Do religious fundamentalists react differently than non-fundamentalists to taboo images and words? Larry W. Bates and colleagues tried to find out. Dr. Bates completed his doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Auburn and his post-doctoral training at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. He is currently an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Alabama. He has served two terms on the Alabama Board of Examiners in Psychology. His primary research interests include psychology of religion and hiking behaviors. Outside of the profession, Larry enjoys public speaking, hiking, and bluegrass fiddling.
The study, “Reactions of religious fundamentalists to taboo images and words”, was published this fall in Psychological Reports. You can read the Summary here: http://www.amsciepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/17.07.PR0.113x15z2
Bates recently talked about the study and his other work.
1. What gave you the idea to question the settled notion that religious fundamentalism included a “fear factor”?
My colleague and I, Dr. Richard Hudiburg, recognized that the assumption of fear seemed to be more rhetoric than research. Several sources were stating that fear was central to fundamentalism but the research literature to support such a claim was limited. So my thought was that if those who were more fundamentally oriented actually had more fear, then we should be able to measure that with common methods of fear assessment. Fear can be channeled in a variety of ways: cognitively, physiologically, or behaviorally. Our lab has now examined the first two channels (cognitive and physiological) and is currently taking a look at behavioral avoidance. The jury is still out on whether fear is a part of fundamentalism. If it exists, it may not be of taboo but of other things. It’s not that we disagree with fear as a part of religious fundamentalism; we are actually neutral about that. Instead we think science should provide some empirical basis prior to proposed theories being assumed to be factual.
2. Since the arousal to taboo stimuli is similar for all groups, is it better explained in terms of culture or sociobiology–and why do you think so?
My bias is to lean toward viewing the primary ways that we learn fears as being through misinformation, conditioning, or modeling. All of those have an environmental component. We grow up learning from our experiences which stimuli in the world warrants a fear response from us and which are rather benign. Obviously, our culture plays a significant role in modeling fears and in providing either truthful information or misinformation about risks associated with environmental stimuli. I think most scientists are aware of the role of evolution in the selection of some stimuli to be more easily conditioned to fear.
3. How would you think now about using the term “XYZ-phobic” when referring to a belief system, religious or otherwise?
I’m uncomfortable using the term “-phobic” to refer to belief systems in general because the suffix implies a set of conditions that often do not exist for that particular case. The term is often used to turn up the rhetoric, it can hinder communication, and it certainly does not improve understanding of the phenomenon. Science is about increasing knowledge and such references may hinder knowledge acquisition. It is an oddity of fear research that non-scientists seem to use the term “XYZ-phobic” more often than scientists. For example, I and most other researchers, when referring to spider phobia, most commonly use the phrase “fear of spiders” in our papers, not “arachnophobia.”
4. In the Method section of this manuscript, you stated, “Recognizing the ongoing conflicts between science and religion throughout history and the potential for distrust of the scientific process among some, specific appeals to religious organizations were made in the form of visits to religious campus buildings and posting of flyers describing the study.” How was that appeal received, and did you learn anything interesting from it?
We didn’t actually check to see where participants heard about our study, but, in general, I think the appeals were well received. Our department and the various religious organizations here are part of our larger campus. Many of our students belong to these organizations. I’ve served on committees with people in those organizations, served on an advisory committee for one religious group, and am a member of our local interfaith council. I take great pains to build relationships with the religious in the area. I personally visit many of the area religious meetings and get to know the religious leaders in our area. To study the psychology of religion, we have to have religious participants and that requires some bridge building to accomplish it. One of the first areas psychologists ever studied was religion (e.g., William James). But it quickly devolved into trying to pit psychology against religion or merge psychology on the side of religion. These biases, for all practical purposes, destroyed the psychology of religion. It took decades before psychologists would dare to study these phenomena again. We learned from those mistakes and now take a more balanced approach.
5. The work you are doing now, a study about hiking, trail ethics, and religion, sounds pretty interesting. Can you explain it a bit more?
This is a collaborative effort between Dr. Richard Hudiburg, Mary-Katherine Osborn, and me where we are simply trying to find out what might contribute to behaviors while hiking that support or destroy part of the environment. Religion is just one possible contributor to such behavioral ethics. Our thinking was that some religious orientations might be anti-environmental (e.g., conquer the earth attitude) whereas others are quite pro-environmental (e.g., earth as sacred space) and so we are examining that aspect. Ms. Osborn and her team had fun climbing Springer Mountain in Georgia (the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail) and Mt. Katahdin in Maine (northern terminus) as a part of this study. You never know where science will lead you.
6. Generally, what led you to investigate this line of research?
I found that fear of death wasn’t enough of a motivator to get me to exercise consistently so I tried to think of something that was “more epic” to get me off the sofa. That was hiking. The beauty of the woods cemented my love for hiking and my greatest frustration was seeing trash in the woods. I found myself wondering what conditions would reduce or increase destruction of the environment on such a personal level. We began looking at the literature and we found some research regarding attitudes concerning hiking and environmental issues but little concerning actual behaviors. Ms. Osborn’s team received training in “Leave No Trace” ethics and subsequently started development of a measure of hiking behavioral ethics. We’ve really enjoyed this variation from our basic research. It’s gotten us out into the woods to get our data and, as a side effect, all of us are in better physical shape because of it. And I can’t even begin to describe the sheer beauty we have encountered as a result. Research can truly be exhilarating at times.
