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Representations of Religious Words: Insights for Religious Priming Research


  • Note: This publication was made possible by grant support from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the John Templeton Foundation.

  • Acknowledgments: The authors thank Lawrence Hubert for helpful comments and suggestions on data analysis, and Pin-ya Tseng for her assistance with data collection.

Correspondence should be addressed to Ryan S. Ritter, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 603 E. Daniel St., Champaign, IL 61820. E-mail:


Researchers often expose participants to a series of words (e.g., religion, God, faith) to activate religious concepts and observe their subsequent effects on people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This research has revealed many important effects of experimentally manipulated religious cognition in domains ranging from prosocial behavior to prejudice. However, it is not exactly clear what constitutes a “religious cognition,” and no research has yet investigated conceptual distinctions between different kinds of religious prime words. In the present research we used a card-sorting task to examine laypeople's subjective understanding of religious prime words, and the central categories or dimensions of these religious concepts. Using multidimensional scaling, property fitting, and cluster analysis methods to analyze the proximities among the words, we find evidence for the mental representation of three relatively distinct kinds of religious concepts: agents (e.g., God, angel), spiritual/abstract (e.g., faith, belief), and institutional/concrete (e.g., shrine, scripture). Theoretical and methodological impli-cations for religious priming research are discussed.