Religion Replenishes Self-Control
The link between religiosity and enhanced self-control has been the subject of prior study, but researchers have not definitively investigated such a link in an experimental or lab setting.
A 2012 paper by researchers at Queen’s University published in Psychological Science, “Religion Replenishes Self-Control,” explores how invoking religious concepts can affect one’s propensity toward self control. Three experiments tested participants’ tolerance for discomfort, delayed gratification and “persistence with and without ego depletion”; another ensured that reactions were the result of religious, and not alternate, motivations. Thirty-four percent of the study participants described themselves as atheist or agnostic, and about 58% formally identified with a major religion.
Key study findings include:
- “Across four experiments with a variety of behavioral measures, we consistently found that people exercised greater self-control when religious themes were implicitly activated than when such themes were not activated.”
- In the first experiment — designed to test participants’ tolerance for discomfort — approximately half of the study participants were primed with religious words while the other half were primed with value-neutral words. They were then presented with 20 individual cups of a vinegar/orange juice mix and paid a nickel for each cup they drank. Those primed with religious concepts drank on average almost twice as much as those primed with neutral words.
- A second experiment measured the capacity for delayed gratification by offering study participants $5 immediately or $6 a week later. Nearly 61% of those primed with religious concepts waited to receive a larger sum of money, compared with 34.4% of neutral-primed participants.
- A third experiment tested whether a religious-themed prompt would bolster a participant’s ability to self-regulate after sustained exertion. Participants’ cognitive and ego resources were depleted through difficult typing tasks; they were then primed with either religious or non-religion concepts and asked to solve an unsolvable geometry puzzle. “Priming religious concepts seemed to refuel the self-control of the participants whose self-control resources had been depleted by the typing task; they persisted at the puzzle task substantially longer.”
- The fourth experiment utilized word primes relating to death or morality in order to validate the outcomes of the first three experiments; religion-related primes still outperformed neutral conditions or other prime conditioning. “Activating religious concepts [in the earlier experiments] promoted self-control to a greater degree than did activating neutral or death-related concepts.”
The authors note that “there are two possible routes for the influence of religious concepts on behavior: First, religion may influence self-control directly, and self-control in turn may influence moral choices and behavior…. Second, our data cannot rule out the possibility that religion enhances morality, which in turn promotes self-control.”
Tags: religion, cognition, youth
Read the study-related Wall Street Journal article titled "A Divine Way to Resist Temptation."
- What key insights from the journal article should reporters be aware of as they cover issues relating to self-control and religious faith?
Read the full study titled "Religion Replenishes Self-Control."
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?