The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.
Dr. David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he also runs the Social Emotions Group. Throughout his career, Dave has studied the ways in which emotions guide decisions and behaviors fundamental to social living. On his podcast, How God Works, Dave explores the science behind spirituality, specifically considering what we can learn from the careful study of spiritual practices. Dave joins the podcast to discuss how religion “scooped” his scientific findings by thousands of years, why religious rituals are so effective, and what he believes we can gain by talking about science and religion together.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
DAVID DESTENO: My research is aimed at trying to study how to make the world a better place, if that makes any sense. And by that I mean kind of on the micro level that is, how do we get people to embody virtues like generosity and honesty, and how does that help them live more happy and fulfilling lives?
ABBY PONTICELLO: Dave runs the Social Emotions group at Northeastern University where he’s a professor of psychology. So Dave’s a psychologist who studies emotions, but he also studies religion. Yep. You heard that right? He’s a scientist who studies religion. Two disciplines that seem to mix like oil and water.
That’s what really fascinated me about Dave. So I read his book, How God Works, and since he hosts a podcast of his own, also called How God Works, we thought he would be the perfect guest for our show.
ABBY PONTICELLO: First off, it’s so great to meet you, Dave. Very thrilled to have you here on Templeton Ideas, being such an experienced podcaster yourself.
DAVID DESTENO: Well, thanks very much. It’s a pleasure for me to be on and to get to speak with you, Abby.
ABBY PONTICELLO: I sat down with Dave for a conversation recently and we talked about what it means to be a scientist who studies religion. How does someone fall into that career? It turns out they start by asking very big questions from a very young age.
DAVID DESTENO: Where did the universe come from? Why are we here?
ABBY PONTICELLO: When Dave was a kid, he would stare up at the sky in awe and wonder.
DAVID DESTENO: Galaxies, stars, planets, the university that inspired true, true awe in me, and I decided at that point, that’s it. I want to be an astrophysicist.
ABBY PONTICELLO: An astrophysicist, not a psychologist, but there was a problem.
Dave wasn’t good at math, which is a necessary requirement for a career in astrophysics. I can relate. I was dead set on becoming a veterinarian until I realized that the sight of blood makes me woozy, that shattered that dream. So like me, Dave gave up his dream of a career as an astrophysicist and focused instead on the other question that kept him up at night.
DAVID DESTENO: What’s our meaning? How do we make life better for ourselves and for everyone?
ABBY PONTICELLO: He thought about these questions a lot during college and it led him to two options for what he wanted to study. The history of religion and psychology.
DAVID DESTENO: Ultimately, I decided I was gonna be a psychologist if for no other reason than I could collect data. Right? And, and it, it wasn’t just an ongoing debate about what I thought God wanted or what this exegesis might say.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Dave was tired of debating. He wanted answers, and it seemed like psychology might be the way to get them. So after some schooling and then some more schooling, he became a psychologist. Now he could ask questions, develop a study, and get answers. But something felt off the studies Dave was doing at first were kind of depressing.
DAVID DESTENO: We were studying negative stuff. Right? You know, how does jealousy lead to aggression? How do you know, anger and disgust and fear lead to increases in prejudice, et cetera. But I was fortunate to have a bunch of students at that time who were interested in the more positive side of emotions. And so I had students who wanted to study gratitude and students who wanted to study compassion.
ABBY PONTICELLO: So Dave began to study positive emotions like gratitude and compassion instead of negative ones like jealousy and anger. And eventually he realized something dramatic. Studying positive emotions might actually help him make the world a better place.
Take the study he did about New Year’s resolutions. Every year people decide they wanna be better people. They’re gonna exercise more, call their mom every week, meditate, whatever it is. But what Dave found, like most people who have ever tried to make a New Year’s resolution, is that it’s really, really hard to keep them. He found that 25% of resolutions fail by January 8th, and only 10% are kept until the year’s end.
DAVID DESTENO: So relying on willpower isn’t really that helpful. We need a better strategy.
ABBY PONTICELLO: So he tried to figure out what would work.
