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Childhood beliefs about soul may stick with us despite what we say

Nov. 3, 2014
Courtesy of Rutgers University
and World Science staff

What we be­lieved as chil­dren about the soul and the af­ter­life shapes our views as adults – re­gard­less of what we say we be­lieve, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

Pub­lished in the lat­est is­sue of the Brit­ish Jour­nal of So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy, it looked at the dif­fer­ence be­tween “ex­plic­it,” or stat­ed, be­liefs, and “im­plic­it” ones—in­grained at­ti­tudes we might not ad­mit to.

“My start­ing point was, as­sum­ing that peo­ple have these au­to­mat­ic – that is, im­plic­it or in­grained – be­liefs about the soul and af­ter­life, how can we meas­ure those im­plic­it be­liefs?” said Steph­a­nie An­glin, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy in Rut­gers Uni­vers­ity in New Jer­sey.

An­glin asked 348 un­der­grad­u­ate psy­chol­o­gy stu­dents about their be­liefs con­cern­ing the soul and af­ter­life when they were 10 years old, and now. Their an­swers gave her the stu­dents’ ex­plic­it be­liefs – that is, what the stu­dents said they be­lieved now, and what they re­mem­bered be­liev­ing back then.

She found that her sub­jects’ “im­plic­it” be­liefs about the soul and the af­ter­life were close to what they re­mem­bered from child­hood, but of­ten very un­like what they said they be­lieved now.

An­glin knew of an ex­pe­ri­ment re­ported Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy in 2009 in which re­search­ers asked peo­ple to sign a con­tract sell­ing their souls to the ex­pe­ri­menter for $2. “Al­most no­body signed, even though the re­search­ers told them it was­n’t ac­tu­ally a con­tract and would be shred­ded right away,” she said.

Her own study found no dif­fer­ence in im­plic­it be­lief re­gard­less of re­li­gious af­filia­t­ion or lack of it.

She used a meth­od called the Im­plic­it As­socia­t­ion Test, used in the past for stud­ies of ra­cial at­ti­tudes, to gauge sub­jects’ im­plic­it be­liefs about the soul and af­ter­life. In the test, a par­ti­ci­pant sees two con­cept words paired on the top of a com­put­er screen – in this case, “soul” paired ei­ther with “real” or “fake” to gauge be­liefs about the soul; “soul” paired ei­ther with “eter­nal” or “death” to ad­dress be­liefs about the af­ter­life. A se­ries of words is then flashed on the screen, and the sub­ject must in­di­cate by press­ing a key wheth­er each word fits with the two words on top.

“For ex­am­ple, if you had ‘soul’ and ‘fake’ on your screen, words like ‘false’ or ‘ar­ti­fi­cial’ would fit in­to that cat­e­go­ry, but words like ‘ex­ist­ing’ or ‘true’ would not,” An­glin said.

An­glin said there are lim­ita­t­ions to her re­search, but that these pro­vide av­enues for fu­ture in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion. For in­stance, she had to rely on her sub­jects’ mem­o­ries of what they be­lieved years ago. It would be “really use­ful,” she said, to “study a group of peo­ple over time, from child­hood through adult­hood, and ex­am­ine their be­liefs” as they de­vel­op.


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What we believed as children about the soul and the afterlife shapes what we believe as adults – regardless of what we say we believe, according to a new study. Published in the latest issue of the British Journal of Social Psychology, it looked at the difference between “explicit,” or stated, beliefs, and “implicit” beliefs, or ingrained attitudes we might not admit to. “My starting point was, assuming that people have these automatic – that is, implicit or ingrained – beliefs about the soul and afterlife, how can we measure those implicit beliefs?” said Stephanie Anglin, a doctoral student in psychology in Rutgers University in New Jersey. Anglin asked 348 undergraduate psychology students about their beliefs concerning the soul and afterlife when they were 10 years old, and now. Their answers gave her the students’ explicit beliefs – that is, what the students said they believed now, and what they remembered believing back then. Anglin found that her subjects’ “implicit” beliefs about the soul and the afterlife were close to what they remembered from childhood, but often very unlike what they said they believed now. Anglin knew of an experiment reported Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2009 in which researchers asked people to sign a contract selling their souls to the experimenter for $2. “Almost nobody signed, even though the researchers told them it wasn’t actually a contract and would be shredded right away,” she said. Her own study found no difference in implicit belief regardless of religious affiliation or lack of it. She used a method called the Implicit Association Test, used in the past for studies of racial attitudes, to gauge subjects’ implicit beliefs about the soul and afterlife. In the test, a participant sees two concept words paired on the top of a computer screen – in this case, “soul” paired either with “real” or “fake” to gauge beliefs about the soul; “soul” paired either with “eternal” or “death” to address beliefs about the afterlife. A series of words is then flashed on the screen, and the subject must indicate by pressing a key whether each word fits with the two words on top. “For example, if you had ‘soul’ and ‘fake’ on your screen, words like ‘false’ or ‘artificial’ would fit into that category, but words like ‘existing’ or ‘true’ would not,” Anglin said. Anglin said there are limitations to her research, but that these provide avenues for future investigation. For instance, she had to rely on her subjects’ memories of what they believed years ago. It would be “really useful,” she said, to “study a group of people over time, from childhood through adulthood, and examine their beliefs” as they develop.