Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Religion “Cuddles Up” with Oxytocin and Increased Self-Control

Laying Hands Prayer GroupIn a recent post, I let you know about Joni Sasaki’s study that looked at people who have the versions of the dopamine receptor DRD4 that made them “susceptible” to antisocial behavior. After being primed with religion, the subjects became more prosocial. In her latest study, Sasaki has carried this research forward, looking at how religion affects people’s self-control in social situations, and how this tracks with the different alleles of both the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) and DRD4. The experiments showed that that people with OXTR alleles known to give them “susceptibility” to greater social sensitivity and empathy acted with more self-control after being primed with religion.

Sasaki at York University worked with fellow social psychologists Taraneh Mojaverian and Heekung Kim from UC Santa Barbara on the hypothesis that certain alleles of a gene predispose someone to act in some way depending upon the physical and cultural environments. Previous studies found that religion’s positive effects on self-control and social affiliation explained why religious people had lower rates of mental illness in surveys. Completely different studies have shown that the hormone oxytocin is important to self-esteem and self-mastery – components of self-control – and social bonding. In their study, they wanted to show a real connection between religion and the genetics of oxytocin.

Neurotransmitters and hormones are signaling molecules sent from one cell to another. Small changes in their receptor proteins’ genetic sequence can have large effects on behavior. The previous post showed this with a short segment of DRD4, and OXTR is no different. It has a single nucleotide polymorphism called rs53576. People have either a guanine (G) or adenine (A) base here, and people with two copies of the G allele (GG) are more emotionally sensitive to others than those with one (AG) or no (AA) copies.

The researchers created an elaborate sequence of tests for their subjects. The point was to see if people acted differently in social and non-social settings depending on whether they were primed to think about religion or not, and depending upon which versions of the OXTR and DRD4 genes they possessed. So, the subjects first used a questionnaire to rank four unexciting rewards from most to least desirable. They were told that they’d get their first choice if they did really well on a very challenging problem-solving test. The test was rigged, and everyone was told that they scored in the 92nd percentile, good enough to get their preferred reward. To act as if the researchers were really taking the time to score the test, every subject took a verbal fluency test that ate up several minutes, and which sneakily primed half of them to think about religion.

The experiment then included a bit of theater. The researcher gave each subject their bogus results and went into the next room. Making sure the subject overheard them, the researcher told an assistant to fetch the prize from another building since they didn’t have any more of that prize with them. The assistant waited a couple minutes before entering the testing room with the subject’s least desired reward. This was the first test. Did the subject speak up and correct the poor assistant who’d then have to go back to another building to get the right reward, or did she keep quiet? And if the subject did keep quiet, did she show any behaviors indicating they were unhappy? If the subject did speak up, she’d get her first choice. Everyone would use the same questionnaire to rate the reward they were finally given. The subjects did this alone. A hidden camera recorded their behavior, just in case they showed unhappiness that they’d hidden from the research assistant.

The investigators found that an overwhelming 88% of subjects didn’t correct the assistant. Looking at these subjects, the researchers found significant links between subjects’ OXTR genotype (GG vs. AA/AG), their priming (religion vs. neutral), and their responses to getting the wrong reward. GG-subjects showed fewer negative emotions after religious priming, but the priming had no affect on A-A or AG-subjects. Also, there was a significant relationship between genotype and priming on whether subjects who got the wrong reward showed any discontent with it. After religious priming, GG-subjects showed less discontent than after neutral priming, and the opposite pattern was true for AA/AG-subjects. In the non-social context, there were no differences in subjects’ behavior that tracked their genotype and their priming. What these results suggest is that people who have GG at OXTR rs53576 are more sensitive in social contexts and will control their negative emotional expressions in deference to others when that social context is influenced by religious ideas.

As expected, the researchers didn’t find any significant effects between the susceptibility and non-susceptibility alleles of DRD4. In other words, people’s DRD4 genes do not seem to affect their self-control in social or non-social situations, and religious priming doesn’t change this at all. But there was an unexpected finding among the 12% who did speak up about getting the wrong reward. Those with the susceptibility alleles to antisocial, risk-taking behaviors, if they were primed with religion, were significantly less likely to speak up than if they were neutrally primed. The investigators suggested this was because after thinking about religion, the subjects with the susceptibility DRD4 alleles were less likely to take the social “risk” of speaking up and making the assistant angry for having to take a second trip to the other building. Their neutrally primed counterparts didn’t mind taking this risk.

Much of the research into the psychology of religion has involved the identification of religion’s positive and negative effects. Sasaki and her colleagues take this one step further, suggesting a biochemical basis for how these effects come about and, more importantly from a clinical standpoint, in whom they’re more likely to come about. Additionally, this study gives evidence that the two avenues of religion’s psychological benefits of self-control and social bonding are not separate. The OXTR pathway may be where these two lines of research converge. If this is true, then “feeling God’s love” might just be more than a metaphor. After all, oxytocin is best known as the “cuddle hormone.”

For more, read “Religion Priming and an Oxytocin Receptor Gene (OXTR) Polymorphism Interaction to Affect Self-Control in a Social Context” in Development and Psychopathology.

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