In general, most Western Christians and non-believers alike tend to associate God with “upper space” (ie heaven, higher power) and the devil with “lower space” (ie depths of hell, underground). New research published in Religion, brain and behavior gives more support to these associations by showing that these associations do exist and become stronger when people are reminded of their own death.
“The systematic use of vertical space in expressing religious content is not just an artistic feature, but rather reflects a strategy of knowledge representation. According to conceptual metaphor theory, verticality is a basic aspect of human life and is therefore co-opted for various metaphorical associations such as valence, power, numerosity or religious values,” study author Michael Rihs and colleagues wrote.
One’s religious beliefs go beyond belief in God. For example, religiosity can influence beliefs about death, the afterlife, and general existence. The terror control theory suggests that being aware of or being reminded of one’s own death (i.e., mortality salience) can result in inner fear, which can lead people to cling more strongly to their personal and cultural worldview as a defense mechanism.
Research recruited 150 students to participate in this study for credits. All participants took an implicit association test (IAT), which measures automatic associations between two concepts by having participants categorize words into appropriate categories. In this case, the participants categorized words like “Lord” and “Satan” into the categories of “God” or “Devil.”
They then tested associations between words like “Top” and “Bottom” using the categories “Up” and “Down.” Finally, they combined these tests and had participants associate words like “Almighty” and “Lucifer” with the categories described in the previous tests. The goal-concept association was also reversed, and participants did the trials again, but associated words in the opposite categories. Half of the participants took the reverse tests first.
After the first IAT session, participants were randomly assigned to the mortality salience or control condition. Mortality salience was introduced by having participants describe the emotions they felt when thinking about their own death. The control group wrote about the emotions they feel when they think about dental root treatment. After this and two distraction tasks, participants completed the second IAT session. All participants also completed measures of self-esteem and measures of overall positive or negative mood between IAT sessions at the start of the experiment as a distraction task.
The results show that implicit associations of “God” with “Up” and “Devil” with “Down” did not differ between the groups during the first IAT session. However, these associations were stronger for the second IAT session for those in the mortality salience group compared to the control group. Interestingly, the control group showed a reduction in these associations during the second session.
Researchers recruited a smaller sample of 16 people to perform the same procedure, but instead of writing about a dental treatment, they copied a neutral text. Results show that this group has similar results to the original control group: a reduction in the expected implicit associations. Further analysis of the effects of self-esteem showed that salience of mortality did affect IAT scores in people with low and medium self-esteem scores, but not in those with high self-esteem scores.
“The results are in line with previous evidence that [mortality salience] automatically raises religious belief on an implicit level. In addition, the results provide insight into the cascade of cognitive processes caused by: [mortality salience]† Specifically, the results show that the activation of the target concepts (God and devil) by [mortality salience] automatically activates the spatial association of these concepts (i.e. the source concept).”
The researchers cite some limitations of their work and recommendations for future research, such as including a measure of belief in God, as changes in these implicit associations can vary depending on one’s level of belief.
The study, “God is up and devil is down: mortality salience increases implicit spatial-religious associations,” was written by