Tattoos, I have found, tend to have quite a polarising effect. I have several of them (23 at last count), mostly in places that are openly visible (hands, arms, fingers, neck).
People either love them or hate them: rarely do I meet someone who doesn’t have an opinion on whether I’m “ruining my body” or “making meaningful art”.
It has been well-documented that on the whole, people with visible tattoos are seen as less trustworthy. This is perhaps unsurprising: whilst tattoos are making their way further into the mainstream, historically they were often seen as criminal signals.
But what happens when you take a group of people with strong beliefs – religious Christians, for example – and present them with something theoretically untrustworthy, like a tattoo, but make the subject something they love, like Jesus?
Confusion is what happens.
Trimming & Perrett, two researchers from the University of St. Andrews, recently compared the views held by Christians vs. non-Christians about different tattoos.
They found that visible tattoos made everybody wary, regardless of religious affiliation: tattooed people were seen as less trustworthy than those without tattoos.
Among Christian respondents, faces with Christian-themed tattoos (like crosses, rosary beads and representations of Jesus) were rated significantly higher than they were among non-Christian respondents.
Interestingly, however, Christian respondents showed no significant difference in ratings between Christian-themed and non-Christian-themed tattoos.
The study is behind a paywall, and I’m reluctant to pay $35 for more information, but I’m wondering whether the same Christians were shown the various different tattoos. Because if so, and depending on the order in which they were shown, it could be the case that the tattoos depicting Christian imagery “desensitised” them to the other tattoos, making them show more positive ratings across the board.
The authors of the study certainly seem to think that the Christian imagery itself had some effect: the subtitle is ‘A study of religion, tattoos and cognitive dissonance’.
Cognitive dissonance refers to when someone holds two beliefs that each seem to not make sense in the context of the other. This leads to discomfort, making people want to create consistency of beliefs so much that they may end up believing or acting in an irrational manner.
Timming & Perret, then, seem to be saying that Christians ranked tattooed individuals more highly than non-Christians, because the cognitive dissonance they experienced when looking at tattoos of Christian imagery made them want to believe that the tattooed people were more trustworthy than most people would think they were.
It’s an interesting study and one I’d certainly like to see developed further; you can find the full text here.