DAVID DESTENO: And what we’ve been able to show in lots of different domains is that if people are facing a temptation for something that they know isn’t good for them, but that they want to give into, if they stop for a moment and cultivate a sense of gratitude by counting their blessings or reflecting on something that they’re grateful for, they get more patient, they save more money, they’re better at resisting temptation, they cheat less, they help others more, you know, they’re more generous. And so to me, it’s like next time you’re walking down the impulse aisle, stop a minute before you go down. Think about something you’re grateful for and that will help you.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Dave figured out that cultivating gratitude could help people to keep their New Year’s resolutions. But even more than that, he had found a way to help people avoid temptation in general.
Dave also realized that studying positive emotions, like gratitude, was more rewarding than studying negative emotions. It helped him develop real recommendations for people about how to make better decisions and helping people to make the world a better place, was his dream after all. So Dave kept studying positive emotions and then he started doing something really interesting in his lab.
DAVID DESTENO: We create real situations for people with actors. For those of you who are old enough to remember Candid Camera, it’s like that. Those of you remember, remember the show Punk’d it’s like that, except we don’t do dangerous things.
ABBY PONTICELLO: So rather than having people come into a lab and asking them, imagine a time you felt mad, and then do a task. Dave’s lab would actually try to make someone mad before doing the task. He explains exactly how this worked in one study they did a few years ago.
DAVID DESTENO: So we brought people into a lab and we had them put on earphones. They thought they were in a music perception study, and they had to tap a sensor in front of them as they heard beats, and we rigged it so that the beats were synchronized. So people either tapped together and moved their arms in time with one another, or they were completely random, so they were out of sync.
ABBY PONTICELLO: After tapping either in sync or out of sync with their partner. One person would be asked to do a really boring, horrible task, and the other person would have to watch them do it. Then Dave would ask them questions like, how similar do you feel to your partner, and do you feel bad for your partner?
DAVID DESTENO: Not only did the people who tapped in time feel more similar and therefore more compassion toward the person, they were much more likely to say, can I go help this person?
ABBY PONTICELLO: That was a cool finding, but Dave took it even a step further. He would ask them, well, why do you think you’re more similar to your partner?
DAVID DESTENO: They’d say things like I think he sits in the back of my big lecture class, or I think I saw him at a party two weeks ago. None of that was true, right? The person that was your partner was always an actor who was working for us.
ABBY PONTICELLO: None of the study participants actually knew their partners at all.
DAVID DESTENO: But that simple act of synchrony was a cue to the mind to make people feel closer to each other.
ABBY PONTICELLO: This was a very exciting discovery for Dave. All someone had to do to feel similar to and compassion for a stranger was to tap in time with them.
DAVID DESTENO: So we were like, look at this. We created this awesome life hack out of thin air to create feelings of connection.
ABBY PONTICELLO: I like how he refers to it as a life hack. We’ve all been there when you sort of accidentally stumble upon a simple solution to a long-standing problem. It’s so, so satisfying.
But we’ve probably also all had that experience of discovering a brand new life hack only to realize that everyone else already seems to know about it. I was pretty disappointed to learn that I was not, in fact, the first person to discover that vinegar is a miracle cleaning product, and this is sort of what Dave experienced.
Every time we thought we had discovered some wonderful new life hack that we could give people to make them better, I'd look around and I'd see that it was being used in religion already.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Think about it. We see synchrony in almost every religious tradition. Buddhist and Hindus often chant together in prayer. Prayer in Christianity and Islam involves standing and kneeling and unison. Church choirs often sway or dance together. Religion had beat Dave to the punch on discovering just how beneficial synchrony can be.
DAVID DESTENO: And so what I was seeing is that the things that we have been doing to evoke different emotions or to evoke feelings of connection, were already in use and packaged in sophisticated ways much more than you know, anything we were discovering and, and to a psychologist or to any scientist, to have your idea scooped is always deflating, but to be scooped by thousands of years is like really shocking.
ABBY PONTICELLO: And it wasn’t just the synchrony study. Dave realized that religion had beat him to the punch when it came to other studies he had conducted with his lab too. So Dave had a revelation that if he could study religious rituals from a psychologist’s perspective, maybe he could figure out both why they work and also how we can benefit from their teachings.
