Source: The Wall Street Journal
Self-control problems often fade away when it comes to obeying religious dictates. These teenagers are eating a kosher meal in Maryland.
I was raised in a kosher household. Though I never fully understood why I couldn’t eat cheeseburgers or pepperoni pizza—the theology still confuses me—I quickly learned to follow the rules. At birthday parties, I always informed the hosts that I preferred my pizza plain. If they forgot, I would just eat the crust.
Though I no longer keep kosher, I’m still puzzled by why I found it easy as a child to follow these faith-based rules. Because it’s not just me: People consistently find ways to obey all sorts of onerous religious dictates. During Ramadan or Lent, for example, the observant manage to be self-denying even as they struggle to stay on a diet or hold back their temper. “The world is full of people who are fastidious about Biblical rules but can’t say no to fast food,” says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “There’s something about rules from God that make them easier to follow.”
According to research led by Kevin Rounding at Queen’s University in Ontario and recently published in Psychological Science, Rabbi Wolpe is right: People are better able to resist their desires when thinking about God. In a series of clever experiments, the Canadian scientists demonstrated that triggering subconscious thoughts of faith increased self-control.
In a second study, the scientists tested students’ ability to delay gratification, asking them if they wanted $5 tomorrow or $6 in a week. Those on a religious wavelength were far more likely to opt for the more prudent option. Finally, the scientists showed that God-minded subjects persisted for a longer time in trying to solve a frustrating puzzle.
“If God is always watching, we better not misbehave—he knows about the pepperoni.”
The effect, it turns out, does not require religious belief. More than a third of the students in the studies were atheists or agnostics, yet the scientists found that they were still influenced by subconscious thoughts of God.
But how does religion do this? The scientists think that faith-based thoughts may increase “self-monitoring” by evoking the idea of an all-knowing, omnipresent God. Previous research, which showed that priming people to think of a vengeful, angry God reduces the likelihood of dishonesty, supports this view. If God is always watching, we better not misbehave—he knows about the pepperoni.