Expert Commentary

Religion replenishes self-control

2012 paper by Queen’s University published in Psychological Science that explores how invoking religious concepts can affect one’s propensity toward 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

About The Author