Skip to Main Page Content

Does religion turn weak groups violent?

January 16, 2014

Although David was famously successful at slaying Goliath, most people wisely avoid picking fights with more-powerful opponents.

But new research by a team of Arizona State University faculty has uncovered one factor that increases the likelihood that weak groups will engage in conflict with stronger groups, despite the likelihood of defeat. That factor is religious infusion, or the extent to which religion permeates a group’s public and private life. Download Full Image

“Under normal circumstances, weak folks don’t try to beat up on stronger folks,” says Steven Neuberg, a psychology professor at ASU and the lead researcher on the project. “But there’s something about a group being religiously infused that seems to make it feel somewhat invulnerable to the potential costs imposed by stronger groups, and makes it more likely to engage in costly conflict.”

Their findings are published in the January issue of Psychological Science, the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. Their work was also written about in the Huffington Post last summer.

The study Neuberg and his team undertook, part of the Global Group Relations Project, spanned five continents and included nearly 100 sites around the globe. The countries included in the project together account for nearly 80 percent of the world’s population.

“Our sites include the most populated countries of the world – China, India, USA, Brazil – as well as a wide range of others,” says Carolyn Warner, an ASU political science professor and a co-principal investigator on the project. “This breadth and diversity is rarely the case in studies of religion and conflict.”

Most research on group conflict employs one of two methods – the case study, which closely examines a particular location or situation in which conflict occurs – or a quantitative analysis of data pulled from existing studies.

For this project, researchers recruited a large, international network of social scientists with expertise on the sites selected for study. These “expert informants” responded to an Internet survey, answering a wide range of questions on a host of social, political, religious and psychological variables about the groups being studied.

Neuberg and his team examined the data to learn how religion might shape intergroup conflict around the world. They focused on two factors known to increase conflict: incompatibility of values and competition for limited resources.

They found that religious infusion was an important factor in predicting conflict in both situations. In cases where two groups held incompatible values, the groups tended to exhibit increased prejudice and discrimination against one another only if religion permeated their everyday lives.

More surprising, however, is the finding on how religious infusion affects groups competing for limited resources and power. Only the disadvantaged groups that are religiously infused are more likely to engage in violence.

“That’s a surprising finding, because the advantages and power held by the other groups should deter the weaker groups,” says Neuberg. “Remember, these weaker groups are likely to get clobbered, at least in the short term.”

Disadvantaged groups, as defined in the study, are those lacking access to sufficient food, water and/or land, as well as political power and educational and economic opportunities.

Religious infusion is not tied to specific religions or sets of beliefs. Any religion can be highly infused in a particular society.

“What we don’t want people to walk away thinking,” says Warner, “is that religious infusion is always bad or always makes group relations worse. Not all religiously infused weak groups engage in conflict. And high-power groups, when they’re religiously infused, aren’t increasing their aggression against low-power groups.”   

So why would weak, religiously infused groups attack stronger powers? Some data from their project suggest that religious infusion may increase the motivation of weak groups to enhance their standing. Other data raise the possibility that religiously infused groups may have some advantages in mobilizing the resources they do have.

Warner and Neuberg will explore these possibilities, and the cause-and-effect relationship of their findings, in follow-up research.

“The amount of intergroup conflict in the world is costly and has huge and significant implications for national security and worldwide economic security,” says Neuberg. “To be able to better understand why this conflict occurs and predict it beforehand increases our chances of reducing its likelihood in the future. That should be important to all of us.”

The Global Group Relations Project grew out of an interdisciplinary faculty seminar series sponsored by ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs. The center provided Neuberg and his colleagues with a seed grant to develop a proposal to the National Science Foundation, which funded the project.

Other faculty involved in the project included Ben Broome (Hugh Downs School of Human Communication), Roger Millsap (psychology), Thomas Taylor (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences), George Thomas (School of Politics and Global Studies), Michael Winkelman (School of Human Evolution and Social Change), and Juliane Schober (School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies). Graduate students who worked on the project included Stephen Mistler, Anna Berlin, Eric Hill, Gabrielle Filip-Crawford, Jordan Johnson, Hui Liu, and Prasun Mahanti.

Story by Barby Grant 

ASU center kicks off inaugural lectures, symposium series on evolutionary health

January 16, 2014

The ASU Center for Evolution, Medicine & Public Health will host several events to celebrate the center's launch.

Directed by Randolph Nesse, foundation professor and founding director, the center’s mission is to establish evolutionary biology as a basic science for medicine and public health worldwide. Research is at its core, but the center also will have major commitments to education, outreach and developing similar programs elsewhere. Download Full Image

The new center will coordinate with the ASU Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Bioinformatics in the Biodesign Institute, directed by Regents' Professor Sudhir Kumar, by augmenting existing strengths in phylogenetics with new faculty whose research uses basic evolutionary principles to understand problems such as antibiotic resistance, cancer, autoimmune disease, aging and behavioral disorders.

