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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 04-May-12


Friday 04-May-12

Attentional bias and religion

How do you know where to place your attention? Attention is the searchlight you use as you gather information. You go places. You turn your head. You look and listen carefully. But why? This holy grail for marketers and other persuaders is a complex question. Attention is related to inner factors such as needs, interests and goals. These bias our decisions on where to focus. This 'attentional bias' drives what we subsequently think and do, so is very important to everyone.

One of the things about attention is that we have a switchable spotlight. We can pay attention to the broad context or to a specific detail (or maybe a bit of both). This has been linked to brain hemispheres, with the left brain having focus on detail and the right brain being more concerned with a wider perception. The problem is that if we pay too much attention in one area, we will likely miss important things at other levels of detail.

Researchers in Holland picked up this narrow-wide attentional question, examining the bias of 72 Dutch participants who were one of Conservative Calvinists, Liberal Calvinists, Conservative Calvinists who had become atheists, or life-long atheists. Calvinism has a great focus on detail and rules, which suggests the more conservative Calvinists may have a narrower attentional bias. And this appeared to be so. When asked to identify small and large squares, the Conservative Calvinists identified the small squares quicker and the bigger squares comparatively slower. The researchers also found that it took about seven years of atheism to remove the narrow attentional bias, which perhaps says something about persistence of habit.

They then wondered about the effect of communal solidarity and an external locus of control (eg. God is in control), which is strong in Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics. They tested samples of these and now found bigger squares being identified more quickly (as compared with atheists), again supporting their hypothesis that social systems (in this case religions) that focus on detail or the big picture will shift attentional bias accordingly.

There is an implication here for businesses. Those with a cultural focus on the detail, such as engineering firms, may miss market changes, while those with a wider strategic focus may fail in implementation detail. For individuals, too, we should watch for our cultural environments, whatever they are, leading to attentional bias.

Colzato LS, van Beest I, van den Wildenberg WP, Scorolli C, Dorchin S, Meiran N, Borghi AM, and Hommel B (2010). God: Do I have your attention? Cognition, 117 (1), 87-94

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