September 18, 2014

Mona LisaThe Soul of Original Art
A team of scholars led by George Newman of Yale University argues that “art is seen as a physical extension of the self, and imbued with the person’s soul/essence.” That being the case, the researchers write in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science, “the original possesses an essence that cannot be duplicated.” This dynamic, they add, does not apply to more mundane object such as tools. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Chimpanzee Violence
A major new study of warfare in chimpanzees finds that lethal aggression can be evolutionarily beneficial in that species, rewarding the winners with food, mates, and the opportunity to pass along their genes. The findings run contrary to recent claims that chimps fight only if they are stressed by the impact of nearby human activity—and could help explain the origins of human conflict as well. (Michael Balter, Science)

Thanks for Your Assistance
Thanking a new acquaintance for their help could lay the foundation for an ongoing social relationship with that person, a study has found. Research by the University of New South Wales, published in the journal Emotion, found that expressing gratitude often facilitates the start of new friendships among people who did not know each other previously. Lisa Williams, a psychologist at the institution, said the findings show that saying thank you “provides a valuable signal that you are someone with whom a high-quality relationship could be formed.” (The British Psychological Society)

Diversity of Human Faces
The shape and configuration of a human face are much more variable, compared with other body parts, the study found. What’s more, genes that have been linked to face structure vary more than DNA in other regions of the body. This suggests that the forces of evolution have selected for facial diversity, perhaps to make individuals more recognizable to other people, the researchers say. “An individual may actually benefit from having a unique face,” says lead investigator Michael Sheehan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. (Virginia Hughes, National Geographic)

Maurice Schweitzer and Emma Levine

What if deception, in the right circumstances, doesn’t simply tread lightly on sensitivities, but actually breeds trust and promotes other forms of good? Many will judge those kinds of deceptions to be ethical, moral, and even helpful, according to Maurice Schweitzer, a Wharton professor of operations and information management, and co-author Emma E. Levine, a Wharton doctoral student. In their recent research paper, “Are Liars Ethical?: On the Tension between Benevolence and Honesty,” they look at “deception that can sometimes be helpful to other people.” (Knowledge@Wharton)

September 17, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationIs It Smarter to Be Skeptical or Trust Other People?
David DeSteno, a Northeastern University psychologist who studies the nature of trust, suggested the latter in response to a question during a recent Reddit AMA: “Our default is to trust people, but it’s a weak default. The reason why is that if you have no info to go on—if it’s really a 50/50 chance to figure out whether someone is trustworthy—then the gains/losses tend to be asymmetric. If a partner was going to be untrustworthy and you decided to trust him/her, you’d lose out in that instance. But, if he/she were going to be trustworthy and you decided not to trust him/her, you’re potentially losing a relationship that would have provided many, many benefits over time. So, the aggregated gains tend to outweigh the one-time loss.” (Melissa Dahl, Science of Us, New York Magazine)

Acts of Emptying Can Make Us Less Likely to Donate to Charity or Help Others
In a series of experiments, people who emptied a receptacle—anything from a jar to a coat pocket—were subsequently more likely to eat snack foods, and less likely to provide help to others. According to a research team led by Liat Levontin of the Israel Institute of Technology, the results provide evidence of our largely unconscious but “deep concern for not having sufficient resources.” It seems this form of anxiety is strong enough to directly influence our behavior, even when triggered indirectly. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

When Frequent Smiling Backfires
Daniel Yudkin: The researchers found that the more people smiled, the happier they reported being. But only some people. Surprisingly, for a section of the population, smiling actually reduced well-being. The more these people smiled, the less happy they were. This is like finding that there are some diners who, after consuming a four-course meal, feel less full! Who are these people for whom extra smiling fails to generate corresponding increases in joy? (Scientific American)

State of Global Well-Being
Panama may be the happiest country in the world, racking up the highest score in the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index for 2013. In contrast, conflict-afflicted countries such as Syria and Afghanistan showed the lowest scores in this survey of 135 countries. The United States came in at number 14 in the poll. The Global Well-Being Index aims to gauge people’s perceptions of their well-being, by looking at financial status as well as four other factors that contribute to well-being: social well-being, which means having supportive relationships and love in life; community well-being, which is about liking one’s place of residence; having purpose and goals; and physical health. (Bahar Gholipour, Live Science)

