Friday, July 13, 2012

Religion replenishes self-control.

In four experiments Rounding et al. activate god-related concepts in participants without their conscious awareness, using an implicit-priming procedure that required participants to unscramble each of 10 five-word sentences by dropping an irrelevant word. Half of the sentences contained neutral words only ,and the remaining sentences contained one religious-prime word. A procedure like this evokes very little conscious awareness of the primed material, and participants who were suspicious of the primed material or who guessed the hypotheses of the study were excluded from the analyses. Next, participants engaged tasks that tested enduring discomfort, delayed gratification, or persistence with or without ego depletion. A forth condition used primes that were not religious, but suggested morality (such as righteous, virtue, or moral) or death (such as extinct, grave, or deadly). The researcher found religious priming most effective in increasing, or regenerating, self control. Here is their abstract:
Researchers have proposed that the emergence of religion was a cultural adaptation necessary for promoting self-control. Self-control, in turn, may serve as a psychological pillar supporting a myriad of adaptive psychological and behavioral tendencies. If this proposal is true, then subtle reminders of religious concepts should result in higher levels of self-control. In a series of four experiments, we consistently found that when religious themes were made implicitly salient, people exercised greater self-control, which, in turn, augmented their ability to make decisions in a number of behavioral domains that are theoretically relevant to both major religions and humans’ evolutionary success. Furthermore, when self-control resources were minimized, making it difficult for people to exercise restraint on future unrelated self-control tasks, we found that implicit reminders of religious concepts refueled people’s ability to exercise self-control. Moreover, compared with morality- or death-related concepts, religion had a unique influence on self-control.


  1. Dear Deric,

    This abstract suggests that religious thought is beneficial and implicitly seems to suggest that religion is a good thing (correct me if I'm wrong).

    I have a few questions about these findings:

    1)Is this equally true in countries (/states) with many religious people and in countries (/states) in which much fewer people are religious? I believe I read somewhere (sorry, I forgot where) that beneficial effects of religion vary with the religiosity of the community you are part of. This may mean that not religious thought per se but perhaps something like "person-culture fit" is the factor at work?

    2) Is this effect specific for religion or is it broader applicable? For instance, does the same thing happen when people reflect on deeply held moral values or principles?

    3) Do the findings reported here apply to all religions to the same degree?

    4) Someone who read this said to me: "You see? It is better to be religious!" Do these findings indeed imply that it is wise to be religious? (Should one become religious if one now isn't? And if so, how to choose a religion?)

    5) In addition to these (apparent) short term beneficial effects of religious thought do you consider it important at all whether what the religion in question says/promotes is true and beneficial for a wider group of people?

  2. Hello,

    On your first point. I should have pointed out, as I frequently do, that this was yet another study using American college undergraduate psychology majors as subjects, thus totally limited in the scope of the conclusion one might draw from it. The authors did address the further issues you raise, and if you send me your email address I can send you the PDF of the original article, which has citations to relevant other literature.

  3. Dear Deric,thanks a lot. I was already looking for a pdf online but couldn't find it. My email address is:

    By the way, I like your site. And your pianoplaying is awesome.

  4. Anonymous6:17 AM

    Dear Deric,
    I am looking into the area of religion and 'self control' for my final year dissertation project. I cannot seem to find a link to this full journal article anywhere online and would much appreciate if you could also send me the PDF copy!
    Is possible, please send to:
    Thank you so much!