Big Think: 3 questions will tell you how religious you’re likely to be

UPDATE:  The Gervais and Norenzayan paper mentioned here should be considered inconclusive in light of later work. Go here for the explanation under “update.”

I’m not so sure that “The Big Think” (TBT)  website deserves its name, as the Thinks there are often pretty small. But this headline caught my attention (click on screenshot to go to the site; h/t reader Ant):

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 11.03.52 PM

“So what are the questions?”, you’re asking yourself. I’ll give you those in a second. First, a bit of background by the article’s author, Steven Mazie:

People who are more disposed to analytical thinking, the hypothesis goes, are less inclined to believe in a deity.

In 2012, in the journal Science, social psychologists Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan published the results of five studies suggesting this might be the case.

And so the questions, I guess, test whether you think analytically; and if you get them all right, I suppose you’re more likely to be a nonbeliever. (Maddingly, they don’t give you an “atheism score” or a correlation between number of correct answers and the proportion of nonbelievers.)

Well, try these:

1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? ____cents

2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____minutes

3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _____days

This was the first thing I saw this morning when I woke up and looked at my laptop in bed; and even half asleep I answered all three questions correctly within one minute. I’m clearly a strong atheist! The answers seemed self-evident to someone familiar with math, but of course the questions are designed to prompt intuitive answers that are wrong.

I won’t give you the answers, though the Big Think piece does. Most of you will get them right—if you think about them. TBT goes on to say this:

The study these questions are drawn from was conducted using 179 Canadian college students. After completing the quiz task, the students were asked about their intrinsic religiosity, religious beliefs and beliefs in supernatural entities (including God, angels and the devil). The results followed expectations:

“[A]s hypothesized, analytic thinking was significantly negatively associated with all three measures of religious belief, rReligiosity = –0.22, P = 0.003; rIntuitive = –0.15, P = 0.04; and rAgents = –0.18, P = 0.02. This result demonstrated that, at the level of individual differences, the tendency to analytically override intuitions in reasoning was associated with religious disbelief, supporting previous findings.”

To translate: the more religious the undergrads were, the less likely they were to have demonstrated effective analytical reasoning on the three questions. And the better the students did on the questions, the less likely they were to have strong religious beliefs.

The study’s authors (and Mazie) relate the results to Daniel Kahneman’s classification of “System 1” (intuitive, fast) thinking, and “System 2” (slower, more analytical) thinking. Why, then, are more intuitive thinkers also more religious? Mazie notes:

The authors reason that since “religious belief emerges through a converging set of intuitive processes, and analytic processing can inhibit or override intuitive processing…analytic thinking may undermine intuitive support for religious belief.” Seeing people through the Kahnemanian lens thus “predicts that analytic thinking may be one source of religious disbelief.”

Well, that sounds good, though it’s fancy language for saying, “People who carefully work through their ideas rather than go with what they were taught to be true, or feel to be true, are less likely to be religious.” However, most people get their religious beliefs from their parents and peers, and I’m not sure that counts as an “intuitive process” rather than as simple indoctrination. I think the difference is the tendency to examine carefully what you think is true, and if that’s considered Kahneman-ian System 2, so be it.

Unfortunately, Gervais and Norenzayan had to add a caveat to their paper to make sure that people don’t think they’re anti-religion:

[W]e caution that the present studies are silent on long-standing debates about the intrinsic value or rationality of religious beliefs…or about the relative merits of analytic and intuitive thinking in promoting optimal decision making.

Some day those caveats won’t be needed for, of course, a belief that is thought through and examined from all sides is more likely to be correct. That’s the definition of rational thinking! You could probably do the same test, but correlating the answers with acceptance of homeopathic medicine, and find pretty similar results. But in that case it would be taken to show that the results are NOT silent on the rationality of homeopathic “beliefs.” Once again, we have to tiptoe around religion as opposed to other forms of irrationality. Mazie adds his own caveat, too:

There are many other reasons people might decide not to believe in God, of course, and it would be a mistake to construe religious believers as unreflective, shallow-thinking fools.

Most of us don’t think that anyway: there are smart religious people who hang on to faith for emotional reasons, or because they were taught it and find solace in it, or simply don’t want to dissolve a social network that involves religion. But seriously, are there really lots of reasons people don’t believe in God, or does it all boil down to this: “not enough evidence, and lots of counterevidence”?


