Is Belief in God a "Buffer" Against Anxiety?

Believers are better able to deal with stress and their own errors than nonbelievers are, according to a new study in Psychological Science. Researchers, led by University of Toronto psychologist Michael Inzlicht, compared the stress of those who are religious and believe in God and those who don’t by measuring their brain activity while they performed a “Stroop task.” In this cognitive test, words written in different colors flash in front of the participants, who are asked to say the color of the word rather than read the word itself. For instance, the word on the screen might be “green,” but it will be printed in blue—making “blue” the right answer.
While performing the test, religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that’s involved in controlling attention and self-regulation (Inzlicht describes it as an “alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty”). The finding suggests that people who are religious or believe in God feel less stressed and anxious when they make mistakes—and in the experiment, they made significantly fewer of them; those with the deepest and strongest religious zeal were the least likely to show activity in the anterior cingulate cortex when they made errors. Religious conviction, the researchers write, “provides a framework for understanding and acting within one’s environment” and acts as a “buffer” against anxiety about mistakes or the unknown. Other factors—like personality type, IQ level, and self-esteem—didn’t seem to affect the stress test results.
While high levels of anxiety are negative, a certain amount of anxiety is useful for development and self-preservation, says Inzlicht, because it “alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behavior so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?” —Heather Wax

Category: Findings


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