Religious people are more positive, while atheists are “angry” — according to Facebook statuses at least
Proverbs 16:24, as I’m sure you’re aware, reads: “Gracious words are like honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” No matter what the Bible may say, if you’ve ever eaten an entire multipack of Crunchie bars in one sitting, you’ll know that too much honeycomb can be, at best, a mixed blessing.
You may find the same is true of the gracious words of your religious friends on Facebook if a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science is to be believed. The researchers used the application “MyPersonality” to analyse 12,815 Facebook users’ written words on the platform, dividing them into those with religious affiliation, and those without.
The findings were interesting: religious Facebook users were more likely to use positive words such as “happy,” “family” and “love”, while agnostic or atheist posters were more inclined to use phrases such as “hate” and “angry”. In other words, the researchers “found that positive emotion and social words are associated with religious affiliation whereas negative emotion and cognitive processes are more associated with non-religious affiliation,” according to David Yaden, lead author of the study.
That doesn’t look good for the wellbeing of the non-religious, but there is certainly a positive angle to take: non-religious posters were more inclined to use words connected to the cognitive process, such as “thinking” and “reasons”. Meanwhile, the religious types were understandably more inclined to use words more connected to faith than logic, such as “devil,” “blessing”, and “praying”.
There are certainly reasons to question the study – although 12,815 people is a large sample, collecting them all through an app will attract a certain kind of Facebook user more than others. All the same, it’s an interesting insight into the differences in vocabulary between those that have religion, and those that don’t.
“Religion is associated with longer lives and wellbeing, but can also be associated with higher rates of obesity and racism,” the authors write in the study – for them, an understanding of language could help understand these trends. It’s also not clear as to whether the trends emerge because believers naturally follow these patterns of speech, or because being part of the group makes them do so.
Anyone hoping for a religion-by-religion breakdown of the stats will be disappointed. There wasn’t enough specific data to compare how Buddhists compare to Christians, or how agnostics measure up to atheists, but the researchers hope to look into this once they get a larger dataset. Still, this is just another sign that the size and scale of social networks can provide valuable insights to scientists analysing the way we humans communicate with one another. Another study earlier this year found that we seem to have become more intelligent…
Image: Riley Kaminer used under Creative Commons