Religious Thoughts Can Boost Willpower, Even For Nonbelievers

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

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6 thoughts on “Religious Thoughts Can Boost Willpower, Even For Nonbelievers

  1. Interesting!! However i wanter why religious words have this effect even in people that are non religious…. Is it becouse religious or not, we have all unconsiously marked the consept of religion with something positive?? Or maybe we all believe in something… we have the need to believe there is a greater power to which we can turn for help when we are helpless.. ?…and the feeling that we are not alone, helps as regain control and find the power to raise up when our “internal energy levels” start to fall down! What a powerfull brain we have … ( wanter what could we do if we could use 100% of its potentials :p) :))

    • Hi Katia, thanks for your comments! Yes, I agree with you that this study poses more questions than it has tried to answer. It appears that the researchers aren’t too sure why religious concepts can boost or replenish self-control reserves either!

      From an evolutionary point of view, religion serves as a cultural mechanism that regulates self-control, which in turn helps our ancestors make better (or more adaptive) decisions. You’re less likely to eat your friend’s food if you have more self-control, which actually means your greater sense of self-control is actually helping you avoid a conflict! Joking apart, religion regulates self-control, and the latter is crucial for social living, while social interactions and cooperation are vital for survival.

      The authors have suggested 3 ways in which religious concepts boost self-control.

      First, religion directly affects self-control (but this explanation CANNOT answer your question as to why nonbelievers are susceptible religious concepts; it feels more like a description than an explanation to me).

      Second, religion influences our sense of morality, which then affects self-control (this is reported in Study 4 of the paper and I did not really mention this in my article; I highly recommend you read the original paper if you want to understand more!).

      Third, religious concepts may encourage self-monitoring, which in turn influences self-control. There is some evidence to support this notion: participants who had been primed with the concept of a punishing God (rather than a forgiving and loving one) were less likely to cheat in a game!

      Research into religion and self-control is still very much at its infancy. As an agnostic myself, I am certainly more inclined to believe the second and third explanations. Anyway, thanks for your input and feel free to pose any further questions!

  2. Thank you very much Hause for your extra information!! I will try and find some time to read the article! Keep up the good work 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing this. The link between religion and psychology (even for nonbelievers) is fascinating. The APA Monitor recently had an article on willpower depletion and strenghtening your self-control (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/self-control.aspx). Religious thoughts weren’t mentioned, but could sure come in handy if you’re low on willpower and don’t have a snack available! (Blood sugar is also closely related to self-control.)

    • Thanks for sharing the link too! I guess we really have to thank Roy Baumeister for all his research on self-control during the last decade or so. There’s just so much fascinating research in this area now and it is actually quite difficult to keep up with all of them! Could these findings on self-control be relevant to your clinical practice?

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