  1. GBJames
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:04 am | Permalink


  2. divalent
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Hmm … My recall of statistics might be a bit fuzzy, but wouldn’t an r value of ~0.2 mean that their quiz only accounts for about 4% (r-squared) of the variance in religiousity? If so, is this “significant” in the sense of being meaningful?

    • Peter
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      You are right: the reported relationship between analytical thinking (as measured by your score on this 3-question test) and religiosity is very weak. The absolute value of the three reported correlation coefficients ranges between 0.15 and 0.22. Like you say, when you square a correlation coefficient you get the amount of variance in a given measure of religiosity accounted for by the variance in the score of analytical thinking. Here this amount is between 2% and 4% – very week indeed. I would say: Big think fail!
      PCC(E) wrote: “Maddingly, they don’t give you an “atheism score” or a correlation between number of correct answers and the proportion of nonbelievers.”
      I strongly suspect that this omission is on purpose. Otherwise one could easily see that the relationship is very weak.

      • reasonshark
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        There’s also the issue of sample size and alleged representativeness. I wouldn’t generalize from this test.

    • jt512
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      The 2012 Science paper, “Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief” by Gervais and Norenzayan, from which these results were taken, had major statistical problems. Jerry has posted on the paper before, and I criticized the paper both in a comment to his post and in a peer-reviewed paper, “Excess Success for Psychology Articles in the Journal Science.

      In a nutshell, Gervais and Norenzayan’s results (among those of many other psychology papers in Science were “too good to be true.” Across five experiments, they reported eight statistical tests of their hypothesis that analytical thinking promotes religious disbelief. All eight tests were reported to be statistically significant. Under a set of assumptions highly favorable to the authors, we calculated that the probability of obtaining such uniformly successful results if the authors properly followed the rules of statistical hypothesis testing was, at most, about 5%. This strongly suggests that the authors’ results were obtained by “p-hacking” (ie, so-called “questionable research practices” that inflate the apparent success rate, but invalidate the statistics) or benefited from selective reporting (ie, the authors have undisclosed unsuccessful tests of the same hypothesis).

      Because Gervais and Norenzayan’s results appear to have been produced by p-hacking or selective reporting, they should not be taken seriously. It is unfortunate that their results received, and continue to receive, favorable attention in the press and on the internet.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    The bat and ball one is not new
    I don’t know who came up with it

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      I have seen all three!

      Does that make me an ahem-theist?

    • Nullifidian
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      There’s also an ancient one (literally—it dates to the 9th century CE at least) about crossing a river in a boat with a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage. There is only room on the boat for one each. So, given that the goat will eat the cabbage and the wolf will eat the goat, how do you cross with items one at a time so that none get eaten?

      XKCD parodied this problem in one of its comics.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        The trick in the answer, of course, is that at some point you have to take one or more of the items *back* across the river.

        Lets see –

        Goat across.
        Cabbage across, goat back, wolf across.
        Cabbage back, goat across, wolf back.
        Cabbage across, goat back, wolf across.
        Goat across.

        I think that does it. There may be answers with less moves.


      • E.A. Blair
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        Goat across
        Either cabbage or wolf across
        Goat back
        Whatever was left (cabbage or wolf) across
        Goat across

        Three round trips and one one-way.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

          You’re right. My ‘solution’ was quite unnecessarily complicated . I suspected as much but my brain must have been on the fritz.

          I think Ant’s comment – ‘easier of you kill the goat and the wolf’ – was apt as they would have died of boredom watching me faffing around shuttling them from bank to bank and back again…


          • E.A. Blair
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

            Of course all the “ideal” solutions assume getting all three items across alive and intact. Here’s a solution that eliminates one trip:

            Goat across
            Wolf across
            Goat back
            Throw the cabbage across to the wolf
            Goat across

            Two round trips and one one-way.

            • E.A. Blair
              Posted August 1, 2016 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

              On second thought…

              Throw the cabbage across
              Wolf across
              Goat across

              One round trip and one one-way.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 1, 2016 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

                I think it’s an implicit requirement that the cabbage remain un-battered throughout the proceedings. Just as the goat must remain alive and unmauled (since the wolf couldn’t possibly eat a whole goat in that fairly short space of time).


