Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Can God make people more aggressive?

Reading violent scripture that's been taken out of context can increase people's aggressiveness, especially when God is said to sanction violence, a new study suggests.

Brad Bushman and colleagues presented hundreds of students with an obscure, violent passage from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. It tells the story of an Israelite man plotting revenge on a murderous mob from Gibeah, eventually leading to the deaths of thousands of soldiers on both sides.

Crucially, half the students read a version of the passage that included the Israelite man and his associates praying 'before the LORD', together with the sentence: 'The LORD commanded Israel to take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the LORD'. The remaining students read the exact same story but excluding these two sentences that mentioned God.

Next, the students donned headphones and played a reaction time game with a hidden 'partner'. They were told the loser of each round would be blasted with noise over the headphones, and that they had to choose prior to each round how much noise they wanted their 'partner' to be blasted with (on a scale of 0-10 from no noise up to 105 db). This was the measure of aggression.

Overall, the most aggression was shown by those students who read the bible passage that included God sanctioning violence, and furthermore, among that group, it was those who said they believed in God and the Bible who were most aggressive.

“Even among our participants who were not religiously devout, exposure to God-sanctioned violence increased subsequent aggression” the researchers said. “To the extent that religious extremists engage in prolonged, selective reading of the scriptures, focusing on violent retribution toward unbelievers instead of the overall message of acceptance and understanding, one might expect to see increased brutality”.

Evans, G.W. & Wener, R.E. (2007). When God sanctions killing. Effects of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychological Science, 18, 204-207.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Well surely dont blame God.... Ive read those passages also and I didnt like, go beat on my wife or anything. Did you try the study allowing them to read a violent passage from Shakespere or something else?

Anonymous said...

But Shakespeare doesn't pretend to be the omnipotent creator of the universe who demands faith and worship, giving human beings the ultimate excuse to abrogate all responsibility for their own atrocious behaviour.

Unknown said...

"Did you try the study allowing them to read a violent passage from Shakespere or something else?"

they omitted references to god, to turn the same (equally violent) religious passage into a non-religiously motivated one, and it was the difference between the two they were testing.

Micah Schlosser said...

“The Bible tells us to be like God, and then on page after page it describes God as a mass murderer. This may be the single most important key to the political behavior of Western Civilization,” so sayeth Robert Anton Wilson.

I think the little seeds planted in people's minds (that it is ok to be violent to people we or God deem bad) definitely effect our aggressiveness.

However, I do think (just to see if we're idolizing people in power) it would interesting to try a similar experiment in reference to someone like Bush, or Clinton, or Oprah, or Martin Luther King Jr.
I don't think the problem is God (though I'm a "devout" atheist myself): I think the problem lies in the individual's perception of whatever deity or entity they choose to idolize and/or worship.

Handle our freedom of choice wisely, ourselves, maybe?

Anonymous said...

Thanks narcicondriac... i agree with you. when i read the article i though: that's right, it is relevant to the problem of terrorism, but leaving it like that is a bit biased, there´s something missing to the puzzle. Terrorists are religious fundamentalists that missinterpret spiritual writings and turn them into holly war manifestos. But can we consider the countries they target as innocent victims? the States, for example, trained
EVERY SINGLE ONE of the dictators that turned south america into a mess of corruption, drug traffic and violations of human rights and plotted to kill many a popularly elected president during the last century. Spain (from which i am a national) and the UK have offered help to an invasion that most of the public opinion deemed illegal and unreasonable (not to mention the fact that weapon industry is one of the most profitable of our businesses; do we really have much to complain about? has anyone heard about something called Karma?)
Next, they could expose participants to passages of Bush reading out loud all the atrocities his country's army and bussinessmen have done all arround the world in the last century while celebrating the profit they have made out of bullying everyone arround, then meassure how cruel they can be to each other and give a barrel of oil to the winner, how about that?

The Judge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Judge said...

@ anon1:
"Well surely dont blame God"
Of course not - that would be like blaming father christmas or the tooth fairy.

@ anon2:
"Terrorists are religious fundamentalists that missinterpret spiritual writings..."
Seems to me that literal interpretation of scriptures cannot lead anywhere else BUT to violence - as demonstrated by the experiment.
The more aggressive participants received the literal passages from the buybull.

To paraphrase Sam Harris, there are no religious moderates - only failed extremists.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that "literal" interpretation doesn't equate to a "correct" one... "missinterpreting" means missing the point or not having an accurate overall understanding of something and probably the passage they used for this study is not the most representative nor the more relevant in order to understand the bible -i´m not a christian but i grew up amongst them and I konw a bit about that-. I think that Sam Harris based his remark largely in real examples of religious people desregarding those that didn´t fit his preconception, i personally know many religious people who are very respectfull of other people´s views and don´t belong to any extremist group or consider those who don´t think like them as ignorants -nowhere near being extremists-, i think generalizations are pretty much inaccurate simplifications, it is very easy to generate prejudices about people. I don´t personally like that attitude.

The Judge said...

On interpretations:
Well this is precisely why we have so many different religions, denominations, sects and cults - it's all down to interpretation and the 'my religion's the "correct" one' (what ever THAT is) mentality. They are ALL right: don’t you see?!

Sarcasm aside, the fact remains that such abominable travesties as homicide and slavery ARE justified in e.g. the buybull - that alone makes it a candidate for the most reprehensible work of fiction in human history.
A plea to interpretation is a plea to cherry pick the “nice” parts and ignore the rest.

On prejudices:
I too know some religious people who are unassuming and "respectful" of others' beliefs as well, but the fact remains that these people still base their beliefs on a collection of books which (amongst other things) advocate murder of e.g. gays and naughty children.
Now either these people are blind to parts of their version of a “holy” book and therefore less than e.g. christian or they are placing themselves above their particular version of their own “god” by elevating themselves the position of editor of a “divine” text. They can’t have it both ways.

All religious people exist in a culturally-sanctioned dream world where their claims about reality are based on ancient fairytales with no historical evidence for any of the fantastic claims made therein.

In this study, by proving that ‘divine-sanctioned’ commands to violence are a more powerful motivational force than ‘non-divine-sanctioned’ commands to violence, the authors add to the frightening truth that with all the abhorrent commands in the buybull being discussed and disputed by believers, if “god” says something, then people are more likely to do it! Frankly for a rational free-thinker who has read the buybull, and the absolutely horrible things contained therein, this is a very scary state of affairs.

Moreover it is a lamentable one given our advancement in science over the centuries which has increasingly forced traditional notions of “god” to retreat ever further into the distance as the last refuge of believers to claim ontology for as yet unexplained natural phenomena. The “god of the gaps” continues to shrink (as it should) and I personally find it scary that people can be motivated to violence by nothing more than a culturally-sanctioned fictitious notion of a magical, war-mongering sky-daddy.

This study is another nail in the coffin for religion. The sooner it’s done away with the better.

Anonymous said...

You focussed on the wrong part of the Bible ! We are now to focuss on Jesus Christ in the New Testament where he is said to have been sent by God to die (take our punishment) for our sins and rose again on the 3rd day(by the way, there is ample evidence to support this claim !). Jesus teach us that the most important Commandment is " Love God with All your heart " and the 2nd most important Commandment is " Love All your neighbours " . He says if someone slap you on the right cheek, give him your left cheek ( not slap him back !), and if someone steal your coat, give him your shirt ! If we can truly focuss on Jesus and truly walk his way, there will be no violence in this world. Unfortunately the reverse is happening, but a Revival is starting to take place !!!

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