I’m not talking about whether you see the world as a good place full of meaning and purpose. I’m talking about the details of your perception – what do you notice and what do you miss? Researchers in psychology have argued for quite a while that culture can impact what you see in the world. For example, check out the figure below. Which line is longer?
Did you say the top one? Or were you trying to be sneaky and choose the bottom one? Turns out, they’re the same size. But the really interesting part of this illusion is that Europeans and Americans are more susceptible to it than people from other cultures. Think about how strange that is. There are various arguments about why this might be the case, but I’m not going to get into those here. The important point is that culture can influence how we see the world.
So if we really want to know why people perceive the lines differently, then we should, in part, be looking at cultural groups (and probably looking at a more local level than nationality). More recent research has argued that religion might be one of the important cultural influences on how we see the world.
The primary researchers working on this problem are cognitive psychologists from the Netherlands: Bernhard Hommel and Lorenza Colzato. In a series of papers, they have argued that different religious practices and communities can lead to strong differences in thought and perception.
This comes out the most clearly in their study comparing perception across religious and non-religious groups in the Netherlands, Italy, and Israel. For this study, they didn’t use the Muller-Lyer illusion, but instead used a test of how attuned people are to specific details of a picture. It’s like a test of whether you’re more likely to see the forest or the trees.
Participants are presented with a large rectangle or square made up of smaller rectangles or squares. This means you could have four different combinations: a big rectangle made of little squares, a big square made of little rectangles, a big square made of little squares, and a big rectangle made of little squares. I know, that’s a little confusing. But remember – it’s a test of whether you see details or the larger picture. One of these four options appears on the screen, along with a cue to describe either the small shapes or the larger shape. For example, up comes a big rectangle made of little squares and you’re asked: what shape are the little ones?
It sounds like a ridiculously easy test, and it is. But if you analyze how long it takes people to respond, you get some interesting patterns. In the Netherlands, atheists responded much faster to the larger shapes than the smaller shapes. Dutch Calvinists, on the other hand, showed a preference for the smaller shapes. And among the Calvinists, the conservative Calvinists showed the strongest preference for detail.
That’s truly weird, cause this isn’t a conscious choice – people aren’t filtering their answers based on their ideas of who they are as religious or secular. They’re just answering questions on this really easy test. “Rectangle. Rectangle. Square.” And the pattern that emerges shows a dramatic difference in whether people are attuned to the details of the picture or the global, holistic picture. But it gets even weirder.
The pattern could be taken to argue that religion, specifically religious practices, train participants to pay close attention to detail. If that’s the case, then religious people in other countries would show the same preference for detail. Or the pattern may be explained, as Colzato and Hommel argue, since Calvinism specifically emphasizes individual responsibility and the Netherlands encourages a strict separation of private religious practices from public life. So, is it religious practice or cultural setting that cause this difference in perception?
Colzato and Hommel’s research team addressed these questions by repeating the same experiment among Catholics in Italy and Orthodox Jews in Israel. They argue that these religious cultures have similarly strict rules as Calvinism, but differ in their emphasis on social solidarity over personal responsibility.
And it turns out that in both Italy and Israel the trend flips. Catholics and Orthodox Jews show a much higher preference for the larger, global, patterns than their secular counterparts. So in the Netherlands, the religious folks showed an increased attention to detail, while in Italy and Israel, the religious participants paid more attention to the whole picture.
Of course, Calvinism, Catholicism, and Orthodox Judaism are different in many ways. And as long as we’re thinking about confounds, the countries are pretty radically different too. But Colzato and Hommel argue that the important difference is between an emphasis on individual responsibility in Calvinism and social solidarity in Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism.
This is part of their larger argument that an emphasis on individual responsibility or social solidarity will create nonconscious control parameters (a fancy phrase for the internalized rules telling us how to act in the world). Religions provide a strong source for these internalized rules. And as they guide our behavior in particular ways, the rules become reinforced. Their findings are only correlational, so we can’t directly talking about religion causing this difference in perception. But Colzato and Hommel argue that these implicit guidelines, given by religious communities, don’t just change how nice we are to strangers – they shape such basic things as how we see the world. Given their evidence, they just might be right.