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Both negatives, positives can be drawn from belief in God

Heather Rudow October 31, 2011


A new study regarding belief in a higher power found that being reminded of God can lead people to have difficulty taking the steps needed to better themselves. But at the same time, their ability to resist temptation and avoid falling into bad habits was stronger.

“More than 90 percent of people in the world agree that God or a similar spiritual power exists or may exist,” said lead author Kristin Laurin. “This is the first empirical evidence that simple reminders of God can diminish some types of self-regulation, such as pursuing one’s goals, yet can improve others, such as resisting temptation.”

Researchers had 353 college students with varying degrees of belief in God participate in six different experiments to see whether belief in a higher power indirectly influenced people’s motivations.

They were asked to form grammatically correct sentences using groups of words that were either God-related (such as “divine,” “sacred,” etc.) or that were neutral. The participants then had to form as many as they could in five minutes from a specific combination of specific letters. The researchers tracked the students’ motivation levels by the number of words they produced. The students were told that a good performance could help predict if they would succeed in an engineering career.

Also, weeks before the experiments began, the students were asked whether they believed forces beyond their control had an influence on their career:

“Among participants who said outside factors such as God might influence their career success, those who did the God-related word task performed worse than those who used neutral words. There was no difference in performance among the participants who did not believe outside factors influenced their career success. Researchers also measured the importance participants placed on a number of values, including achievement. Participants reminded of God placed the same value on achievement as did participants primed with the more neutral words.”

“This suggests that our findings did not emerge because the participants reminded of God devalued achievement,” said Laurin.

The next set of experiments focused on the students’ ability to resist temptation after being reminded about the presence of a higher power:

“In one study, participants who said eating healthy food was important to them ate fewer cookies after reading a short passage about God than those who read a passage unrelated to God. Participants who read a short God-related passage reported greater willingness to resist temptations to achieve a major goal, such as maintaining a healthy weight, finding a long-term relationship or having a successful career. This effect was found only among participants who had previously said they believe an omniscient entity watches over them and notices when they misbehave.”

Source: American Psychological Association

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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