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How to measure God: Innovations in the experimental investigation of religious cognition

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One hallmark of evangelical Christians is their claim for a personal relationship with God. Though psychology cannot adjudicate on whether any such relationship exists, it can explore whether the God schemas of religious believers function in cognitively similar ways to schemas for intimate others, such as mother. Three studies adapted the self-reference effect paradigm (Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977) to test whether trait-word material encoded in relation to God was as accessible or memorable as that encoded in relation to self or other targets. In Study 1, evangelical Christians were faster to make judgments about God than about self or mother whereas atheists were slower for God than for self or mother, F(4,72)=19.56, p<.01. Study 2 replicated this finding but additionally considered the schematic valence of the trait-word material; whereas atheists did not differe in speed for positive- and negative-schematic judgments about God (34 ms, p=.93), evangelicals took longer to take negative- than positive-schematic judgments about God (2226, ms, p<.01). Study 3 considered recall for trait-word material. Despite post-test questionnaire ratings showing that evangelical and non-evangelical Christian groups endorsed similar, more positive, beliefs about the character of God than did atheists, only the evangelical Christians demonstrated superior recall for God-referent material (matching that for self), F(2,69)=8.68, p<.01; non-evangelical Christian and atheist groups’ recall for God-referent material was equivalent to that for Superman. These findings suggest that evangelical Christians hold well-elaborated, efficient, and affect-laden—in short, intimate—schemas for God.

This talk is part of the Social Psychology Seminar Series (SPSS) series.

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