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:: By Michael Knezovich

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Investigations ::

My God

When it comes to people’s political beliefs, religion works in mysterious ways

Human beings are notoriously egocentric. They routinely use their own beliefs to gauge other people’s, imagining that friends, coworkers—even strangers—must certainly think as they do.

But what about when it comes to God? Do people intuit God’s beliefs in the same way?

Yes, says social psychologist Nicholas Epley, a Graduate School of Business associate professor. In fact, he argues, people are “even more egocentric when reasoning about God’s beliefs than they are when reasoning about most other people’s beliefs.”

As a graduate student at Cornell, Epley, who teaches an organizational-management course in the MBA program and leads a PhD seminar in behavioral science, became intrigued by how individuals intuit one another’s thoughts. Much of his published work has focused on the organizational consequences of egocentrism: how, for example, negotiators might misread motivations across a bargaining table or how a colleague’s e-mail can be misinterpreted. “Moving from intuitions about other people’s thoughts to God’s thoughts was a small step,” he says, noting religious beliefs’ important role in individual decision-making. “I think we have tools to understand where such beliefs come from, so I thought I’d try to find out.”

He began his research on the connection be-tween egocentrism and God in 2003 while teaching at Harvard, continuing it when he came to Chicago two years later. At both universities he has asked subjects what they believe—and what they think God believes—about sweeping issues like the death penalty, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Epley has found a consistently strong correlation between subjects’ own beliefs and those they attribute to God. Those who support the death penalty believe God also supports it. Those who oppose the death penalty believe God agrees with them.

That’s hardly a surprise; after all, if people de-rive their beliefs from their convictions about God’s, one would expect such responses. More striking: when subjects’ beliefs were manipulated in the laboratory, their views of God’s convictions changed accordingly. In other words, when their beliefs changed, so did their estimations of God’s. The manipulations were simple. Some survey participants were asked to express their opinions by filling in a half-inch-square box indicating, for example, their support for abortion rights. Those opposed, meanwhile, were told to turn the page. Other participants were asked to indicate opposition by shading the box, while supporters turned the page.

After this exercise, subjects rated their beliefs on a scale from minus-five (strongly opposed) to plus-five (strongly in favor). Zero was neutral. Then they scored God’s beliefs on the same scale. “What we find,” Epley says, “is that active endorsers”—those instructed to shade the box—“consistently support the position much more strongly than those who have passively supported it” by turning the page. “God’s beliefs show that exact same pattern: if we strengthen your beliefs by active support, God’s beliefs become more extreme in your estimation. When we weaken them by asking for passive support, God’s beliefs become weaker, closer to the midpoint of the scale.”

By happenstance, nearly all of Epley’s subjects were Christians or Jews, a factor he did not try to control. Yet, he said, the few survey respondents from other religions did not stand out as different.

Epley also asked subjects to rate the views of celebrities—President Bush, Barry Bonds, Bill Gates, Katie Couric—as well as “generalized agents” like the average American or the average Chicago student. The pattern didn’t hold; the correlation of beliefs between the self and God was markedly higher than for any other category. (Although for reasons yet unknown, Epley says, “Katie Couric sometimes comes close to God in terms of egocentrism.”)

Epley’s data suggest relative ambiguity could explain individuals’ strong tendency to equate their opinions with God’s. The less people know for certain, the more they rely on their own beliefs. President Bush’s stands on abortion and the death penalty are well known, so there’s no need to fill in the blanks with one’s own beliefs. But with God, Epley notes, “You can find evidence for lots of different kinds of beliefs in religious texts, and so there’s inherent ambiguity there.”

Following that line of thinking, Epley added a wrinkle to some of his experiments. Before subjects answered questions, they were asked to write down names—any they could recall—from the Bible. That simple act introduced external information, reducing the subjects’ tendency to rely solely on their pre-existing beliefs, and likewise reducing the correlation between their views and their estimates of God’s beliefs.

Another explanation for the egocentrism, Epley hypothesizes, could be motivational and need-based. He explains: “If you feel out of step with the average American, Katie Couric, or George Bush, that’s OK. You don’t feel so uncomfortable. If you’re out of step with God, even if you’re not a religious person, that may be more of a problem.”

Plenty of work remains on the project, but Epley is already looking ahead to his next one: individuals’ tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects. “One of the things that people do most commonly with computers is yell at them. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t think, at least at some level, that there was something in there to hear you.”

This new topic, he says, is a natural step from his current work. “When you infer intentional human-like mental states in nonhuman agents like God, egocentrism is in a way a kind of anthropomorphism.”