Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Priming People to Think About Small Change Over Long Time Periods

Here are the choices from a Gallup poll that periodically asks people about their beliefs in religion and evolution:

Which one of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?

A) God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

B) Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man's creation.

C) Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.

Over the past 25 years or so, Gallup has given a poll with this question, and the answer with the most respondents has always been A, consistently between 40-50% of the population.

First of all, I think it's strange that they use the more neutral term "human beings" in the question, and "man" in the answers, but I'm not sure how much that's skewing responses.

What I was thinking about was the extent to which responses would differ if you primed people to think about small changes over geological time periods. For example, I'd like to see one group which was first asked a question or series of questions such as:

Which one of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin of the Grand Canyon?

A) God created the Grand Canyon pretty much in its present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

B) The Grand Canyon has formed over millions of years by the natural processes of erosion, but God guided this process.

C) The Grand Canyon has formed over millions of years by the natural processes of erosion. God had no part in this process.

You could vary it up slightly, and use other geological or astronomical entities, like Mount Everest or Mars, but I think you get the idea.

I'd hypothesize that people on the whole would be more accepting of the idea of gradual change over long spans of time without the intervention of god if presented with a less personal example than the origin of humans. I think this priming would then shift opinion when people were asked about the origins of humans.

I don't have time to do it, but it would be a fun and informative experiment. Anybody out there think that there would be no difference in the answers between such groups?

1 comment:

Laurie said...

I'd hypothesize that people on the whole would be more accepting of the idea of gradual change over long spans of time without the intervention of god if presented with a less personal example than the origin of humans.

I agree with you here, but...

I think this priming would then shift opinion when people were asked about the origins of humans.

Not here. Human beings and geological formations are on the extreme ends of the animacy, consciousness and intelligence scales. You could argue that because humans are on the far +animate, +conscious, +intelligent ends of the scales, their development is a lot more complicated and therefore some sort of "divine intervention" is necessary for them to have reached the stage they're at now.
So I'm not sure that thinking about the changes that have occurred in rocks over time can that strongly influence thinking about the changes in human beings, especially since changes in the former don't require any internal factors, whereas changes in the latter do (for example, rocks don't have DNA, humans do). And for this reason, I wouldn't think
it appropriate to say that the Grand Canyon developed or even evolved. So I don't think the geological and human situations are equal enough for a fair comparison. Or at least a comparison that would produce the results you expect.

Now, keeping the comparison within biological boundaries might do the trick. Comparing humans, other animals, insects, plants and micro-organisms might be more fair, since I'm sure there are people out there who would be more likely a priori to accept the idea that the last four are subject to the process of evolution (without divine intervention) without necessarily accepting that humans are. Then if people can be made to see that a belief in the evolution of bacteria, for example, is not so much different from the belief in the evolution of the human (since we're composed of bacteria), then people may at least be more willing to choose B.