Think your beliefs preclude you from being influenced by religious thoughts? Think again. Psychologists at Queen's University have demonstrated that test subjects who are primed to think subconsciously about religion — including agnostics and atheists — actually perform better at tasks requiring self-control than those who aren't.
Sound bizarre? It gets weirder: test subjects who were primed with religion even demonstrated more self-control than those primed with concepts relating to pure morality.
Most people identify with some form of religion, and most religions stress the importance of practicing some degree of self-control.
"When we say 'self control,'" Queen's University psychologist Kevin Rounding tells io9, "what we're talking about is our capacity to refrain from personally desirable actions and impulses, and instead opt for behaviors that are more advantageous by bringing our behavior in line with more socially acceptable standards."
In the latest issue of Psychology Letters, Rounding and his colleagues describe their efforts to test a hypothesis long-proposed by psychologists like Roy Baumeister and Michael McCullough — researchers who study the emergence of religion and its relationship with self restraint: that religion is a cultural adaptation, one that has benefitted humanity's fitness throughout the course of evolution by promoting socially beneficial behaviors in the face of adversity.
"If religion does function as a means of cultivating self-control," the researchers muse, "then even subtle reminders of religious concepts should result in higher levels of self-control."
Planting the Seed of Religion
To test this idea, Rounding and his colleagues first had to plant unconscious thoughts of religion inside the minds of their test subjects.
"We decided we wanted to go down to bare bones and measure some of the ways that religion would boost self control," Rounding explains. "So we conducted several experiments where we would prime participants by having them unscramble [ten five-word sentences]. Half of those sentences contained one religion-primed word, the other half contained only neutral words." (In the neutral-prime condition, all ten sentences contained only neutral words.)
For example, one of the unscrambled sentences in the religious-prime condition read: The dessert was divine.
The researchers then asked test participants to perform an ostensibly unrelated task designed to gauge their capacity self-control.
The first test required volunteers to power through as much of a repulsive-tasting drink as they could bear. Subjects were presented with 20 one-ounce shots of orange juice mixed with vinegar, and told they could down as much or as little of the concoction as they pleased. They were rewarded a paltry five cents for every shot that they drank. Rounding assures us that previous studies have found that five cents is insufficient to encourage people to keep drinking. After trying this mouth-defiling mixture for myself, I'm inclined to agree with him. Wretched doesn't even begin to describe it.
"We actually had some participants tell us: 'wow, that was the most disgusting thing I've ever drank in my life,' and then go on to drink all 20." And when the researchers tallied their results, they found their religion-primed participants had downed almost twice as much juice as their neutral-prime counterparts.
In two additional rounds of tests, subjects were asked to delay gratification (would you rather have $5 tomorrow or $6 next week?); and persist at a difficult task (how long will the subject attempt to solve an unsolvable puzzle?). Time and again, the religion-primed test subjects came out on top.
"We found that participants who unscrambled sentences with religious words were able to perform significantly better at these tasks," says Rounding. Religion-minded participants were much more likely to wait a week for their cash, and persisted at the unsolvable puzzle for longer than their neutral-prime peers.
No Religion? No Problem.
One of the researchers' most intriguing findings was that test subjects didn't have to be religious to reap the self-control-boosting benefits of a religious prime. Close to a quarter of of the volunteers reported that they were agnostic, and over 11% identified as atheists, yet Rounding and his team found these participants still demonstrated more self-control when influenced by subconscious religious thoughts. This result draws attention to an important caveat in the researchers' findings, which they keenly point out:
[Improved self-control] could have been caused by other confounding constructs coactivated by the religion prime, such as morality concepts or death-related concerns. For example, religious words in the priming task might have somehow evoked moral thoughts among participants, and such thoughts might explain why participants in the religious-prime condition exerted more effort in self-regulatory tasks, such as consuming more of the unpleasant drink, than did participants in the neutral-prime condition.
But in a fourth study, Rounding's team showed that test subjects primed with moral concepts (by unscrambling sentences that contained words like righteous, virtue, or moral) were unable to exert the same levels of self-control as those primed with religious ones.
"We can say that religion improved self control, but we can't say the same for morality."
Prima facie, it would appear as though there is something special about religion, specifically — something that secular primes just can't touch. But recent observations by social psychologist Ara Norenzayan (who recently demonstrated that analytic thinking can actually decrease religious belief) reveal that things are more complex than they seem.
In 2008, Norenzayan showed that test subjects primed with secular thoughts relating to civic duty were more likely to engage in pro-social behavior, a quality they shared with participants primed with religious concepts. At least in the case of pro-sociality, researchers can say that religious primes and secular primes both have a positive effect.
But "pro-sociality" and "self-control" are not synonymous; much in the way that mental constructs brought on by a religious prime are not perfectly interchangeable with those evoked by moral concepts, the psychological mechanisms that underly prosocial behavior and self-control are likely related, but not the same. Of course, the same could be said about secular cues; do primes designed to evoke a sense of civic duty engender the same psychological states as those meant to elicit thoughts of morality in general? Probably not.
So then what, if anything, is special about religion? Rounding says he and his colleagues are working to find out.
"Right now, we're trying to flesh out whether people are focusing on the concept of an angry god or a forgiving god, and whether or not that is one particular aspect that might be special about this religious prime."
Equally puzzling, Rounding explains, is the question of how far-reaching the effects of religion's social saturation truly are:
Almost everybody in North America has some sort of idea that there's Christmas — that on Easter we have days off, whether we're religious or not. Perhaps self-control and pro-social behavior can be activated...simply because we've been immersed in [religion] our entire lives... In a more general sense, religion may be more of a cultural construct; it could be that the idea of an omniscient god has something to do with it, but it might not be the whole story.