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Religion and Self-Control

Religion and Self-Control


Research overwhelmingly supports the proposition that religion, in general, increases length and quality of life. In a forthcoming paper, McCullough and Willoughby attempt to fit an explanatory narrative to this well-established experimental result: that “self-control” is the trait promoted by religion that results in benefits in health and well-being. This paper is discussed in today’s New York Times Science Section. Unfortunately, the research cited by the authors of the paper is contradictory and does not support their conclusions.

In the introductory paragraphs, the authors note that “measures of negative religious coping” such as believing that God is punishing you for sins, “were positively related to depressive symptoms.” Believing that God is going to punish you is a good way to increase self-control, because you are less likely to succumb to temptation if you fear the consequences. However, this religious factor, which increases self-control, does not lead to an increase in quality of life. Therefore, self-control cannot be the factor which explains religion’s well-being benefit.

On page 3, the authors acknowledge that

[T]wo people can adhere to the same religious belief system for very different reasons (Allport, 1950; Ryan, Rigby, & King, 1993) and that these different ways of being religious can lead to different motivational and behavioral outcomes. Moreover, some aspects of religious belief, behavior, and experience might foster self-control and self regulation, whereas others might hinder them.

If different reasons for being religious lead to different outcomes, then the reason religion provides a benefit must be independent of the reason for joining and participating in religion. Therefore it must be something about the process or practice of religious participation rather than the motivations for participation that result in the benefits. The authors argue that “self-control” is actually a result of practice rather than a motivation for joining, however, the research they cite tends to show the opposite conclusion!

On page 7, the authors admit that they “located only one study that investigated whether individual differences in religiousness precede changes in self control” and that study only showed that religious practice preceded changes in agreeableness in women. However, the authors located five longitudinal studies showing that self-control related traits preceded changes in religiousness. Therefore, the evidence supports the conclusion that those who possess self-control are likely to become religious, but it does not support the claim that religiousness causes self-control.

Further, on page 5, they note that “extrinsic motivation for being religious is either negatively correlated or uncorrelated with self-control.” If you become religious because some extrinsic factor influences you (such as that you seek the camaraderie, or you fear God) you are not as likely to have self-control traits. If motivation for participation is not a factor in the health and well-being benefits enjoyed by the practitioners, this tends to support the view that the source of the benefits is something other than promotion of self-control.

There are also deep problems with the way the authors measure self-control. They define it in terms of an intrinsic motivation, and yet they measure it using other traits, such as Agreeableness They argue that this traits “subsume aspects of self-control” because it involves “ the ability to adapt one’s behavior to the wishes and feelings of others.“ (p. 5) “Agreeableness,” then, is an extrinsic motivation, and has little to do with self-control, but serves as the link between the arguments offered by the authors and several of the studies they cite.

In their discussion of religion versus spirituality, the authors note that in their own study, the quality of “Self-Transcendence” (a feeling of spiritual connection to the world) correlates with their religiousness composite scale. (p. 6) They do not mention that the rate of correlation is a higher correlation than any correlation between self-control and religiousness cited in the paper. If self-control is the defining attribute of the religious, we would not expect to find another trait with a better correlation. If there were another trait that was more highly correlated, we would expect an explanation of why that trait is an untenable candidate for the key to understanding the connection between religion and its benefits.

Fishbach et al. (2003) found that the subliminal presentation of temptation/sin-related primes led to faster subsequent recognition of religion-relevant words than did the subliminal presentation of neutral primes. Conversely, subliminal presentation of religion relevant primes led to slower subsequent recognition of temptation/sin-relevant words than did the subliminal presentation of the neutral primes. In the context of the four other experiments, the authors interpreted these results as evidence that people automatically recruit religious concepts to help them exercise self control in the face of temptation and, conversely, that the activation of religious mental content reduces the accessibility of temptation/sin-relevant mental content. Fishbach et al..s study is perhaps the best direct evidence available to date that religious mental content is capable of increasing self-control. (p. 8)

If this is the best evidence of the link between religious mental content and self-control, then the evidence is poor indeed! Whether or not subjects recognize words when primed does not demonstrate that religion has the ability to change the trait of self-control in an individual’s decision making patterns, which would be necessary in order to show a link between self-control and a well-being benefit.

The authors also appeal to a number of intermediate qualities that they assert are related to the acquisition of self-control to shore up their case. They assert that religion promotes goal-making, self-monitoring, and self-regulatory stregnth, and that these qualities contribute to self-control. However, the authors note that not all religions promote goal-making: “For this reason, highly religious Protestant and Catholic Christians set goals about controlling their cognitions that religious Jewish persons evidently do not. (p. 9)” Additionally, the evidence they cite for self-monitoring is weak: “only one of four samples (three U.S., one Iranian) has a positive relationship emerged between religiousness and private self-consciousness.” (p. 12) The authors also acknowledge that the the evidence supporting” the connection between self-regulatory strength and religion “is currently quite thin.” (p. 14)

The authors appeal to fMRI results showing a connection between religious practice and brain activity. They assert that “Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” he said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.” (NYTimes) It is indeed the case that these parts of the brain are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion, but those are not their only functions, nor are these functions closely linked to the trait of “self-control” as the authors define it.

Near the end of the paper, the authors mention briefly that “some religious phenomena (e.g., ecstatic or mystical experiences, speaking in tongues, and other religiously normative rituals that involve altered states of consciousness) seem to generate losses of self-control.” (p. 20) Practices involving altered states of consciousness are so universal among religious traditions that it seems highly unlikely that a theory attempting to explain the benefits of religion could so thoroughly exclude them.

The best narrative explanation for the benefits enjoyed by religious practitioners is that religious practice (e.g., prayer, meditation, music) is similar to techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy. These customs and practices have been developed and used over thousands of years and in a wide array of geographical locations, and are incredibly diverse, yet they bear striking resemblance to contemporary techniques that have been shown to be more effective at treating depression than medication.

The trend in psychology is away from a disease model, and towards a well-being model. Psychologists are increasingly interested in ways that research can be used not just to treat problems in mental health, but also in prevention of illness, maintenance of well-being, and fulfillment. This trend is revolutionary in psychology, yet religious practitioners have long known of the benefits of these techniques. Psychologists are only know starting to understand how a disciplined regimen of positive thinking can engender physical changes in the brain that increase health and well-being. Yet religious organizations have long known, appreciated, and exploited the brain’s power over the body through meditation, prayer, yoga, and other practices.


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