God’s forgiveness makes you okay with your peccadillos

Closeup portrait of young man, praying, hands clasped, looking up hoping for best asking for forgiveness, miracle isolated white background. Human emotions, facial expressions, feelings, reaction

The anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, is tucked deep within the brain behind the frontal lobe, and its job is to make sure that reality matches one’s expectations. In a nutshell, the ACC detects your mistakes – which is very important for self-control. After all, if people don’t realize when something’s going wrong, they can’t control themselves and act however is best to achieve their goals, whether it be doing a puzzle, navigating a cocktail party, or diagnosing a disease. Here’s the tie to religion: people primed with religious ideas and who are more religious have more self-control. But not everyone agrees, and some are wondering, is this lack of consensus a result of different theological beliefs producing distinct effects on self-control?

The research team that asked this very question consisted of psychologists Marie Good from Redeemer University College, Michael Inzlicht from the University of Toronto, and Brigham Young University’s Michael Larson. Their aim was to be more specific with the types of religious ideas used to prime subjects before they took tests on self-control. They thought what a person thinks about the nature of God matters. So, if someone thought of God primarily as loving, merciful, and forgiving, a peccadillo here or slip-up there wouldn’t trip the ACC’s error detection system as much as if that belief about God was looked more like Jonathan Edwards’s fire-and-brimstone “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In the latter case, a single sin might mean Hell, and so the research team thought that people with less forgiving, more punitive concepts of God will have a more sensitive self-monitoring system for errors.

To measure their subjects’ self-control, the investigators looked at an electrical signal from the ACC known as the error-related negativity, or ERN. As the name implies, the ERN comes almost immediately after the brain detects an error. A separate study that Inzlicht worked on showed that the strength of the ERN decreases after religious priming, but that study worked with only general religious concepts – and most of them dealt with the more transcendent and personable side of religion. Good, Inzlicht, and Larson in this study predicted that the ERN would respond to the content of the religious prime: it would dampen after priming for divine forgiveness and increase after priming for divine punishment.

Because the psychologists were working with how specific beliefs affect self-control, they wanted to work with a more homogenous group of subjects. Different theologies or varying levels of religious commitment could obscure the results. So they worked with a group of BYU students, since Brigham Young is a church-run university and most of its student are Mormon. And all of the subjects reported high levels of religious activity, similar ideas about God’s nature, and high religious zeal.

In the guise of a memory test, the subjects read a sermon they were told that they’d need recall later. The sermon talked about either God’s love and forgiveness, God’s punishment, or how God offers peace from worry. The reason for this third sermon was to act as a control for the possibility that the ERN after reading the love/forgiveness sermon could come not from decreased self-control but instead from feeling less anxious, which would make people less worried about making mistakes. Keeping up the pretext of the memory test, the researchers gave the subjects another test for the supposed reason of keeping them from focusing on what they’d just read. This was the real test, and it took the form of a Go/No-Go (GNG) test. GNG is the psychologist’s version of Simon Says. Working with BYU’s very strict no alcohol policy, which comes from the Mormon church’s dietary law, subjects were shown pictures of beer and orange juice. When they saw the OJ, subjects were supposed to hit a button (“Go”), but not when they saw the beer (“No-Go”). Since 80% of the trials showed the OJ, subjects really had to exert self-control to make sure that they were responding correctly to the actual picture and not just responding automatically to each new picture on the screen. After all, people‘s ability to pay attention slips during repetitive tasks, as anyone who’s lost at Simon Says knows all too well. While they were taking this test, everyone was hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine which picks up the brain’s electrical signals, including the ERN.

The researchers found evidence supporting half their hypotheses. People who read the love/forgiveness sermon had lower ERN’s and more errors compared to the subjects who read the other sermons. This is taken to mean that these subjects had lower self-control because their self-monitoring system, which in this study meant responding positively to a picture of beer, was set to a lower level. Knowing God would forgive them had a relaxing effect. The authors suggested that this might relate to the findings that religious people report higher levels of happiness and well-being than others.

The other hypothesis – that people would have increased ERN’s and lower error rates after reading the divine punishment sermon – wasn’t supported at all. The subjects who read this sermon behaved just like those who read the control sermon. There are multiple possible reasons why the investigators didn’t get their expected result, not just that the hypothesis was wrong. For one, Mormonism’s theology stresses God’s love and forgiveness much more than God’s punishment. For another, the divine punishment sermon might not have had enough fire-and-brimstone in order to affect the subjects. After all, they were active in  church, and a mild sermon might not be enough to affect the ERN’s level in people with a strong religious identity. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” this sermon wasn’t. To that end, the researchers suggested appropriately that this study should be done again but with people going through a crisis of faith. But also, they said it’s possible that religion’s effects on self-control are not direct. Instead, religion fosters morality and conscientiousness, which in turn leads to more self-control.

This study is part of a growing body of research into religion that doesn’t look at religion as just one thing. Instead, it recognizes that different religious beliefs can have profoundly different effects on the ways we think and behave, even down to the neurophysiological level. And an important aspect of these studies is discovering which populations are good candidates for seeing experimental effects. Hopefully, the follow-up studies will be forthcoming. Either way, it’s important that these psychologists gave specific evidence that it’s beliefs about God’s love and forgiveness that lead to the dampened ERN. If nothing else, Catholic schools might want to take note. Beginning every class period with the “Our Father” and its line, “Forgive us our trespasses,” might not be the best idea on test days.

For more, read “God will Forgive: Reflecting on God’s Love Decreases Neurophysiological Responses to Errors” in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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