And as he started down the path of studying religious rituals, Dave realized that he was right. There is a lot we can learn from the practices of religion.
DAVID DESTENO: It would be really strange if thousands of years of thought meant to help people meet the challenges of life, didn’t have something that was useful.
ABBY PONTICELLO: One particular religious ritual stands out for Dave.
DAVID DESTENO: So one of my favorite examples is the morning ritual of Shiva and Judaism. Shiva’s a seven day period where when the Mourner loses someone, people go to their home and it’s not like you should go, it’s a mitzvah, it’s a commandment, you have to go and you bring food and you offer to help people out.
ABBY PONTICELLO: What Dave’s talking about is called instrumental support, which just refers to a type of assistance that is tangible or physical. For the ritual of Shiva and Judaism, instrumental support likely takes the form of casseroles, bagels, fruit platters, and cookies in huge quantities. My family is Jewish, and one of my clearest memories of sitting Shiva for my grandfather as a teenager was the overwhelming abundance of food.
DAVID DESTENO: What we see is that instrumental support is one of the greatest predictors for who moves through bereavement in a resilient way, and who doesn’t?
ABBY PONTICELLO: This was true in my experience, the food, the people, it was overwhelming at first, but also strangely comforting. I remember feeling cared for, somehow insulated from my grief by this warm cocoon of Jewish deli food and constant company. Another traditional rule during Shiva is that you’re supposed to cover your mirrors.
DAVID DESTENO: You’re not supposed to focus on your appearance, right? You’re not supposed to shave. You’re not supposed to worry about combing your hair. This reduces self-focus. We know that when people are feeling any kind of depression, self-focus increases depression.
ABBY PONTICELLO: So covering mirrors, not focusing on appearance, these aren’t just random bizarre practices like I thought as a kid
DAVID DESTENO: There’s a theological reason for it, but why do people do it? Well, there’s wonderful psychological data that shows, whatever emotion you’re feeling when you look in a mirror, it becomes more intense. So if you’re, if you’re feeling happy and you look in a mirror, suddenly your happiness goes up. But if you’re feeling sadness and grief and you look in a mirror that would go up. And so by covering your mirrors, it’s another way to begin to reduce grief.
ABBY PONTICELLO: The last piece of Shiva that Dave discusses is the tradition of sitting on the floor or on low stools. This is another ritual that has always struck me as being a little odd. But of course Dave has discovered a fascinating scientific explanation for it.
DAVID DESTENO: Now, if you sit on a low stool or on the floor pretty quickly, that begins to kind of cause pain in your legs and your back, until then you get up. There’s new neuroscience data, only a few years old, that shows mild onset and offset of mild discomforts, actually reduces grief and rumination.
ABBY PONTICELLO: It’s pretty awe-inspiring to see all of these different elements, the low stools covering of the mirrors, and instrumental support, packaged together so masterfully. It’s an important part of why rituals like Shiva are so effective.
DAVID DESTENO: Any one of them could be, you know, a nudge to reduce grief, but those are kind of like playing single notes. What you see in rituals are symphonies.
They package all of these together and sure, they may not have understood why the science of why they work. They couldn’t run randomized controlled trials, they couldn’t scan your brain, but nonetheless, they arrived at these practices that actually helped people meet the challenge that they’re facing at the time.
ABBY PONTICELLO: This is a really crucial point. Ancient religious communities may not have understood the science of why religious rituals help people live meaningful lives, but they could see that the rituals do indeed work. Yes, Shiva is alluded to in the Torah, but it’s still a practice that has stuck around for thousands of years.
Maybe it’s a tradition or maybe Shiva has endured because it really helps. Regardless, there’s something so beautiful to me in realizing that across the centuries, Jews have protected themselves and their loved ones from the pain of grief through this carefully orchestrated set of rituals. Their very own symphony, as Dave calls it. And there are examples like this one from across all different faiths, which Dave explores in his book How God Works.
