Self-control may be one of the things that really distinguishes humans from other animals. Ok, that’s not entirely true- my dog is using an incredible amount of self-control when he’s willing to sit and stay before going on a walk. Nevertheless, self-control may have been one of the qualities that helped humans thrive in the evolutionary game. When we exercise it, our ability to resist impulses, delay gratification, and persist through challenges makes it possible to work together in groups. And let’s face it – without working together, our defenseless, slow, and awkward ancestors probably would’ve been eaten. It turns out religion may have helped us preserve and grow this ability.
Last year, a group of researchers from Queen’s University conducted a series of experiments to see whether religion really is connected to self-control. The experiments relied on a priming technique, which is psychology jargon for exposing someone to an idea or concept that will then change their behavior. For example, have you ever noticed that after a friend tells you about a book or a new restaurant, you’re likely to notice that book when you walk by a bookstore or perk up when they mention that restaurant on the news? I’m not saying that it’s not a coincidence when this happen, but it’s also an example of being primed. Just as hearing the name of that book may change your attention, being primed with other concepts may change your behavior in more subtle ways.
In these experiments, participants were primed with religious ideas by simply unscrambling phrases that contained religious words. If religion is connected to self-control, then this simple exposure would be enough to affect people’s self-control. The psychologists conducting this research found just that.
Some of their techniques for measuring self-control may seem trite, but they’re small-scale ways to test people’s ability to delay gratification or persist through a challenge. Researchers can’t just ask people to sit there and resist impulses. One experiment told people that they would be paid for their time participating; they could come back the next day for $5 or return the next week for $6. 60% of those who were religiously primed waited a week, while 34% of people who just unscrambled a neutral phrase waited. This modest example of delaying gratification wouldn’t tell us much by itself, but it fits with their other experiments to create a stronger argument.
In another test, they had participants drink a gross, but harmless, mixture of orange juice and vinegar. The mixture was in 20 small cups, with 1 ounce in each cup. People were told it was a test of motivation and that they’d be paid a nickel for each cup they drank. People who were religiously primed drank nearly twice as much as those who weren’t. Again, this may seem to be a trite measure of self-control, but it does get at people’s ability to persist through an unpleasant task. And let’s face it- living requires dealing with plenty of unpleasant tasks.
The other two experiments supported the same conclusion. When people were exposed to religious words, they exercised more self-control. In one task religion even seemed to replenish people’s self-control. If self-control is like a tank of gas, then religious concepts helped re-fuel people’s tanks in the midst of difficult tasks. For a great summary of these other tasks see the religion scholar Nicholas DiDonato’s essay at ScienceOnReligion.org.
While these experiments are good at establishing a connection, they can’t really tell us the nature of that connection. At best they seem to imply a causal connection, but whether religion fosters self-control by making people feel judged and compliant or strong and steady is still up for debate.
Either way you interpret the data, these experiments support the idea that religion may have played a key role in helping our ancestors work together in groups. It’d be difficult to live in a cohesive group if people gave in to their aggressive impulses whenever they felt angry. Even a cohesive group would have a hard time thriving if its members weren’t able to delay gratification in order to store up food or other resources. Religion isn’t the cause of these features of self-control, but its ability to nurture self-control may have helped make it an integral part of evolving human communities.