        • jeremy pereira
          Posted August 2, 2016 at 4:05 am | Permalink

          Goat across
          Wolf across
          Wolf eats you when you get to the other side.
          Wolf eats the goat

      • Paul S
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        I don’t get this. What’s on the starting side that prevents the goat > cabbage / wolf > goat, that isn’t present on the landing side?
        If you need to transport all three, why not untie the wolf, take it across and tie him back up, do the same for the goat and then take the cabbage.
        Three trips, less if you allow the wolf to swim across.

        • Wunold
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          As I understand this riddle, it’s the presence of the person making the trip with those three that stops them from following their nature. The boat has room for two, with said person occupies one at every crossing, as neither animal can’t steer the boat.

          Similarly, the boat is to be the only way across the river, be it because of rapids or hydrophobic animals. 🙂

          • Wunold
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

            typo: occupies -> occupying

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Those are all mathy questions. I’d probably get them all wrong and I am analytically minded and an atheist.

    Furthermore, I work with and have worked with very religious people (not all Christian) who are highly analytical problem solvers. So, although my n=20 or so is low, I think it’s enough to question the correlation. Furthermore, aren’t engineers one of the most religious professions? Aren’t most engineers highly analytical?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      On anecdotal evidence I’d agree. Engineers do seem to be very religious. I think it’s the only occupation that’s frequent enough in post-attack analysis to be correlated with terrorism. I’ve got an engineer who follows my site (ahem) religiously, but refuses to read any post that’s about atheism or attacks Christianity. He’s extremely intelligent and analytical.

      I suppose they like answers and order, and can’t handle “I don’t know” as an answer.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        Analytical people are driven to solve problems though and solve it correctly so it does seem strange that, as a whole, Engineers test high for religion. If I am facilitating a session where we just have to identify the issue, I often have to stop people from jumping into solving mode….myself included sometimes. Also, when I facilitate, I get frustrated when I don’t solve an issue or there is a veering from the intent of the meeting. I have to remind myself that this is their meeting, not mine and the only thing I should do is remind them of the intent and ask if they are okay with going the way things are going.

        Analytical people can be stubborn though. It takes a lot to convince them they are wrong.

        • rickflick
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

          What strikes me about the engineering mentality is the idea of a single right answer to a clearly defined problem. The training of an engineer involves solving problems using equations and formulas which result in a definite right answer. Many questions of a more philosophical type often involve some ambiguity. Moral and ethical questions certainly involve complex heuristics rather than pat answers from the answer key in the back of the book.
          The ability to cope comfortably with a certain amount of ambiguity is really trained out of engineers during their years of schooling. So, when human factors and ineffable probabilities are involved, engineers may be tempted to simply punt and look to the amorphous social environment for clues. Thus, when outside the engineering environment, religion answers questions that do not readily compute. Think of Mr. Spock at a cocktail party.

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        I’m an engineer and an atheist. We like answers to some questions,because we want to be sure that the bridge or (in my case) the pressure vessel we are building will withstand the stresses that it will be subject to. Are you going to drive across a bridge if the builder says that he or she doesn’t know if it will take the mass of your car?
        In other things as far as I am concerned “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer.
        I don’t think that as a group we are any more prone to religiosity than the general public and possibly less so than the medical profession.
        With regards to the terrorism link, well if you have an engineer in your terror group, he or she is unfortunately probably better at putting together a car bomb than your average English Lit. graduate.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          After I pressed submit, I realized I hadn’t included any qualifier words. I’m in no doubt that there are many atheist engineers out there too.

        • Richard
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:55 am | Permalink

          Well, I’m also an (ex-)engineer and an atheist, and I spent more than thirty years working with other engineers, and in all that time I met only two who were religious – and one of them freely admitted to me that for him religion was a psychological crutch: without it he became depressed and hurt those around him. Perhaps this is due to the level of religiosity already being low in the UK, and perhaps the ‘Salem Hypothesis’ is more valid in e.g. the US where religiosity is much higher?

          Also, in my experience engineers rarely think that there is a “single right answer” to a problem. In practice, any solution to a problem is a trade-off between numerous factors (simplicity, reliability, efficiency, cost, etc.) and part of the engineer’s task is to balance those factors to achieve a workable result.

          • Richard
            Posted August 3, 2016 at 7:20 am | Permalink

            Come to think of it, there were three: the third was a Nigerian contractor, supposedly devoutly Christian, with whom I worked on a project once.