Schedule of events (open to the public)
*Speaker abstracts below

"Galen, hagfish and the bench-to-bedside gap in endothelial biomedicine: a noisy affair" 
2-3:15 p.m. Jan. 17, LSE 104 (refreshments served beforehand)
Willaim Aird, professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School and director, Center for Vascular Biology Research, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Symposium on Evolution, Medicine & Public Health: The Great Opportunity
1-6:30 p.m., Jan. 21, Memorial Union 241

• 1 p.m., "Hormones in the wild: Physiological adaptations for human social relationships," Mark Flinn, professor and chair of anthropology, University of Missouri

• 2:30 p.m., "The evolution of drug resistance and the curious orthodoxy of aggressive chemotherapy," Andrew Read, alumni professor in the biological sciences, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics

• 4 p.m. "Making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine worldwide: What can ASU do?" Panel discussion with the four visitors and ASU faculty, led by Randolph Nesse

• 5:30 p.m. Open reception for all who share an interest in evolution and medicine

"Where Darwin meets Freud: Evolutionary biology and the genetics of autism, psychosis, and the social brain" 
noon-1 p.m., Jan. 22, ISTB-1 401
Bernard Crespi, professor of biology, Simon Fraser University

To join the listserv for CEMPH events, send a note to To view the speakers' bios and papers, click here.

*Speaker abstracts:

"Galen, hagfish and the bench-to-bedside gap in endothelial biomedicine: a noisy affair," William Aird
The vascular endothelium, which forms the inner lining of the blood vascular system, is an under-appreciated organ system that has enormous, though largely untapped diagnostic and therapeutic potential. There exists a wide bench-to-bedside gap in endothelial biomedicine. Future advances in vascular medicine are contingent upon narrowing the gap and translating knowledge to improve patient care. A first step is to recognize the origins of the existing chasm. One reason relates to medicine’s present-day preoccupation with large arteries, at the expense of the vast expanses of microscopic small blood vessels or capillaries. While large arteries are vulnerable to developing atherosclerosis, microvessels hold important clues about the mechanisms of virtually every other disease in humans. I will discuss how our focus on large vessels is rooted in Ancient Greek medicine, and was further sharpened by William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation. In the 1900s, the compartmentalization of medicine into organ-specific disciplines further hampered our ability to approach the vasculature as an integrated organ. Another reason for the lack of progress in knowledge translation is our focus on cell culture. I will discuss how traditional in vitro studies have shaped our view of the endothelial cell as a homogeneous entity and precluded analysis of its emergent properties. I will emphasize the remarkable adaptability of the intact endothelium, review proximate mechanisms of endothelial cell heterogeneity and introduce the novel role of multistability and biological noise in mediating phenotypic differences between endothelial cells. Finally, I will address evolutionary mechanisms of endothelial heterogeneity. I will present data from our studies in hagfish, the oldest extant vertebrate, showing that phenotypic heterogeneity evolved as a core feature of the endothelium. In conclusion, I will argue that future breakthroughs in endothelial biomedicine will require an understanding of the dynamical regulatory network of the endothelium at multiple scales.

"Hormones in the wild: Physiological adaptations for human social relationships," Mark Flinn
We humans are highly sensitive to our social environments. Our brains have special abilities such as empathy and social foresight that allow us to understand each other’s feelings and communicate in ways that are unique among all living organisms. Our bodies use internal chemical messengers – hormones and neurotransmitters – to help guide responses to our social worlds. Understanding this chemical language is important for many research questions in anthropology. For the past 25 years I have conducted a field study of child stress and family environment in a rural community in Dominica. The primary objective is to document hormonal responses of children to everyday interactions with their parents and other care providers, concomitant with longitudinal assessment of developmental and health outcomes. Results indicate that difficult family environments and traumatic social events are associated with temporal elevations of cortisol and morbidity risk. The long-term effects of traumatic early experiences on cortisol profiles are complex and indicate domain-specific effects, with normal recovery from physical stressors, but some heightened response to negative-affect social challenges.

"The evolution of drug resistance and the curious orthodoxy of aggressive chemotherapy," Andrew Read
Drug-resistance is a major public health problem. Conventional wisdom on resistance management is to use aggressive chemotherapy to kill pathogens as rapidly as possible so as to prevent them from acquiring resistance. This is the reason why physicians frequently exhort patients to finish drug courses even after they no longer feel sick. I will argue that that aggressive chemotherapy will not be the best way to retard resistance evolution in some – perhaps many – circumstances.
"Where Darwin meets Freud: Evolutionary Biology and genetics of autism, psychosis, and the social brain," Bernard Crespi
Mental disorders are usually conceptualized in terms of pathology and disease. I describe a new  perspective, based in evolutionary biology and genetics, that  the forms and risks of human psychiatric conditions have evolved. Under this rubric, such  conditions represent  hypo-development, or  hyper-development, of   human­ evolved adaptations and tradeoffs. I present evidence from genetics, endocrinology, neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry that autism spectrum and psychotic-affective conditions (mainly schizophrenia, bipolar disorder  and  depression)  represent  diametric (opposite) conditions with  regard to  human social and  non-social cognition. This evolutionary perspective has  direct implications for  the  study, understanding and treatment of psychiatric conditions.

Sharon Keeler

associate director, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering