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Cathedrals, civic buildings and your tolerance for ambiguity

Wednesday, July 17, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

ambiguity 2013You probably do not think buildings have anything to do with your ambiguity tolerance. Not so fast though. We are here to connect dots of many types, even when it sounds ridiculous. Researchers found that the mere act of standing in a parking lot next to either civic buildings or a cathedral made a difference in tolerance for ambiguity. What might that mean for jurors in parking lots between courthouses and churches? And what if you wore a tie depicting the Supreme Court Building or perhaps a pin in the shape of a cathedral? The mind boggles.

So let’s take a look at what these researchers did. They first talk about how reminders of religion are all around us. Church towers, cross necklaces, athletes thanking God for helping them score, and so on. They also describe research demonstrating the relationship between religious beliefs and intolerance of ambiguity (aka a higher need for order, structure and predictability). Higher levels of religious belief correlate to intolerance for ambiguity. They describe research that may bring a smirk to your face where–when research participants were shown a picture of a library, they lowered the volume of their voices. So the researchers wondered what would happen if they tested ambiguity intolerance while invoking Christian concepts. They tested using samples from the United States, Germany and Austria (all predominantly Christian countries with varying levels of overall religiosity) to see if there were cultural differences in the impact of religious concepts on ambiguity intolerance.

In the first study, participants did a sentence scramble task where they were asked to reorder the words to create a sensible sentence. Half the sentence scrambles included words like faith, church, heaven, prayer and divine and the other half did not. Following that, they completed a measure of tolerance for ambiguity. Participants in the religion priming condition had lower levels of ambiguity tolerance. [In fact, the researchers found higher levels of ambiguity intolerance, which is evidence that we did not attend the same high school English program. Mrs. Richardson had a thing about double negatives.] In the second, third and fourth studies, they found a similar pattern–research participants primed with religious concepts or words had lower levels of ambiguity tolerance and were more certain of their judgments on various issues (regardless of whether they were actually correct).

So, finally we come to those parking lots. In the fifth study, the researchers wanted to see if a “natural field study” would show the same pattern of results. So they “decided to assess ambiguity intolerance at a location with mostly Christian religious architecture versus a location with solely civic buildings”. They approached people in a cathedral parking lot and people in a civic parking lot and asked them to complete the intolerance for ambiguity measure. They also checked to ensure the cathedral visitors were not more religiously oriented than those in the civic lot by asking how often they attended religious services in a year and how important religiosity is in their everyday lives. There was no difference in religiosity between people in the two parking lots–however, as you already know–those in the cathedral parking lot had less tolerance for ambiguity than those in the civic building lot.

The researchers conclude that priming Christian concepts and even mere exposure to religious symbolism alters our tolerance for ambiguity. We are less tolerant of ambiguity when exposed to religious symbolism or concepts. We’ve written about this line of research before in the context of increased racial bias. It’s a very disturbing idea that the mere invocation of religious concepts can result in less tolerance for ambiguity.

We have written before about the subliminal affect of invoking religious themes as well. But in this case, when the focus of the research is essentially iconographic, it seems that it is a part of the contextual story. Telling the same story in a bar makes it a different story than if it is told in a church. Or in a courtroom. The power of context, of juxtaposition, and the search for meaning all interweave into trial stories, as well as in our broader life.

An attorney could wear religious jewelry. Or casually mention they heard something at “church”. This research would say that it’s pretty easy to get us to be less tolerant and more closed to new ideas. Like we’ve said before, we know our readers would not use research findings for evil purposes. In our consultation practice, there are also images and story elements that draw out the more tolerant, giving, and open. But that’s a topic for another post…

Sagioglou, C., & Forstmann, M. (2013). Activating Christian religious concepts increases intolerance of ambiguity and judgment certainty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 933-939 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.05.003



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