Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Religion teaches self-control, and that’s what makes kids less likely to try drugs

Dad Daughter BibleDrug and alcohol abuse by teens causes a whole set of health, developmental, and social problems. What’s not clear is what makes some kids more or less likely to even try drugs in the first place, much less go on to regularly abuse them. And when researchers do identify risks or protective factors, how and why they make kids more or less likely to try drugs usually remains a mystery. For example, religion is a well-known protective factor, which means that religious adolescents are less likely to try drugs. From a public health standpoint, the how and why don’t really matter. But for the scientific study of religion, this is the most important question. So what is it about religion that makes kids less likely to try drugs as they grow up?

A group of researchers led by psychologist Jungmeen Kim-Spoon at Virginia Tech sought to answer this question. They work with a paradigm called delay discounting. It’s where people get a choice between two rewards. There’s the smaller one, which they can get immediately, or there’s a larger one, which they’d get at some later time. There’s an important trend in how people answer: as the delay before they can get the larger reward increases, people tend to favor getting the smaller reward now. People “discount” the value of the larger, later reward more the longer they have to wait to get it. As the old saying goes, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

People have higher or lower discounting rates. A higher discounting rate means someone won’t be willing to wait as long for the larger reward. For example, if the “smaller sooner” reward is $20 and the “larger later” one is $30, a person with a higher discounting rate might only be willing to wait three days to get that extra $10. Someone with a lower rate might be willing to wait a week or more. What’s important to note is that researchers have found that religious people on average have lower delay discounting rates. The leading theory explaining this is that religion fosters self-control, and waiting for the larger reward is ultimately about controlling our innate impulsivity.

Kim-Spoon started by surveying about 100 kids when they were 10-12 years old and again almost 2.5 years later. At that first meeting, the kids were given a short survey about their religiosity. The first group of questions indicated their “organizational religiousness.” This is how much the kids attended religious activities, such as worship services or religious education. The second group showed their “personal religiousness.” These questions asked the importance of some religious beliefs, such as believing in God. Then, the subjects were asked to rate how often they used alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana on a scale from “never used” to “usually use every day.” At the second meeting when the kids were between 12 and 14 years old, the investigators gave the Monetary Choice Questionnaire, which allowed the investigators to find each kid’s unique delay discounting rate, as well as the same substance use survey as before.

Their analysis focused only on the more than 97% of participants who never used any drug at the first time point, looking at how their answers to the religiosity survey compared with their delay discounting rates. Specifically, they used path analysis techniques to explore the relationship between organizational religiousness, personal religiousness, delay discounting rate, and whether or not they ever used any drugs between the two meetings. First, they found a negative correlation between personal religiosity and delay discounting rates. In other words, the preteens who said religion was more important to them were more likely to wait longer for the larger reward than those who scored religion as less important to them. There was no correlation at all between organizational religiosity and delay discounting rate. This was hardly surprising. Just sitting in the pews every week doesn’t automatically mean that someone gets religion’s psychological benefits – especially for kids who usually have no say in whether they attend. However, the researchers also found an unsurprising positive correlation between organizational and personal religiousness, which is to say that bringing kids to weekly services and other events makes it more likely they’ll come to find religious beliefs important to their lives.

Second, the path analysis found that more religious preteens’ lower likelihood of trying drugs even once was mediated by their delay discounting rate. This is a statistical argument that says it’s not being more personally religious alone that makes preteens and teens less likely to try drugs. Rather, being more religious increases adolescents’ self-control with regards to foregoing immediate rewards, like a buzz or high, in favor of better rewards in the future. This increased self-control that religion instills in people of all ages is the likely explanation for why being religious and being drug-free so often go together.

This study gives much-needed empirical clarity into the question of how religious identity leads to lower rates of substance use among preteens and teens. One of the major theories proposing an answer to this question is social control theory. This says that religion is a significant form of social control, one that directly and indirectly gets adolescents to act prosocially. A counter-theory comes from Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi and is called the self-control or general theory. Within the context of the present study, this says that adolescents internalize social and religious rules. As a result, they gain self-control, avoiding antisocial or sinful behaviors in part through self-monitoring.

It’s this second theory that Kim-Spoon’s and her colleagues’ study supports. They give evidence that the self-control that religion teaches is the source of religion’s public health benefits. The interesting insight from this study is that being a part of a religious community is not sufficient by itself for this development, particularly if one shows up at church for reasons that don’t have anything to do with religion – like “mom and dad made me.”

For more, see “Longitudinal Associations Among Religiousness, Delay Discounting, and Substance Use Initiation in Early Adolescence” in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.

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