Is Atheist Awe A Religious Experience?
Adam Frank: “Where were you?” my beloved asked as I walked through the door caked in mud and sweat. “I was communing with my gods,” I responded—and proceeded to tell her about the exquisite hike I’d had that morning in New York’s Letchworth State Park (the Grand Canyon of the East). Earlier in the day, looking down the rim of a canyon cut over thousands of years by the Genesee River, I felt a profound sense of awe that cut me to the quick. But in that sense of awe, was I communing with anything extending beyond just a particular state of my neurons? (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

September 16, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationMoral Disgust Can Make Us Lose Our Appetite
The study, led by University of Toronto Scarborough and Rotman School of Management Assistant Professor Cindy Chan, revealed that people are less likely to consume beverages if they are exposed to moral violations. “The emotion we feel from experiencing a moral violation can profoundly affect our behavior,” said Chan. “It causes us to consume less and highlights a psychological truth that moral violations can, in a manner of speaking, leave a bad taste in our mouths.” (Don Campbell, U of T News)

The Brains of Altruistic Kidney Donors
As if giving a perfectly good kidney to a total stranger wasn’t enough of a distinction, it turns out that extreme altruists have bigger brains and are better than the rest of us at reading signs of distress in facial expressions. That’s what neuroscientists at Georgetown University found when they rounded up 39 kidney donors and scanned their brains, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times)

More on Anti-Atheist Prejudice
Confirming and expanding upon previous research, a newly published paper reports that, in the minds of many, atheists are deeply threatening. Specifically, they are seen as posing a danger to the value systems that unite us. The fact that their belief systems defy the national consensus, along with “negative cultural stereotypes of atheists as cynical,” leads to the assumption that “atheists are unlikely to follow important group-based value norms” such as reciprocity and trust, according to a research team led by Skidmore College psychologist Corey Cook. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Attributing Human Mental States to Organizations
The similar activation patterns of brain regions associated with understanding human mental states while reading statements about individuals and groups suggested people perceive agency in organizations, said Josh Knobe, Yale professor of cognitive science and study co-author. “The key question is how people think about these entities like corporations, teams, bands, churches and so forth,” Knobe said. Knobe said the research was based in the question of how individuals talk and think about groups in everyday conversation. He added that humans often speak of large entities as if they were individual actors, and he and the research team were interested in the cognitive processes behind this behavior. (Finnegan Schick, Yale Daily News)

Smelling Ideology
Researchers led by Brown University political scientist Rose McDermott found that, to a small but significant degree, people prefer the body odor of those who vote as they do. Previous studies showed long-term mates are more similar when it comes to politics than anything else besides religion. Researchers set out to determine whether this is a purely socially driven phenomenon, or whether biology plays a role. (Gail Sullivan, The Washington Post)

Richard Smith

Research misconduct degrades trust in science and causes real-world harm. As such, it should be a crime akin to fraud, argues Richard Smith. (Rachel Nuwer, New Scientist)

September 15, 2014

september-october-2014-cover-largeHow Can We Achieve Self-Control?
David DeSteno: Any strategy based solely on forcing adherence to a set of virtues through a bunch of cool-headed, cognitive strategies and a list of “thou shalt nots” is a fragile one. That’s not to say it won’t work at times, but it’s based on cognitive resources that can and do fail often. Of course, relying blindly on emotions would be just as foolish, as they, too, can certainly lead one astray. Rather, the answer is to cultivate the right emotions, the prosocial ones, in daily life. These emotions—gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up, without requiring cognitive effort on our part, to shape decisions that favor the long-term. (Pacific Standard)

Love of Football
Steven Almond looked closely at the culture of football and his own 40-year love affair with the game in his new book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. He says that football allows men to talk to each other. “We are looking at a culture in which people feel dislocated from family, religion or coming from a particular town,” he said. “Football is a very powerful aggregator of passion and devotion. It’s tribal. (Eric Niiler, Discovery News)

Robot’s Ethical Trap
As a human proxy moved toward the hole, the robot rushed in to push it out of the path of danger. But when the team added a second human proxy rolling toward the hole at the same time, the robot was forced to choose. Sometimes, it managed to save one human while letting the other perish; a few times it even managed to save both. But in 14 out of 33 trials, the robot wasted so much time fretting over its decision that both humans fell into the hole. (Aviva Rutkin, New Scientist)

Meet D.A.V.I.D.
D.A.V.I.D. may be cute, and robotic yoga may be goofy, but the intentions of Southern Evangelical Seminary and Kevin Staley, an associate professor of theology and the robot’s handler, could not be more serious. Through those 23 inches of silicon and plastic, they hope to tackle questions about what it means to be human; about how we should interact with the non-human entities in our lives; and about what a uniquely Christian response might be to a world in which humans start to seem more like computers, and computers start to seem more and more like human beings. (Michael Schulson, Religion Dispatches)

Update on the First Clinical Trial Testing Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells on Humans
A Japanese woman in her 70s is the world’s first recipient of cells derived from induced pluripotent stem cells, a technology that has created great expectations since it could offer the same advantages as embryo-derived cells but without some of the controversial aspects and safety concerns. (David Cyranoski, Nature)

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Expert Opinion

From Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist and researcher who examines the relationship between religion and society:

In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade (because their Religion 1 poll in 1991 asked different questions in far fewer countries, it is not very longitudinally useful).

% Don’t believe in God % Theists overall % No doubt God exists
1998           2008 1998          2008 1998           2008
Great Britain 9.6              17.7 46.2           36 22.5            16.8
Austria 6.8              9.3 51.3           40.8 32.4            20.8
Netherlands 17.2            19.8 44.2           36.7 26.4            21.1
Australia 10.2            15.6 52.2           43.5 28.6            25.1
Norway 11.7            17.7 42.5           37 18.4            15
Ireland 2.4              4 77.3           67.5 49.8            45.1
New Zealand 7.9              12.5 52.9           46.4 30.9            28.2
Spain 8.6              9.7 64.7           59.5 45.8            39.2
Italy 4.1              5.3 73.5           69.5 48               42.9
Sweden 16.8            19.5 25.8           24.9 12.3            10.3
France 19.1            21.9 38.8           37.3 20.1            17.5
Denmark 14.7            18.4 34              33.4 13.6            13.4
United States 3.2              2.8 77.5           78.2 62.8            61.3
Switzerland 4.3              8.5 44.5           45.1 28.3            28.8
Germany west 12.1            10.5 41.3           48.1 23.4            27.2
Germany east 54               53 15.7           16.5 9.4              8
Japan 10.6            8.7 13.2           16.4 4                 4.4
Northern Ireland 3.7              6.8 74.4           67.4 50               45.2
Portugal 1.9              4 84.8           72.9 60               54.4
Czech Republic 20.3            37.3 30.4           23.9 17.1            23.9
Hungary 12.8            15.3 51.6           42.4 31.1            23.2
Latvia 9.2              18.3 38.9           36.9 22.9            21.7
Poland 2.4              3.3 81             76.4 70.5            62.9
Russia 19.7            6.1 40.2           58.2 23.8            33.9
Slovakia 11.1            10.4 56.7           59.8 40.8            41.6
Slovenia 14.2            13.6 39.4           40.7 22.9            24.2
Chile 1.5              1.7 91.4           90.5 81.4            82.3
Cyprus 1.6              1.9 84.8           70.2 65               59
Philippines 0.7              0.8 82.3           92.5 79               82.7

(Note: Bold lines indicate an increase in atheism. First World countries are ordered starting with largest decrease in overall theists and progressing downward.)

A complaint I have about the new ISSP survey is that it failed to requery on opinion on the Bible in a large number of countries, including the United States (!), leaving us unable to reaffirm the Gallup record of a strong long-term decline in American biblical literalism. Nor did it repeat the question on regular attendance at religious services, another serious loss of longitudinal sampling that will hopefully be corrected in 2018.

Because there are only two samples, at each end of the 10 years, the trends for a given country must be taken with a dose of demographic salt, especially when the difference is not statistically significant. Even what looks like a major shift in a particular nation may be a statistical fluke. If there were no general overall pattern apparent, there would be little change to report.
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Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

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