Research Scene

The intersection between the sacred and the secular is fertile terrain for faculty and student researchers.

Robert Fuller, Caterpillar professor of philosophy and religious studies, wondered if guilt would induce people to pray, but needed help to test his theory. After the idea arose in a classroom discussion, he teamed with Associate Professor of Psychology Anthony Hermann, along with then-students Austin Simpson ’13 and Mark Lehtman ’14.

“All religion is connected to emotion, but it makes a difference if that emotion is something like fear or greed,” said Fuller. “It’s common sense that if you make people feel guilty, they will become more religious, but no one had ever proven it. I couldn’t do this on my own.”

Hermann agreed that the project required a blend of academic disciplines, and the two relied on student contributions at every stage. The team published their results in a paper for the September 2015 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“Religion is under-studied in psychology,” he said. “It was a nice fit.”

Using two sets of Bradley introductory psychology students, one group wrote about a recent event that had induced guilt. The other wrote about a neutral experience. After writing, the groups took an interest survey that reflected various activities, including prayer. 

Fuller said the surveys showed that people feeling guilt were more interested in praying, but only if they didn’t rate highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), which Hermann said is a reputable tool for measuring an individual’s narcissistic tendencies. Students also took the NPI as part of the research. 

Simpson and Lehtman helped with a follow-up study by the faculty on the same topic, this time published in a recent issue of Current Psychology. It used subjects recruited through the internet and tried to move people from reflecting on a guilt episode in the past to a more real-time experience.

Subjects imagined a scenario in which they violated the confidence of a friend who had stolen money at their own workplace by making their secret public, a scenario also designed to elicit feelings of guilt. Interest surveys then noted changes in their level of prayer interest.

“The effect of guilt in this one was dramatically different,” said Hermann. He added people were less interested in praying when the guilt was more immediate — but that narcissistic people felt no affects at all. 

With plans to conduct future research projects together on narcissism and guilt, both agreed student input and help are essential.

“As we try to figure out connections between our disciplines, the students are the bridge,” said Hermann.

Penitent Poses

For another project, Professor of Psychology Derek Montgomery teamed with Fuller to target the effect of body posture on religious feelings. The study divided 127 undergraduate students into roughly equal groups.

“It’s common sense that if you make people feel guilty, they will become more religious, but no one had ever proven it.”

— Fuller

One group was placed in upright, expansive “power poses” while the other assumed more vulnerable, contracted positions, such as kneeling or bowing. Fuller noted such positions are found in most world religions, including the daily prostrate prayers required by Islam and the placement of pews lower than the altar and pulpit in Christian churches.

Using a questionnaire to measure religious attitudes, they published their results in the Archive for the Psychology of Religion.

Participants filled out the questionnaire while they were in their assigned position. The results showed those in lower, contracted positions reported a greater reliance on God and agreement with conventional religious beliefs than those in the more elevated postures.

Montgomery has an interest in cognition, and he noted that other research studies indicate our bodily movements and gestures can impact how we think. He said that because there was little prior research on bodily influences in the area of religious studies, it added a little bit of uncertainty to what they expected.

“The body might play an interesting role in religious thinking,” said Montgomery. “This is a really new area, and we hope other researchers look into it.”

“We can’t say if it was the body posture or the cultural association of that posture,” added Fuller.

Utilizing students and recent grads once again, the researchers had help from Elizabeth Lundholm ’16, Ryan Potempa ’15 and Lehtman.

A follow-up study is in the works for Fuller and Montgomery. The professors tout the advantages of collaboration and said the traditional view of separate, cloistered disciplines is outmoded.

“Everybody talks about interdisciplinary studies … We’re doing it,” said Fuller. “This was a fun project.”

“It’s much more productive to converge and look at problems from different perspectives,” added Montgomery.

— Bob Grimson ’81