Most people's first instinct will be to say ten cents, but the correct answer is five cents (the bat costs $1.05). Those who get the right answer reveal a more reflective thinking style, while those who get it wrong are more likely to be intuitive thinkers. Those who gave the intuitive (and incorrect) answers to all three questions were 1.5 times more likely to say they were certain of God's existence than those who got all three questions correct.

The researchers stress that this isn't a question of intelligence. Those who got the questions right (and, by extension, are less likely to believe in the divine) aren't necessarily smarter than those who got it wrong. Instead, it's more that the way they think work makes it more likely for them to get these particular question right than their peers.

Researcher David Rand explains:

"Basic ways of thinking about problem solving in your everyday life are predictive of how much you believe in God. It's not that one way is better than the other. Intuitions are important and reflection is important, and you want some balance of the two. Where you are on that spectrum affects how you come out in terms of belief in God."

A subsequent study also suggests that it's actually possible to temporarily influence a person's level of faith. The researchers enlisted 373 participants and had them write a paragraph about something good that had happened to them. For one half of the group, they were asked to write about a time when intuitive thinking led to a good result, while the other was asked to remember a time that reflection had helped them make the right decision. When surveyed afterward, the first group was significantly more likely to say they were convinced of God's existence than their peers.

The larger meaning of all this is tricky to determine, and in all probability controversial. The researchers do argue that this is evidence for a causal link between intuition and belief in a higher power, although they concede that the opposite is possible — that it's actually an abiding belief in the divine that leads people to more intuitive thought processes. This also adds more support for the possibility that spiritual beliefs evolved in kind with intuitive thought processes — which is the kind of quick decision-making that would be very useful in evading ancient predators — but that's a whole other, deeply tricky issue that's best left for another time.

Read the original paper here. Via The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Image by Vinoth Chandar on Flickr.