Dr. Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe’s most recent publication again explores the effects of spanking and is one of the first studies to compare the effects of physical discipline among children who were spanked or were never spanked. “If the current expansion of spanking bans continues”, Gunnoe wrote, “results of the present study suggest that children may be better served by age-conditional than unconditional policies.”
1. So what led you to study spanking?
In 1995, I was working at Child Trends in Washington D.C. and I had a little time between scheduled projects. My boss suggested that I examine spanking for a 1996 conference on discipline co-sponsored by NICHD and the University of North Carolina.
I had never even read a study on spanking. When I began reading them, they struck me as just too clean. Other controversial topics in child development (divorce and remarriage, non-maternal childcare) are characterized by nuance. In other words, a less-than-ideal practice is better than the alternatives for some children in some situations.
So I showed up at the conference with my analyses demonstrating nuance — completely naive to the intensity of the spanking debate and the political implications of this type of work. Some of the more senior scholars at the conference were supportive, but others were adamantly opposed to any nuancing of their unconditional anti-spanking stance. Given the limitations in the spanking research at that time, I couldn’t help but think that this opposition was more philosophically, than empirically, motivated.
Spanking research is a lot better now, but philosophical convictions still play a major role in the way research is done. This is what motivates me to do spanking research. As a topic of inquiry, I don’t really find spanking all that interesting; I could be just as passionate about the integrity of the scientific process on any number of controversial issues. But I know the spanking literature, and what I know compels me to try and contribute to a more balanced assessment of this practice.
2. There is a lot of material in this study. For parents, what would you say is the most important take-away message?
The take-home message is that many of the best parents spank their children, and these children report better adjustment than their peers. This suggests that parents do not need to eschew age-delimited customary spanking if they believe it is beneficial for their child and their family. By age-delimited customary spanking, I mean one or two non-injurious swats to the arms, legs, or buttocks of children (not infants, not adolescents). At the risk of saying the obvious, spanking must be accompanied by reasoning so that children understand why their behavior was unacceptable.
3. In 2010 you told the Sunday Times of London that, “The claims made for not spanking children fail to hold up. They are not consistent with the data.” Is that still true? And writing in Newsweek in 2009, Po Bronson suggested that “…perhaps the consistency of discipline is more important than the form of discipline. In other words, spanking regularly isn’t the problem; the problem is having no regular form of discipline at all.” How do you respond to that?
Some social scientists believe that the best way to prevent abusive spanking is to ban all spanking, but few studies have actually looked at never-spanked kids. My study is one of the first to do this … and the never-spanked group in my study was not the best adjusted group.
As for Po’s proposal, I agree that consistency of discipline is more critical than form. To consistency, I would add particular effectiveness. My own feeling is that some children can be raised effectively without spanking, but in situations of persistent noncompliance, parents have an obligation — to the child and to others –to try a variety of non-abusive disciplinary methods to determine which ones are most effective for their particular child. These methods can certainly include customary spanking.
4. Can you give an introduction to the Portraits of American Life Study? How are you affiliated with the effort?
The Portraits of American Life Study (PALS) is a longitudinal study focusing on change among diverse individuals and families over the course of their lives. The primary investigators, Michael Emerson (Rice University) and David Sikkink (Notre Dame) are particularly interested in religious change, but the sample was recruited on the basis of ethnic diversity, without regard to religion.
I know Emerson and Sikkink from a summer seminar in which we all participated. When I heard that they were launching a study of adults with intentional oversampling of ethnic minorities, I asked if I could survey the adolescents in the home. Being the friendly, collegial types that they are, they agreed to let me piggy-back on their recruitment efforts at very low cost. Initially, the association between the adult and adolescent datasets was loose and pragmatic, but I’m excited to report that 100 of the older teens in my study (now ages 20-23) were picked up in the most recent wave of the adult study. Eventually, I should be able to assess how my spanked vs. never-spanked teens look as adults.
5. Do you think the United States needs a law addressing corporal punishment? What would it say?
When adults persist in violating the rights of others, we expect those in authority over adults (the police, the government) to apply as much force as necessary to stop the offending behavior. Sometimes this force must be physical. Likewise, when a child persists in violating the rights of others and nonphysical modes of punishment have been ineffective in eradicating the behavior, parents need the option to spank.
Although some researchers think that legal bans on spanking improve parenting, my sense (based on what I read about the situation in Sweden) is that they probably do not. The U.S. already has maltreatment laws prohibiting any kind of discipline that a reasonable person would find excessive. Depending on their content, laws focused specifically on spanking seem to do more to undermine parental authority than to prevent abuse.
6. What are you working on next?
I’m working on staying out of spanking research for a while. Due to frequent media interviews, the high stakes of being wrong, and the fervor some dissenters apply in attempting to convince me that I am wrong — this line of research can be exhausting.
After my hiatus, I will likely examine punishment in families of internationally adopted older children. In biological families, it can be difficult to determine whether punishment “causes” adjustment or adjustment elicits punishment. I’m hoping that a study of kids who enter a family with patterns of behavior already established will help elucidate the role of the child’s behavior in eliciting different types of punishments.
But don’t hold me to this; sometimes projects don’t end up as planned. My intent for the PALS data was to show that spanking was less harmful among subgroups who value spanking (African-Americans and conservative Protestants) than in the general population. I planned a mediational analyses in which a generally negative effect of spanking on adjustment would be mediated by cultural group–and then despaired when I discovered that I had no negative effect of age-delimited spanking to mediate. This lack of general negative effect was the impetus for the present paper.
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