Study: Devout Are Less Anxious

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

A new study has found that people who are devout in their faith fell less defensive and less anxious when they make mistakes compared with non-believers.

The Religion News Service (RNS) is reporting that the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto, measured “error-related negativity” – people’s defensive response to errors – and compared it to religious belief. Tests were conducted on participants of varying religious belief by using electrodes to measure brain activity as they performed different cognitive tests.

“The study found that those who were religious or claimed belief in God ‘showed low levels of distress-related neural activity’ when they learned of their test errors, compared with nonbelievers,” RNS reports.

By contrast, atheists demonstrated a “heightened neural response” and reacted more defensively when they learned of their errors, wrote the study’s lead author, Michael Inzlicht, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

“Thinking about one’s religion, consciously or otherwise, acts as a bulwark against defensive reactions to errors; it muffles the cortical alarm bell,” says Inzlicht and co-author Alexa Tullett.

This calming effect is not just found in religion, they say, but is also found in other varieties of belief that provide “meaning and structure” to one’s life.

“If thinking about religion leads people to react to their errors with less distress and defensiveness … in the long run, this effect may translate to religious people living their lives with greater equanimity than nonreligious people, being better able to cope with the pressures of living in a sometimes-hostile world.”

The study has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

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