DAVID DESTENO: What I do is I’m kind of like your tour guide. I take these rituals and I show what they’re doing to our physical bodies and to our psychological mechanisms and how they work on multiple levels to help people.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Dave sort of arrived at his revelation about religion by accident. He didn’t set out to study the benefits of religious rituals and practices. He set out to study emotions with the goal of helping people live better lives. And then he saw that many religions already seemed to use the strategies he was finding. So he realized that studying religious rituals as a scientist just might be the best way to help people.
DAVID DESTENO: I think the misconception that causes certain theological tenets about maybe the way the world was constructed or certain elements that don’t fit with modern science do exist, that all of it is nonsense, is a problem.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Dave’s work is a perfect example of why religion and science shouldn’t be kept separate as they often have been. There is so much to be gained by studying them together. Dave thinks that all people, including scientists, should approach the teachings and practices of religion with an open mind. Even those who aren’t especially religious. He actually knows this from personal experience.
DAVID DESTENO: I’d say I’m kind of agnostic. That is. I just don’t know, but I’m comfortable in the sense of not knowing what’s out there, and I’m open to the possibility of things.
ABBY PONTICELLO: By opening himself up to the idea that religion can offer important life lessons and insight into the human condition, Dave’s career expanded in a way he never expected.
DAVID DESTENO: Look, no one knows if God exists. There is no scientific test for the fingerprint of God. Let’s not argue about something that we can’t answer. So whether you think these practices are divinely inspired or whether you think they come from people just trying stuff out over millennia and honing it and figuring it out. I don’t know the answer to that, but we don’t have to agree on that to understand how they work and how they can make life better.
ABBY PONTICELLO: I wanna repeat Dave’s point here because it’s so important. We don’t have to agree on the answer to whether God exists or not to appreciate the value of religious practices. But there’s also a fine line here. Dave’s isn’t advocating that all religious practices are necessarily good, and for those that we do seek to emulate, context matters.
DAVID DESTENO: If you’re not Jewish, you probably don’t want to be saying, you know, the Jewish prayers that they say during the mourning ritual of, of Shiva, or if you’re a Catholic, you probably don’t wanna be saying Hindu prayers, but there are elements of practices that involves simply the way we interact with other people, the way we use our bodies, the way we breathe, the way we structure certain elements of the day that you can see repeated in lots of religions. And I think there we can extract those in kind of the way now that we’ve done with meditation, right?
ABBY PONTICELLO: The practice of meditation dates back several thousand years and is an integral part of many spiritual and religious traditions, notably Buddhism. But in recent years, it’s become less of a sacred, private spiritual practice and more of a widely embraced wellness tool that can be accessed on apps and even social media. And personally, I’ve seen so many non-religious friends benefit enormously from a daily session on a meditation app or regular breathing exercises.
DAVID DESTENO: The big question is, are the benefits as great as they are, if you actually combine it with the spiritual practice, that we don’t know yet. But there are benefits when you extract. And so my argument is, let’s see what we can extract, in a respectful way to help people. Does it mean every practice is going to work would be beneficial. No. But they are psychological practices and I think they’re worthy of our respect and consideration.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Dave’s ultimate goal is and has always been to help people. That’s what led him to study psychology in the first place and then what led him down the path of investigating religious rituals. And he believes that what he’s learned about the scientific value of religious rituals has potentially major implications for the study of wellbeing.
But only if those with strong opinions about either science or religion remain open-minded enough to see the value in the intersection between the two, because we really do lose something crucial by keeping them separate.
DAVID DESTENO: And I hope, really, I hope that I can make a safe space for people to talk about science and religion together, because, you know, those fields have been at loggerheads forever. And especially now between the battles between fundamentalists on one side and the new atheist on the other. And I think that doesn’t help people because I think most people are somewhere in between.
ABBY PONTICELLO: Well, thank you so much, Dave, for being with us today. It’s been such a joy talking to you.
DAVID DESTENO: Thanks for having me, and I am looking forward to hearing more of your conversations going forward.
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Our program was produced by Jakob Lewis, Rachel Aronoff, and Cariad Harmon. Our staff includes Tom Burnett, Abby Ponticello, Benjamin Carlson, Gerald Nelson, David Nassar, and Alyssa Settefrati. Music helped from Great Feeling Studios.