Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Religion and Self Control

For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It

John Tierney reports today in the Science section of the NYTimes findings by a psychologist that religious people demonstrate more self control that than the general population. Dr. Michael McCullough (of the University of Miami) and a fellow researcher have surveyed eighty years of research and found:

...As early as the 1920s, researchers found that students who spent more time in Sunday school did better at laboratory tests measuring their self-discipline. Subsequent studies showed that religiously devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers, and that religiosity repeatedly correlated with higher self-control among adults. Devout people were found to be more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins...

Does that imply religious people have lower doctor bills and live longer. Not only that...but better teeth! Heh! There's more:

“...Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of the 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.”

That points up the value of ritual. But what about 'spiritual' people, those with a sense of the Divine who are concerned with their relationship to it? How do they compare to more traditional 'religious' people?

...strongly religious people were compared with people who subscribed to more general spiritual notions, like the idea that their lives were “directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being” or that they felt “a spiritual connection to other people.” The religious people scored relatively high in conscientiousness and self-control, whereas the spiritual people tended to score relatively low...

So beings one's own guide, following your heart--so to speak, does not impart the benefits of a more pious outlook! Maybe "the self" is not the best thing to rely on when temptation looms?

“..Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors...”

John Tierney asks:

...Does this mean that nonbelievers like me should start going to church? Even if you don’t believe in a supernatural god, you could try improving your self-control by at least going along with the rituals of organized religion...But that probably wouldn’t work either, Dr. McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not. Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy. Of course, it requires some self-control to carry out that exercise — and maybe more effort than it takes to go to church...

So, just going through the motions does not bring a pay-off. You have to internalize these issues, make them a part of yourself. Dr. McCullough concludes:

...Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages...”


Anonymous said...

Hermes shines every day.
Not all of us can see him behind the fog.
Ritual brings the sacred and mystical unknown into the realm of the material world. Without the sacred and mystical to guide us; we are black space. Fortunately,
new stars are continuously being born in black space.

Dracenea said...

Yeah, if religious people really do have more self-control, I'm going to go with the whole "god is a puppet and if you don't do what he says, you'll burn in hell" for the explanation.

Ghost Dansing said...

moon shadow

genexs said...


How true. From Hatshepsut's coffin:

"Oh my mother Nut, stretch thyself over me, that thou mayest place me among the imperishable stars which are in thee, and that I may not die."

In their wisdom, the inscrutable Ancient Egyptian priests gave us half the equation. We can become stars when we die. Modern science brought us full circle, as Sagan said, "We all come from star-stuff". From the stars we came, and to the stars we'll return.

genexs said...

Hi Drac:

I understand what you are saying, but the article points out that other issues may be at play. I certainly acknowledge that 'fear' can be a motivating factor for some people. Fear was effectively used to elevate an incompetent idiot to the US Presidency, who brought the country to its knees.
But I think viewing certain rules as sacred, and truly internalizing the reasons for this, may be the real motivating factors that such people demonstrate better self control. Perhaps people more open to experiences of the Divine are better at this than those who've closed themselves off to such experiences.

I know this may be an uncomfortable situation to subscribers or certain schools of Atheism, but there is growing evidence that spirituality, religious belief, and 'magical thinking' (grrr, I hate that term) impart an evolutionary advantage.

I wrote a post "Magic and Science" about this a while back.

What surprised me most is that some of this is not imparted to just spiritual people. I wonder how a Solitary Wiccan would fit into this. Although their focus (to me anyway) seems centered on developing the spiritual self and their relationship to the Goddess/God, many adopt a semi formalized ritual construct.

best, and Happy New Year! :)


Yewtree said...

What these researchers seem to have been looking for is obedience. Obedience is NOT a virtue.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think that this might have some merit. Looking back, I think my adherence to Christianity did help me be more disciplined--but then maybe it's just that religion attracts more disciplined people? Couldn't tell if the researchers considered that.

And I agree with Yewtree--obedience can be either good OR bad!

genexs said...

Some very good comments here! :)

I think an important thing to always keep in mind is that our species is a social one. I know it sounds like I'm stating the obvious, but it's a characteristic which influences every element of our behavior and evolution.

So, what's the best spiritual/religious strategy? Being a strident individualist like Number 6 of "The Prisoner" fame? Or some mindless ant-like droid? Both extremes have advantages, but also serious down-sides.

Does our culture spring from within us, or does culture rain down on us? Like many issues of life, someplace in the middle is the maybe the safest and happiest spot.