Science on Religion

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With God as your shepherd, you take more risks

ParaglidingReligious people aren’t risk-takers. Study after study has shown that if someone’s reminded about God or if someone’s more intrinsically religious, then they’re less likely to take a risk. Coming across religious words makes people less likely to drink, do drugs, gamble, and even speed in their cars. Thousands have put this effect to great use in programs that include acknowledging a “Higher Power” as one of their twelve steps. However, the fact is that not all risks are the same. Should we think that religion will decrease all types of risk-taking equally? Maybe not.

Recently published work out of the National University of Singapore found that while religion leads to less risk-taking on moral matters, like drugs and stealing, it leads to more risk-taking on nonmoral matters, like how many pumps it takes to inflate a virtual balloon until it pops, and the authors thought it was because religion gave people a greater sense of self-control. Daniella Kupor and her colleagues at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business disagreed with this interpretation, thinking instead that God serves a protective figure that psychologically is an object of attachment. Therefore, people will take more nonmoral risks after being primed with religious ideas because they feel safer and that God was protecting them.

In a series of eight online studies, the researchers put their hypothesis to the test. In the first three experiments, subjects carried out a priming task disguised as a test of their ability to rearrange strings of words to form short sentences. Half the subjects had some sentences with religious content, and the rest didn’t. Then, they were asked to take either the Domain-Specific Risk-Taking scale, which had them mark how likely they were to take a variety of risks, to share a risk they had considered taking in the past and say how likely they’d do it in the upcoming month, or to read up to six articles about skydiving – where the number of articles read was taken as a measure of interest in this risky activity. In all three, people who were primed with religion were more willing or showed more interest in taking nonmoral risks. A fourth experiment started the same, and asked the subjects how willing they were then and there to take a risk of viewing extremely bright colors that they were told could damage their eyes. Again, being primed with religious ideas led people to be more willing to take this risk.

In the fifth experiment, the researchers compared how many times social media users clicked on ads for three scenarios. The ads asked people to learn about an immoral risk (how to bribe), a nonmoral risk (skydiving), and no risk (video games). For each scenario, the ad began either, “God knows what you’re missing!” or, “You don’t know what you’re missing!” As expected, for the no risk scenario, they found know difference between click-through rates, and with the immoral risk, significantly fewer people clicked on the link if it began with “God knows.” But for the nonmoral risk scenario, the “God knows” ads got significantly more clicks.

The sixth experiment asked people to again do the priming task from the first experiments and then read about three different, nonmoral risky activities (motorcycling without a helmet, wilderness camping, and backcountry skiing). After each, they were asked to rate their perception of the danger of each. Again, the investigators found that people exposed to religious concepts were more willing to take these risks, perceiving them to be less dangerous, than those who weren’t.

The final experiment went along this vein, but it was designed to reveal how people’s feelings about God would change if they took a risk and got burned. Using the same set up as the Singaporean lab, the Balloon Analogue Risk Task or BART, they were told that each virtual pump of the balloon would earn them money but that they’d lose it all if the balloon popped. Furthermore, they were told that usually, the balloon won’t pop until after a few pumps, but the investigators rigged the BART so that the balloon always popped after the second pump. After this, the subjects rated how they felt about God, such as if they felt trust for, cared by, angry at, and neglected by God. In order to control for general malcontent after people took a risk and failed, with a group of people, they did the same experiment priming for dentists and asking the subjects to share their feelings about their dentists. Luckily for the dentists, people didn’t feel worse about them after failing the BART task, but people weren’t so happy with God afterwards. In particular, if they were religiously primed before the BART, their feelings about God soured more.

The study’s authors explain these results with attachment theory in light of the theological fact that in the Abrahamic religions, God/Allah is very commonly described as a protector. What this means is that people relate to God on a personal way, expecting God to protect them from harm, much like young children expect their parents to keep them safe. So, in the first seven experiments, people showed more interest in or willingness to take nonmoral risks after exposure to religion in the priming task because they felt safer. Similarly in the last task, religiously primed people were angrier at God after they took a risk and failed because the expectation that God would protect them was stronger.

Kupor and her colleagues thoroughly showed that moral evaluation matters greatly for whether or not reminding someone of God and religion will change their willingness to take a risk. When God is called “My Refuge and My Fortress” (Ps. 91:2, NRSV) and Allah is called Al-Wali (”The Protective Friend”), it’s meant literally, and people’s natural response when they feel safer is to take more risks. There is much more work to be done to explore this, such as directly testing the link between increased nonmoral risk taking and attachment theory and exploring how to different theologies, like God as punisher or an impersonal force, affect the results. But in the meanwhile, it seems like one sound business plan for an adventure tourism company is to advertise in and around churches.

For more, read “Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking” in Psychological Science.

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