Religious fundamentalism could be associated with increased sensitivity to mistakes

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Scientists are beginning to study the relationship between religious fundamentalism and cognitive processes. A new preliminary study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that religious fundamentalism is associated with more intense processing of error stimuli.

“My research interests focus on the motivational processes that underlie the formation and use of social knowledge. Specifically, I study why people become closed-minded and dogmatic, ”said Malgorzata Kossowska, professor at the Institute of Psychology at Jagiellonian University and corresponding author of the study.

“Closed-mindedness and dogmatism have important behavioral consequences such as prejudice, intolerance, injustice and inequality. Religious fundamentalism is a very good example of closed dogmatic beliefs. In fact, in Poland, where I do my research, almost everyone is religious, and today most are religious fundamentalists. Thus, understanding closed religious beliefs allowed me to better understand social processes in my country.

“In this particular article, we have focused on general sensitivity to error-related events as an important mechanism through which fundamentalism facilitates self-control,” Kossowska told PsyPost. “We have observed this mechanism in brain activity. I believe that this approach allows the integration of several levels of analysis and therefore refines and constrains psychological theories.

The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to examine the brain activity of 34 participants while they performed a Stroop task. During the task, participants identified the color of various words related to error and uncertainty flashed on a screen.

The researchers were particularly interested in the N400 response, a pattern of electrical brain activity associated with processing unexpected or inappropriate information.

Kossowska and colleagues observed significantly greater error-related brain activity in fundamentalist participants who were intolerant of uncertainty, but not in participants who were tolerant of uncertainty. In other words, for those intolerant of uncertainty, religious fundamentalism is associated with an increased N400 response on words related to the error.

“Our results are consistent with the claim that religion acts as a sense system that provides order and control, protecting people from anxiety and the subjective pain of error in the face of uncertainty,” Kossowska explained.

“Specifically, we have found that increased sensitivity to words related to errors can be seen as a defensive mechanism for religious fundamentalists. Detecting errors can help align one’s behavior with fundamentalist rules and norms. “

However, the study has significant limitations and more research is needed.

“There are a lot of major caveats. The study shows a correlation between religious fundamentalism and response-related brain activity; However, the causal direction of this relationship is unclear, ”Kossowska said.

“More research is needed to determine whether a fundamentalist mindset causes over-monitoring of performance or, conversely, over-behavioral monitoring leads to religious fundamentalism. In addition, fundamentalism was studied on a fairly homogeneous sample of young Polish Catholics. Thus, studying this effect across religions and cultures will likely yield valuable information. “

“Second, although small, low-powered studies are endemic in neuroscience, they are also problematic,” Kossowska added. “It has recently been recognized that a small sample size of studies, small effects or both, lead to low statistical power which negatively affects the likelihood that a nominally statistically significant result reflects really a real effect. Therefore, the results should be treated with some caution and replications of the results would be of great value. “

The study, “Religious Fundamentalism Modulates Neural Responses to Error Words: The Role of Motivation Towards Closure”, was authored by MaÅ‚gorzata Kossowska, Paulina Szwed, Miroslaw Wyczesany, Gabriela Czarnek and Eligiusz Wronka.


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