            He left the project, and the project manager refused to sign off his final week’s timesheet (on the grounds that he had spent most of that time on the phone to agents looking for another contract), so he did not get paid for that last week. I later heard the PM talking on the phone to him, and at one point the PM said “Well, that’s not very Christian of you” – he had told the PM “I shall pray to my god that your project is a failure”.

            The rest of us working on the project found this hilarious: the project was such an utter mess that it was perfectly capable of being a failure all by itself (and it was), without any need for divine intervention!

            • rickflick
              Posted August 3, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

              Great story!

      • somer
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

        Its an interesting point. I can’t resist a link to
        Engineers of Jihad: The curious Connection between violent extremism and education

        • somer
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

          There’s no link though, to research based science – rather the applied stuff only.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          I didn’t know about that book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

        “I suppose they like answers and order, and can’t handle “I don’t know” as an answer.”

        Hey! I’m an engineer, and one of the first things young engineers learn by practical experience is that everyday engineering is *never* as neat and tidy as the text book examples. There are *always* unknowns. Admittedly some of them seek refuge by adhering slavishly to some ‘Code of Practice’.

        (This is in a New Zealand context, where people don’t flaunt their religion):
        I only know one engineer who is openly Christian, and when I first encountered him I was privately baffled as to how any engineer could (a) be religious and (b) admit it.


        • Heather Hastie
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          In New Zealand of course we’re pretty baffled when anyone is openly religious, especially at work. I have a close family member who’s an engineer and he’s also the most religious person I’m close to, and the most convinced he’s correct in every circumstance. At work though religion never gets a look in. He never uses it as part of the way he judges prospective employees, for example, and his business is very fast growing and he’s constantly hiring from all over the world.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

            It would be considered rude to push religion on someone at work in Canada but if asked, it isn’t so rude. I know there are situations where there is bigotry but that happens for all kinds of reasons, not just religion and it’s a human nature thing that is hard to completely eradicate.

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

              Sounds a bit like here in both cases. Humanity hasn’t yet evolved to a point where there is no bigotry and who knows whether that will ever happen? I think it requires the kind of society that NZ, Canada, and much of northern Europe has for it to be reduced as far as possible though.

      • Richard
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:05 am | Permalink

        “the only occupation that’s frequent enough in post-attack analysis to be correlated with terrorism”

        Perhaps this is an example of ‘survivorship bias’: only successful attacks are analysed, whereas unsuccessful attacks are more likely to fail because the attackers did not include an engineer? 🙂

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          Of course, there’s also the question of what constitutes an ‘engineer’, which is about as ill-defined as ‘manager’. Even leaving aside such obvious abuses as ‘custodial engineers’ (janitors), a software engineer has virtually nothing in common with a chemical engineer or a structural engineer.

          Whether the little they have in common includes similarities of methodology or worldview (which would the the characteristics relevant to the current topic) I’d hesitate to hazard a guess.


  5. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:16 am | Permalink


    There a good escalator puzzle like these :

    Alice and Bob each walked up a moving escalator. Bob took two steps in the same amount of time that Alice could take one step.

    Bob reached the top after walking 30 steps while Alice reached the top after taking 20 steps.

    The above comes from:

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      Oops – question is : how many steps are visible on the escalator?

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

        60, and there is no such thing as gods.

        • reasonshark
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:57 am | Permalink

          I’m stumped. Why’s it 60?

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      I suspect, though haven’t worked out, they’re walking up a down escalator?

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        They’d be walking up the “up” escalator. Bob has the opportunity to take more steps since he walks faster. Alice walks more slowly and so the escalator does more of the work for her, resulting in fewer steps.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:11 am | Permalink

          Correct, and the easy way to the answer should be to set the question in the right frame of reference. But I admit I can’t do that in my head, not for this puzzle anyway. Otherwise I suspect it would result in a quadratic to be solved.

          However, there would also be a solution if they were both walking up a (slow, short) down escalator.


  6. Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    The potato paradox will make you goddy. Suppose you have 100 lbs of potatoes, which are 99% water. You dehydrate them until they are 98% water. How much do they weigh?

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      99.01 lbs.


      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink


        • Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          No indeed. In my defense, I think the correct reasoning would probably have occurred to me if I’d spent enough time thinking about it. Of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

          • Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

            I would say that too, rather than go to church. 🙏👎

            • rickflick
              Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

              If the puzzle’s too tough, I’d consider going to church to ask the lord for the answer. But, I wouldn’t stay longer than necessary.

              • Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                I would google the answer rather than Lordle it.

              • rickflick
                Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

                I can see the headlines:


    • desconhecido
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Since the amount of solids remains constant and goes from 1% of the total to 2% of the total, my intuition tells me that the total weight (water plus solid) goes from 100 lbs to 50 lbs. Water weight goes from 99#(99% of 100#) to 49lbs(98% of 50lbs).

      Am I missing something” Where’s the paradox?

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        Good intuition. It is called the potato paradox. I didn’t invent the term but used it so the answer could be googled by those with less good intuition or math skills.

        • John Taylor
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

          I had to pull out pen and paper and do the math. My brain is getting older and slower. My intuition leads me in the wrong direction. I have to grind through the math.

          • John Taylor
            Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

            After I figured out two by grinding through the math the answer is completely obvious but I still didn’t see it at first . At least I did question two in my head. Embarrassing that I had to think so hard about that one.

            • Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

              I have always found that my math corrects my intuition more often than my intuition corrects my math.

            • rickflick
              Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

              Me too. Bothering to grind when necessary is a virtue.

      • Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, not really a paradox; just counter-intuitive to many people.

      • nicky
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        I don’t get that the total weight must go to 50lbs, why so? intuition? sarcasm?
        Got 3/3 though, so despite the potatoes I might still be a true atheist 🙂

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:26 am | Permalink

        I immediately thought ‘obvious, it goes to 99 lbs’. Which I think is wrong.

        The paradox must depend on which quantitity you’re taking as a basis for measuring the percentage from. If the ‘base quantity’ in the two cases isn’t the same then you’ll get apparently paradoxical results.


    • Jeff
      Posted August 3, 2016 at 4:35 am | Permalink

      I intuitively supposed that “are 99% water” means by volume; certainly the solid part would have a different weight-per-volume than water, so I was stuck. I figured that if I don’t know how much of the 100lbs is due to the water, it’s impossible to know it after dehydration as well. If I have a bucket with 99% feathers and 1% lead and I remove feathers such as they make up only 98%, the bucket may be “half full” – but how much does it weight? Or am I falling in the same trap…?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 3, 2016 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        I think the normal assumption would be ‘by weight’, since ‘by volume’ percentages are always likely to be much harder to measure.

        Whether ‘by weight’ or ‘by volume’ the same logic trap applies, just that ‘by volume’ the picture is even more complicated.


        • Posted August 3, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

          This is really the same as the doubling problem with the lily pads, just stated differently. So, you have to realize that it’s asking what it takes to double a fraction while holding the numerator constant. The answer is of course to cut the denominator in half, whereas the exponential growth problem is making you realize they’re doubling the numerator on each iteration.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 3, 2016 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

            Well, it has similarities, but the mathematical basis is far better hidden in the ‘potato’ version.


        • Jeff
          Posted August 4, 2016 at 5:59 am | Permalink

          I see, thanks, perhaps I was thinking about beer when coming with up volume percent 🙂
          However, I assumed the question was still about the weight but the 99% were related to volume. So in my bucket example, if I correctly deduced the logic and applied it to volume (hence finding that the final bucket would be half full), I still could not find its final weight, right? Because with my assumptions I still don’t know how much of the weight is due the (unchanged) lead-part. Say 99.9% of the initial weight of 100lbs comes from the 1% volume of lead in the bucket. If I now cut the 99% feather part down such that the total volume is 50%, I still can’t know the final weight of the bucket as I’m missing that 99.9% feather-to-lead ratio, correct?

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 4, 2016 at 6:40 am | Permalink

            I think you’re right there.

            I think the main reason for doing e.g. moisture content by weight is that, in a fibrous or granular solid (like gravel or wood), it’s very hard to define or measure a ‘volume’ of the solid. (Do you count the air spaces between the grains as part of the volume?) Much easier to take the total wet weight, thoroughly dry it, and weigh again.


            • Jeff
              Posted August 4, 2016 at 7:42 am | Permalink

              Totally makes sense, thanks!

  7. Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I got 3/3 and am an atheist. My wife and mother-in-law each got 1/3 and are both Christians. Not exactly a large population size in this analysis, but interesting nonetheless!

