Tuesday, September 10, 2013

People with a Purpose

How religious people create meaning

God let me live for a purpose.
I know God has a plan for my life.
But for the grace of God, there go I.
All things work together for good…
That’s a sign from God that we need to repent or ...

Religious and spiritual people have attributed life events to God or gods, or other supernatural forces for millennia. Attribution theory is one of the leading social and cognitive psychology theories in the psychology of religion that helps guide research.

Attributions explain life events

We attribute positive outcomes like winning a game or lottery and getting a plum job and negative outcomes such as vehicle accidents, house fires, and the life changing powerful tsunamis, tornadoes and earthquakes to natural causes or to supernatural interventions. We explain events based on a sense of how it happened. When perplexed, many spiritual people seek answers from God or their spiritual advisers. The clergy appear on TV and issue pronouncements following a tragedy. Some warn of God's wrath. Some call for repentance. Others encourage a focus on more natural causes and guide people toward resources.

Why do people make attributions?

There are three reasons people make attributions. Attributions are tied to our ability to survive and adapt. Attributions help us cope with life events.

1. Meaning- People have a strong need for answers about why things happen and how are things and people connected. When we understand causes we might be able to identify cures or fixes. Clergy and others offer answers to account for the bad things in life. People say, "I don't understand why God..." And clergy and friends offer answers.

2. Adequacy- People seek a personal sense of worth, esteem, and capability. We require a basic sense of adequacy to stay in the game and keep trying in the face of adversity. Clergy and friends provide support and encourage people to trust in God or spiritual beings to make up for human weaknesses. 

3. Control- People need to feel that they can do something about whatever has happened. If I can’t make a difference, I might as well give up. Why try? So people look for ways to gain mastery. Clergy and friends often encourage people to pray. When disaster strikes, people are reminded that any small gift helps so even poor people give what they have. Prayer and donations are ways people seek to overcome the helplessness and lack of control that accompanies so many life events like tornadoes, automobile accidents, deadly diseases, and attacks from highly armed gangs and militia.
Ancient Greeks sought answers at Delphi

What kind of attributions are common?

Two categories sum up most of the attributions people give. This is from the perspective of the psychology of religion.

1. Naturalistic explanations (attributions). Most contemporary westerners rely on explanations like bad brakes, diseases, healthy living, and learned skills to explain outcomes and risks. If natural attributions fail, some turn to the supernatural.

2. Religious/spiritual explanations (attributions). Many people attribute causes of events to spiritual activity. Sometimes people offer both natural and spiritual explanations. For example, Pentecostals used to hold healing services at outdoor meetings. And many old-timers relied on God alone to heal. More recently, they pray for God to guide physicians when having a risky surgery or seeking a diagnosis. And students pray for God to help them with the challenge of school exams.  Athletes point to the sky to attribute their success to God.
Bricks from a destroyed Assemblies of God church offer meaning to members surviving the Greensburg, KS tornado.

How do people choose between
 natural and religious attributions?

Two groups of factors.
1. One group includes several features of a person’s external environment—situations and the events themselves.
2. A second group includes characteristics of the person—dispositions, attitudes, and personality traits or patterns.

   External:  Situations influence attributions

Research indicates that most, but not all, intense religious experiences occur when people are involved in a religious activity or setting. The social context matters. It’s not just the place but the people that are there as well. Consider the contrast between people worshiping with others in a religious service compared to the same people enjoying a sporting event at a local pub.

Another aspect of context is salience. Symbols and cues can make a difference. If there are religious symbols or expressions that remind people of spiritual ideas then those ideas will be available in memory hence the availability hypothesis also called the availability heuristic. In a sense, people "shoot from the hip" -- people select a mentally available and plausible explanation.

   External:  Event characteristics influence attribution
The event to be explained—motorcycle accident, cancer, death of a child or loved one—affects how people search for meaning.

   1. Importance. People identify importance in different ways. Events that are life threatening and hard to explain are more likely to lead to religious attributions. The phrase, act of God, expresses this idea. Both good and bad events are often seen as God’s will. A person who survived a car wreck may say, “God saved me for a purpose.” Though the loved ones of any that died are left to wonder why God chose one and not the other. When explanations fail, some report, “God works in mysterious ways.” The phrases work for many but others find them annoying --especially when an important event evokes powerful emotions. 

   2. Positive-Negative valuation. Most positive outcomes of events are attributed to God. Even long-term disabilities can be valued positively if people believe God has a plan for their life or a lesson to learn. Some attribute negative events to God. They may believe that God has punished them or their nation.

   3. Category. Some common, low threat events are usually attributed to natural causes like human error or investing extra time and energy to achieve a short-term goal. Finding God’s will for a life partner is often on the mind of those looking for a spouse. If it works out, they may look back and share how God brought them together—the proverbial match made in heaven. Events that are vague and hard to control are likely candidates for religious attribution. Though I am aware of many who attribute finding a parking place to God’s personal attention. Such a boost to self-esteem.

Internal: Personal characteristics. In a previous post I referred to six dimensions of functioning. Researchers have identified several factors that can be reviewed within that six part rubric.

   Spirituality or religiosity. The stronger a person’s spiritual heritage, the more likely they will report religious experiences and conversion. They know their beliefs and use religious language to explain how God is at work in their life. We might say their faith is integrated into their life.

   Cognition. Children learn the language of their faith at an early age. The vocabulary is stored in memory along with scriptural quotes, and inspiring stories. Music and art and ritual strengthen the memories. In a religious home surrounded by religious family and friends, their minds are full of spiritual words and images. A mind full of scripture is ready to interpret life from the perspective of that faith. 

   Observable behavior patterns, attitudes, or personality traits. People appear to make attributions that support their sense of self-worth or self-esteem. High self-esteem is linked to positive and loving images of God. Negative opinions of oneself may also be consistent with attributing troubling events to God’s judgment or a need for redemptive work to address personal sin.

Another dimension of personality is internal versus external locus of control. An internal locus emphasizes a personal sense of control. An external locus views control as outside oneself. Kenneth Pargament and others have included God as a factor in control and conceive of passive and active interactions between individuals and their God. In a collaborative relationship both the person and God are active in controlling events. This is like a covenant relationship. A passive person may defer to an active God. An active person may view God as passive—perhaps close to the idea, “God helps those who help themselves.”

Physiological or biological experiences. In the Christian Bible, the apostle Paul wrote about his thorn in the flesh-- some condition that God would not remove. Jesus corrected the thinking of Pharisees who attributed a young man's blindness to sin and asked Jesus to identify the source of sin. There's little doubt that one's physical status affects other parts of our system. When life threatening events are personal--biological-- people want immediate answers.

Emotions. I speculate that attributions are compatible with how a person feels about the event. Negative attributions would be associated with feeling depressed or angry and may include severe anxiety. Positive attributions evoke joy and pleasurable feelings. A warmth that might be viewed as godly love.

The forgoing five dimensions of a person's SCOPE of functioning occur within a Social context as noted in the section before the five personal dimensions. For more on the SCOPES model see my previous post.

Hood, R.W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach (4th ed). New York: Guilford.
Paloutzian, R.F. (1996). Invitation to the psychology of religion. (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Pargament, K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford.
Spilka, B., Shaver, P., & Kirkpatrick, L.A. (1985). A general attribution theory for the psychology of religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 24, 1-118.

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