Does Anxiety Lead to Religious Extremism?

A series of studies by researchers at York University shows that it can. The researchers put volunteers in either neutral or anxiety-provoking situations and then asked them to rate the strength of their religious convictions, including whether they would die for their faith or support a war to defend it. When people were put in anxiety-producing situations (like working on a complex math problem), they became more extreme in their religious convictions. The reaction was strongest in people with “bold” personalities (eager and tenacious, with high self-esteem) who were already vulnerable to anxiety and didn’t feel empowered to achieve their daily goals.
We shouldn’t be too surprised. Past research has shown that anxiety and insecurity can turn people to religion—and that religious conviction can act as a “buffer” against anxiety. And earlier studies by the researchers at York have shown that strong religious beliefs are linked to low activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that becomes active when a person makes errors or experiences uncertainty. Psychologist Ian McGregor, who worked on those studies and the new one, notes in a write-up of the research that:

Taken together, the results of this research program suggest that bold but vulnerable people gravitate to idealistic and religious extremes for relief from anxiety.


Are You Looking at Me?

Think you’re good at determining when someone of the opposite sex is looking at you? It turns out how easy it is may depend more on the other person than you—specifically, how masculine or feminine the other person’s face looks.
A team of researchers led by Ben Jones of the Face Research Lab at the University of Aberdeen asked volunteers to look at images of faces that had been altered to look more or less masculine or feminine and then indicate as quickly as possible whether the face was looking at or away from them. The researchers found the exaggerated features resulted in faster response times: Women could more quickly determine whether a man was looking at her when his face was “hunky,” while men could tell the direction of a woman’s gaze faster when her features were feminine and “pretty.” In other words, we’re quicker to notice when a “high quality potential mate” is paying attention to us.
As Jones explains in a write-up of the study:

There’s likely to be quite a big advantage to detecting when a particularly good potential mate’s looking at you. If I’m in a bar and there’s a pretty woman looking at me—if I wasn’t married—I would want to catch her eye before someone else did.


What We’re Learning About Loneliness

Will hundreds of Facebook friends make you feel less lonely? Not likely, say researchers from The University of Arizona. It’s close family and friends that help us stave off feelings of detachment, their studies show.
The point is, relationships that don’t have a strong connection don’t help with loneliness—and lonely people tend to have fewer close connections. In fact, having close family and friends appears to be more important than romantic relationships when it comes to making us feel less lonely. But living away from close family and friends didn’t seem to make people more lonely, and relationships over the phone or email weren’t necessarily weaker than those in which the people got to see each other (though the strongest ones were those that were well-established in person).
There’s another interesting finding here: Personal perception matters most when it comes to feeling lonely. As Chris Segrin, head of the communication department at The University of Arizona, explains in a write-up of the studies:

Loneliness is the discrepancy between your achieved and desired level of social contact, and that has important implications. The portrait of a lonely person is very difficult to paint because what is really important is what is in your head.


What You Touch Can Influence What You Think

In a series of studies, a team of researchers has shown that our sense of touch may strongly influence our thoughts and interactions with other people—even when what we’re touching and what we’re doing seem unrelated. What’s more, we appear to be unaware that the things we touch—their weight, hardness, and texture—influence the decisions we make.
To test how touch might influence our impressions, the researchers asked volunteers to judge a job candidate by looking at a resume that was on either a light clipboard or a heavy clipboard. Those using a heaving clipboard thought the candidate was more qualified and more serious about the job—had “heavier” interest in it, we might say—than did those who used the light clipboard. People were also more likely to view an interaction between two people as more difficult and harsh if they first handled rough puzzle pieces rather than smooth ones. And the researchers found that people sitting in hard chairs were less flexible and willing to negotiate than those sitting in soft chairs, making much lower second offers on a car after the first had been rejected.
Why would our tactile sensations have these kinds of effects? As infants, we learn about the physical world by touching things—it’s the first of our senses to develop—and as we get older, it becomes “a scaffold for the development of conceptual knowledge,” the researchers say. In other words, we use our sense of touch to form judgments about more abstract things; we touch smooth puzzle pieces and then think a situation is running “smoothly.”
When people do this, Joshua Ackerman, a professor of marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management, explains in a write-up of the research:

They are taking the easiest route to obtaining information, by drawing on the ideas they already have developed.

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