Religion boosts self-control

little girl choosing between apples and sweets

In the never-ending quest of figuring out why religion evolved, many have proposed that religion enhances group fitness. If correct, then researchers should be able to point to exact benefits that religion provides. Research by psychologist Kevin Rounding and his colleagues at Queen’s University, Canada, does just that: it suggests that religion replenishes self-control, and, more specifically, increases evolutionarily favorable traits such as enduring discomfort, delaying gratification, exerting patience, and refraining from impulsive responses.

The psychologists set out to test religion’s effect on self-control: if religion does increase self-control, then bringing religious concepts to people’s minds should increase their self-control. However, the researchers could not simply bring religious concepts to people’s minds in an explicit way because might clue the people in on what the experiment was about, and thus ruin the experiment. Instead, they had to encounter religious concepts implicitly.

The psychologists studied the relationship between religion and self-control in a series of four experiments. All of the participants in the four experiments consisted of college students taking an introductory psychology class (nearly 80% of which were female). The first study investigated religion’s effect on enduring discomfort. In order to keep the religoius priming subtle, the researchers had the participants complete a scrambled-sentence task, where the participants faced a scrambled sentence with an additional word. Participants had to unscramble the sentence and remove the excess word. In the neutral-prime group, the excessive words had no religious connotations (e.g., sky), whereas in the religious-prime group, they included words like “spirit” and “divine.”

After the priming task, the participants confronted an enduring discomfort task. A table in front of them held 20 one-ounce cups that contained a mixture of orange juice and vinegar. The psychologists told the participants that they would receive a nickel for every cup they drank. The more cups drank, the greater level of enduring discomfort (a form of self-control). As expected, those in the religious-prime condition drank significantly more cups than those in the neutral-prime condition.

The second study focused on delayed gratification. After completing the same priming task used in the first study, the researchers told the participants that they would also receive monetary compensation for their participation: they could go to the lab within the next week to pick up $5, but if they waited a week or later they would instead receive $6. Sure enough, a statistically significant different occurred between the religious-prime group (who waited) and the neutral-prime group (who did not).

The third study tested persistence. The participants had to type up a given passage handed to them on a piece of paper. For the control group, this task was straightforward, but the experimental group had the additional burden of omitting all “e’s,” “s’s,” and spaces in the passage. Furthermore, they had to type while loud music played in the background. The point of this was to drain them of mental energy. Next, the the participants in the experimental group went through the priming tasked from the first study. Finally, the experimental group participants were asked to solve geometric puzzles, unaware that they were unsolvable. The researchers told the participants that they could take as much time as necessary and that they could leave at any time (of course, since the puzzles were impossible, the researchers stopped everyone after 30 minutes). Once again, the religious-prime group exhibited more self-control (in this case, persistence) than the neutral-prime group and, interestingly enough, they were as persistant as someone who had not had their mental energy drained in the first task.

Finally, the fourth study sought to ruling out alternative explanations. It did so by introducing morality and death primes in addition to the usual religious and neutral primes. After the priming, the participants took the Stroop test, a test in which the name of a color appears on a screen, but the color of the name may not match the color of the word. For example, the word “blue” may appear in a yellow font. The participants must name the color of the word not the word itself. So the correct answer in the above example would be “yellow” not “blue.” Shorter reaction times in the Stroop test means greater self-control. Those in the neutral and death prime conditions did not exhibit as much self-control as those in the religious-prime condition, but there was no statistically significant difference between the morality-prime and the religious-prime groups. At the same time, neither did the morality-prime have a statistically significant difference compared to the neutral prime.

This led the researchers to accept two possible explanations for religion encouraging self-control. First, religion affects self-control directly, which in turn influences morality. Second, religion instead enhances morality, which in turn affects self-control. The researchers show great discipline in allowing their hypothesis to be challenged by the evidence. They believe that religion directly replenishes self-control, but their own research suggests a second possibility. One could say they exhibited self-control.

For more, see “Religion Replenishes Self-Control” in the journal of Psychological Science.

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