Queen's University — Since 1873
7th February 2012

Psychology of religion

Study finds religion can increase self-control

Kevin Rounding, PhD '14 and Albert Lee, PhD '13, say the findings of their study will be published in April in Psychological Science.
Kevin Rounding, PhD '14 and Albert Lee, PhD '13, say the findings of their study will be published in April in Psychological Science. (Corey Lablans)

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Religion could be linked to increased self-control, according to a recent Queen’s psychology study.

Volunteer undergraduate participants were asked to unscramble a short sentence — half of participants were exposed to sentences that contained a word with religious connotations, such as “divine” or “Bible.”

Volunteers then had to complete an unrelated task that measured an aspect of self-control. It was found that participants who were subconsciously exposed to religious concepts would display more self-control.

For example, they would drink more shots of an orange juice and vinegar blend, for a nickel each, or spend more time trying to solve an impossible puzzle.

Albert Lee, co-author of the study, said these results may support an evolutionary basis for religion.

“Based on our results it would be safe to assume that communities that have religious concepts will replenish self-control and do better than their [non-religious] counterparts,” Lee, PhD ’13, said.

“What we’re trying to show is that exposing people to the cultural notion of God can increase their self-control, whether or not they believe in God is a different question.”

The study tested 265 participants from September 2010 to May 2011 and was accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Science. It will be published in April.

Lee said the idea for the study resulted from a conversation with co-author Kevin Rounding.

“We were talking about our academic past in the Grad Club and decided it’s a good idea to experimentally test to what extent religious concepts can influence people,” Lee said.

While the results suggest that subconscious exposure to religion increases self-control in the lab, Lee said it may not be the same when participants are aware of the religious priming.

“I’m not sure if that will influence their conscious decisions,” he said.

Lee said there’s ongoing debate on the cost versus benefit of implementing religion into a culture.

There is still much scientific research to be done in this field, he said, adding that the broad range of religion makes it difficult to study.

Queen’s Chaplain Brian Yealland said the science behind the study is intriguing.

“I don’t find that I would be able to say that religious people are more self-controlled,” Yealland said. “I think it has to do with a sense of an order in the universe or the sense of overriding ethics or morality.”

When a person believes there is a higher power or God watching over them it may influence their actions, he said.

Yealland gave the example of Alcoholics Anonymous, where control over alcohol is learned through a heavy emphasis on ethics.

“When people think in religious terms, or a sentence has religious connotations, there’s ethics involved,” Yealland said, adding that this applies to most religions.

This may have accounted for participants being able to endure more difficulties or have more control over their emotions, he said.

Yealland said there may be practical applications of religion to students, who generally have a busy lifestyle.

“I think it’s attractive to a student to have order in their days and not spending time getting lost in things that will distract them,” Yealland said. “Religion is one form of a source of self-control, not the only one.”

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