Your Childhood Beliefs on Afterlife Stick With You

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(Image credit: agsandrew |

Childhood beliefs about the soul and afterlife stick with people as they age, shaping their views in adulthood, even if they say otherwise, a new study finds.

The study is the first to examine explicit, or stated, and implicit, or longstanding but not consciously admitted, beliefs on the soul and afterlife, said researcher Stephanie Anglin, a doctoral student in psychology at Rutgers University. She examined how these personal beliefs develop, change and persist from childhood through adulthood.

Implicit beliefs can be difficult to measure, so Anglin designed an experiment that tested what words people immediately associated with the soul and the afterlife. [Saint or Slacker? Test Your Religious Knowledge]

"My starting point was, assuming that people have these automatic — that is, implicit or ingrained — beliefs about the soul and afterlife, how can we measure those implicit beliefs?" Anglin said in a statement.

Though the study is small, it may open the doors for future research on how childhood creed can influence later attitudes on social, political and moral issues, such as capital punishment, creationism and stem cell research, she said. 

Views of the soul

In the new study, Anglin gave 348 undergraduate psychology students a questionnaire about their religious beliefs. About 41 of the students identified as Christian, 15 percent as Hindu, 14 percent as other, 9.5 percent as agnostic, 7 percent as Muslim, 6.5 percent as atheist, 4.5 percent as Jewish and 2.5 percent as Buddhist.

The students, with an average age of 18, used a 9-point scale to rate statements about how much they believed in the soul and afterlife when they were 10 years old and now. Students also did a word-pairing test known to reveal their implicit religious beliefs. In that part of the study, participants sorted words into categories that were flashed on a computer screen.

For instance, students could pair "soul" with either "real" or "fake," which gauged their beliefs on this concept. Students could also match "soul" with "eternal" or "death," to help Anglin understand their implicit beliefs on the afterlife.

The students' current implicit beliefs on the soul and afterlife were similar to what they recalled thinking as children, Anglin found. But their implicit beliefs did not match their stated explicit beliefs, those they reported believing in now.

The students reported their childhood beliefs in the soul were not as strong as they are now. But the strength of childhood and current beliefs on the afterlife did not differ over time, she found. Overall, the group's current belief in the afterlife averaged a 6.72 out of 9, indicating that most people believe in the afterlife, Anglin said.

People who self-identified as religious also tended to believe more in the soul and afterlife as adults than less religious students did, the study showed. Furthermore, students who identified as Muslim reported the strongest current beliefs in the soul and afterlife. Conversely, atheists reported the weakest current beliefs.

In contrast, implicit beliefs about the soul and afterlife showed no difference among all religious affiliations and levels of religious belief, even agnostics and atheists, Anglin said.

The findings echo a comparable study, published in 2009 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, about perceptions of the soul. Researchers in that study asked people whether they would sign a contract agreeing to sell their souls for $2 to an experimenter. "Almost nobody signed, even though the researchers told them it wasn't actually a contract and would be shredded right away," Anglin said. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

Study limitations

The study, however, has several limitations. The students had to recall their childhood beliefs, and their memories may have been faulty. Also, Anglin only looked at American college students, and the results may not extend to other age groups or cultures, she said.

Moreover, the test used to find implicit beliefs may not accurately measure the students' implicit thoughts.

"For example, participants' automatic associations of the soul with real rather than fake stimuli may reflect a general importance or positive valence ascribed to the soul, rather than an underlying belief about its existence," Anglin said.

But the research may also open avenues for future studies on whether beliefs in the soul or afterlife are connected to certain social or political issues.

"It would be really useful to have a longitudinal study examining the same ideas," Anglin said. "That is, study a group of people over time, from childhood through adulthood, and examine their beliefs about the soul and afterlife as they develop."

The study was published Oct. 31 in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

Follow Laura Geggel on Twitter @LauraGeggel and Google+. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.