  8. nwalsh
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I’m going to need a ride to church this morning.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink


    • bluemaas
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      That is h i l a r i o u s, Ma nwalsh !

      Made me titter right out loud !


      ps Just the now suddenly thinking on my .being. inside a(ny) such building on this gorgeous and stunning last July 2016 day is, well, more than risible !

  9. therationalyogini
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I got the right, so I now know I am an atheist and will happily go about my day. 😉 The test was interesting to me because of the push-pull of it. Even though I worked them out, the questions are set up in such a way that I immediately knew what the “intuitive” response would be. I just didn’t stop there. Which, I suppose, is part of the point. At the same time, however, I wonder if someone saying they didn’t know and weren’t able to work the problems out would also be exhibiting critical thinking skills. So someone who may not get into the math of these, but would still know there was something not quite right with the “first blush” response?

    • therationalyogini
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      “I got THESE …” not “I got the”… I obviously need more coffee….

  10. tubby
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I’m terrible. I glanced at the questions, and wondered why I needed to predict whether or not I’m an atheist. It’s probably time for coffee.

    • therationalyogini
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:54 am | Permalink


    • Wunold
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      You might be a philosopher. 🙂

  11. SA Gould
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    For someone like myself who has dyslexia with numbers, it is a dumb test. This has never driven me to be closer to god. Never.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

      Realizing that religion is bullshit certainly doesn’t require a mathematically gifted, analytically superior mind. I am walking proof of that. But I also think it’s not an ignorable fact that those with greater perceptive and reasoning ability tend to converge on atheism in greater percentages than those who are “otherwise” gifted.

  12. E.A. Blair
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen these questions before, but not in the context of being a test for religiosity. They’re something like the trick question, “Most people say Noah was swallowed by a whale, but most translations of the bible say he was swallowed by a ‘great fish’. Which was it – whale or fish?” The answer, of corse is neither, since it was Jonah who had the fishy encounter.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t say these are trick questions; that is, deliberately sneaky or tricky. They are perfectly legitimate questions that happen to highlight some of our human cognitive deficits.

  13. Bernardo
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    This research is actually very important because it helps answer how religion first came to be. In ancient times, intuitive people would create gods to explain natural phenomena. This allows us to understand religions weren’t created by ingenious analytical people trying to take advantage of others. Rather, it was the honest byproduct of intuitive minds.

    • peepuk
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      “religions weren’t created by ingenious analytical people …”

      This is obvious. For me traditional religions are just obviously wrong ideologies.

      Other ideologies, like liberalism, Marxism, capitalism, are created and supported by analytical people.

  14. rickflick
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    When I compare this thesis to my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I think it corresponds pretty well.

    “there are smart religious people who hang on to faith for emotional reasons”

    This is also true to my experience. Two sons of an evangelical mom I know are both very bright and one will enter college to become a missionary MD. They really have little choice in career path because this is what their mother expects of them. They are both completely docile personalities and have not an ounce of rebellion or independent thinking between them. If I told them to think for themselves, I don’t think they would understand what I meant.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      definitely not the type of a person I would want to be a doctor.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        I suspect he’ll do alright as a doc, although he did mention that he thought saving a soul was more critical than saving a life. That idea could end up killing someone under the wrong circumstances.

  15. Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I got all three correct as well, though it took two minutes, not one minute. And I’ve seen similar questions, so I recognized the trip ups.

  16. Michael
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I read another Big Think article yesterday in which Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is interviewed. The discussion is around the “war” between science and philosophy, and centers largely around Professor Coyne’s review of the silly NY Times column by James Blachowicz earlier this month.

  17. Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me Jerry has written about these questions before. About a year ago?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Yes because I remember the bat question and Jerry explained it, I think more than once. Then I still didn’t get it so I asked others in meat space and they grew frustrated with me not grasping what seemed, to them, to be completely obvious. This is typical of what happens to me with math questions. My brain is defective that way.

  18. desconhecido
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    For me, the first question took a couple seconds of thought, but the other two were quite obvious, and to me, intuitive.

    I think I understand the potato problem, but probably screwed it up.

    The elevator problem actually took me a while as I didn’t see an intuitive answer nor a way to figure out the answer by refining guesses (in the way that it’s easy to solve the bat/baseball problem). It turns out to be pretty simple to set it up as an algebra problem, but I’m more than a bit rusty.

