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Psychologists Asked Americans “What Does God Look Like?”

Summary: According to researchers, people perceptions on God depends upon their political stances and own demographic characteristics. Psychologist say liberal Christians tend to imaging God as looking more feminine and younger than conservatives, who see God as more Caucasian and powerful.

Source: UNC Chapel Hill.

A team of psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have used a new technique to construct what a large sample of 511 American Christians think God looks like.

Participants in the study saw hundreds of randomly varying face-pairs and selected which face from each pair appeared more like how they imagined God to appear. By combining all the selected faces, the researchers could assemble a composite “face of God” that reflected how each person imagined God to appear.

Their results were both surprising and revealing. From Michelangelo to Monty Python, Illustrations of God have nearly always shown him as an old and august white-bearded Caucasian man. But the researchers found that many Christians saw God as younger, more feminine, and less Caucasian that popular culture suggests.

In fact, people’s perceptions of God tended to rely partly on their political affiliation. Liberals tended to see God as more feminine, younger, and more loving than conservatives. Conservatives also saw God as more Caucasian and more powerful than liberals.

“These biases might have stemmed from the type of societies that liberals and conservatives want,” suggested Joshua Conrad Jackson, the study’s lead author. “Past research shows that conservatives are more motivated than liberals to live in a well-ordered society, one that would be best regulated by a powerful God. On the other hand, liberals are more motivated to live in a tolerant society, which would be better regulated by a loving God.”

the perceived face of god

This is God’s perceived face, based on the aggregated responses of surveyed American Christians.NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Joshua Jackson et al.

People’s perceptions also related to their own demographic characteristics. Younger people believed in a younger-looking God. People who reported being more physically attractive also believed in a more physically attractive God. And African Americans believed in a God that looked more African American than did Caucasians.

“People’s tendency to believe in a God that looks like them is consistent with an egocentric bias,” said Professor Kurt Gray, the study’s senior author and a psychology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill. “People often project their beliefs and traits onto others, and our study shows that God’s appearance is no different–people believe in a God who not only thinks like them, but also looks like them.”

Interestingly, however, people did not show an egocentric bias on the basis of gender. Men and women believed in an equally masculine-looking God.

About this neuroscience research article

The research is newly published in the journal PLOS ONE. The corresponding author is Joshua Conrad Jackson, and the other authors were Neil Hester and Kurt Gray. Jackson and Hester are graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Funding: The research was supported by grants from the Templeton Foundation and National Science Foundation.

Source: Audrey Smith – UNC Chapel Hill
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Joshua Jackson et al.
Original Research: Open access research for “The faces of God in America: Revealing religious diversity across people and politics” by Joshua Conrad Jackson, Neil Hester, and Kurt Gray in PLOS ONE. Published June 11 2018
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0198745

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
UNC Chapel Hill “Psychologists Asked Americans “What Does God Look Like?”.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 11 June 2018.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/god-image-psychology-9312/>.
UNC Chapel Hill (2018, June 11). Psychologists Asked Americans “What Does God Look Like?”. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 11, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/god-image-psychology-9312/
UNC Chapel Hill “Psychologists Asked Americans “What Does God Look Like?”.” http://neurosciencenews.com/god-image-psychology-9312/ (accessed June 11, 2018).

Abstract

The faces of God in America: Revealing religious diversity across people and politics

Literature and art have long depicted God as a stern and elderly white man, but do people actually see Him this way? We use reverse correlation to understand how a representative sample of American Christians visualize the face of God, which we argue is indicative of how believers think about God’s mind. In contrast to historical depictions, Americans generally see God as young, Caucasian, and loving, but perceptions vary by believers’ political ideology and physical appearance. Liberals see God as relatively more feminine, more African American, and more loving than conservatives, who see God as older, more intelligent, and more powerful. All participants see God as similar to themselves on attractiveness, age, and, to a lesser extent, race. These differences are consistent with past research showing that people’s views of God are shaped by their group-based motivations and cognitive biases. Our results also speak to the broad scope of religious differences: even people of the same nationality and the same faith appear to think differently about God’s appearance.

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