Feeling bad because you always gorge on all the cakes and chocolates and leave your friends with nothing during a party? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Fortunately, God may be able to help, albeit indirectly. Studies have shown that keeping religious concepts in mind can help us tolerate more pain, resist temptations, and even persist longer when the going gets really tough. So get a thesaurus and brace yourself for the next party by arming yourself with a list of faith-related words! Divine, holy, God, spirit, saint…
You might think it’s utterly absurd to assume that words alone can make a difference to how much self-control you have. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, faith-related words are exactly what researchers at Queen’s University, Canada, have used to investigate the possibility that religion can replenish self-control.
The only difference between what you can do and what the researchers have done is that they implicitly or unconsciously presented these words to mask the true aims of their ingenious but wicked experiments.
In the first experiment, unfortunate participants had to drink a vinegar-orange juice concocted by the researchers. Those who had been exposed to religion-related words (God, spirit, divine etc.) actually downed almost twice as much of that nasty concoction compared to those who were shown neutral words (blue, sky, book etc.)! It certainly seems that the highlighting of religious concepts can increase our self-control and help us endure unpleasant tasks longer.
The same set of words can also help delay gratification, which essentially means resisting short-term temptations in order to benefit from a larger reward at a later date. This time round, the researchers were less evil in that they only offered participants two choices after exposing them to either neutral or religious words—they could return the following day to pick up $5 for their kind participation in the research, or return a week later for $6. The decision to return a week later for $6 requires more self-control than the decision to return the next day for $5.
How did participants fare? 60.7% of participants who had been exposed to religious words opted for the a-week-later ($6) choice, while only 34.4% of participants who had been shown neutral words (i.e., non-faith-related words) opted for the same decision. So religious concepts can probably save you the embarrassment of finishing your friends’ share of food by giving you more self-control to consider the long-term health consequences of your antisocial behaviour!
The researchers also investigated the social psychological concept of ego-depletion (i.e., after doing something that requires self-control, the amount of self-control we have left is reduced or ‘depleted’) by using ingenious manipulations to reduce participants’ self-control. Participants were then shown the same set of faith-related words and as expected, these words showed their supernatural powers again—they replenished participants’ depleted egos or self-control. Participants who were shown faith-related words persisted longer at a challenging task than those who were shown neutral words.
Clearly, the main takeaway is that religious concepts can be invoked simply by thinking about religious words, and this in turn boosts self-control. And for the sceptics out there, 34% of the participants in the above studies are either atheist or agnostic! Also, there is nothing to lose in trying to boost your self-control in such a way! This could be an exaggeration though—you might lose a few slices of your favourite chocolate cake during the next party.
What do you think of this? How do you resist temptations? Feel free to share your thoughts.
Rounding, K., Lee, A., Jacobson, J. A., & Ji, L. (2012). Religion replenishes self-control. Psychological Science, 23(6), 635-642. doi:10.1177/0956797611431987