    One interesting problem that I saw posed not to long ago:

    If there is a test for a rare disease that has 99% accuracy, how probable is it that when someone tests positive that they have the disease?

    I don’t think there is enough information to tell.

    If we know that 1% of the population has the disease, I think the answer is that anyone who tests positive has a 50% chance of being infected.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Yes. The intuition on that is that the group that has the rare disease and tests positive and the group that doesn’t have it but falsely tests positive are the same size.

  19. Sastra
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I’d heard about these studies which indicated that atheists tend to be deep/analytical thinkers while theists skew more towards the superficial/intuitive end of the scale — and mentioned the results to some of my pro-faith, woo-soaked, Spiritual friends. I was curious about their reactions. Would they be miffed by an implication that they were “unreflective, shallow-thinking fools?”

    On the contrary. They welcomed the result because it emphasized their “intuitive” nature. In their world view, rationality and a tendency to over analyze is what leads one away from the certainties of the heart, the inner instinct which binds one to God/Spirit. The fact that Believers who leap to quick conclusions get the answers wrong (and the skeptics who hesitate and do some mental checking get the answers right) wasn’t seen as problematic. Math is worldly. Intuition is better in spiritual matters.

    These studies only confirmed what was going wrong with atheists, as far as they were concerned. A rather shallow analysis — surprise.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      Jerry’s favorite Shakespeare comes to mind: making a virtue of necessity.

  20. Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I came up with the correct answers in a ridiculously tiny amount of time – these are very old puzzles which should no longer fool anyone.

    • bonetired
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Everybody meets these puzzles for the first time at least once in their lives 😉

    • Wunold
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      I know at least the third one from my earliest childhood.

  21. Posted July 31, 2016 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Got them all within seconds. I’m sure I would’ve gotten them all correct when I was steeped in religion too.

    As for whether people become atheists for other reasons, I think they’re playing right into the classic trope of the extremely religious-people become atheists because they are angry at God. No, people who are angry at God are either not atheists or they’re delusional since it’s silly to be angry with a nonexistent thing. Angry with religious people? Absolutely. Angry with God? No.

  22. Jonathan Livengood
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Those questions are Shane Frederick’s Cognitive Reflection Test. First published in his paper “Cognitive Reflection and Decision Making” (

  23. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Got each of those in a couple of seconds flat. 5, 5 and 47.

    Seen that sort of question innumerable times. They incorporate a mild degree of trickiness. BUT – my answers seemed to me to be almost intuitive. Can ‘analytical’ thinking become intuitive if you do enough of that sort of puzzles?


  24. Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:31 am | Permalink


  25. jeremy pereira
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen all of those questions before so it is not surprising that I got all of them right. More interesting is that the fact that the second question requires you to make some assumptions not stated in the question really annoyed me. I guess that makes me a pedantic atheist.

    The assumption, by the way is, that it is assumed all five machines are identical and working in parallel rather than five separate stages in a manufacturing process.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      I think that assumption is a fairly obvious one to make. I had more doubts about the assumption in the third question, that the lily pads could double in area daily. Obviously at some point there must be a logistic limit to the speed at which the lily pad patch could extend – the assumption is that limit hasn’t been approached.


      • jeremy pereira
        Posted August 2, 2016 at 4:07 am | Permalink

        As I said “pedantic atheist”.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 2, 2016 at 5:04 am | Permalink

          You, or me?

          Yeah, probably both. 🙂


  26. jay
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    This is an entertaining test, but it’s a bit too self congratulatory. .. and hence suspect.

    In the tech world where I work, plenty of religious people could get this correct. And I know some atheists who probably couldn’t.

  27. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I think that depends on the engineer. Software engineers do have to do some abstract thinking.

    I’m no engineer but I have the time of my life when I have to solve problems beyond system issues like how to get a project done with few resources, how to influence others or motivate team members. Maybe that’s because I’m comfortable in the gray areas and I’m not afraid of ambiguity. I think that is something engineers in software learn on the job if they are working on a project.

  28. Leo Glenn
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Ironically, my employer asks these exact questions (among others, of course) in every job interview, and he is one of the most truly devout Christians I have met. Not sure what to make of that.

    • jt512
      Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      It’s easy to think what to make of it. As explained in Comment #2 and the replies by Divalent, and me, due to statistical problems with the study that the questions were taken from, there is no good evidence that the questions predict religiosity. However, they still might predict analytic thinking.

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