Friday, January 16, 2009

Greater Self-Control Linked to Religious Beliefs

"But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king's delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the chief of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself." Daniel 1:8

In Science’s ongoing (and in my humble opinion, often fruitless) attempts to understand and to quantify “Religion,” we now have a new study linking religious behavior with self-control.

The study recently was conducted by University of Miami psychology professor Michael McCullough and concludes that religious people have more self-control than do their less religious counterparts. According to ScienceDaily:
These findings imply that religious people may be better at pursuing and achieving long-term goals that are important to them and their religious groups. This, in turn, might help explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviors, less depression, and longer lives.

In this research project, McCullough evaluated eight decades worth of research on religion, which has been conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world. He found persuasive evidence from a variety of domains within the social sciences, including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology, that religious beliefs and religious behaviors are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors, so that they can pursue valued goals.
"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," McCullough told ScienceDaily. "We hope our paper will correct this oversight in the scientific literature."

"Sacred" Goals Get More Energy

Among the conclusions the research team drew were:
  • Religious rituals such as prayer and meditation affect the parts of the human brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control;
  • When people view their goals as "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them;
  • Religious lifestyles may contribute to self-control by providing people with clear standards for their behavior, by causing people to monitor their own behavior more closely, and by giving people the sense that God is watching their behavior;
  • The fact that religious people tend to be higher in self-control helps explain why religious people are less likely to misuse drugs and alcohol and experience problems with crime and delinquency.
"By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything," McCullough said.

Click here for the ScienceDaily article.


christopher said...

Ummm...motivated to do just about anything...did they mean it the way it sounds?

Like Inquisitions and Pogroms and denial of fact in favor of literature, like that?

It seems so. And if you're religious you will be personally healthy while you go about your business.

But of course that's not the sophisticated religious mainstream. Heh.

Gregory LeFever said...

Yes, this was an admittedly strange post, and the study itself seems peculiar to me. It doesn't seem to address the "what came first?" issue, which is huge here. It's pretty clear that folks low on the self-control scale have little tolerance or ability to deal with the strictures of religion - a fact that alone would skew the statistical conclusion.

I agree that the overall tone has a quite a bit of "religion makes you a better person," which is something with no historical validity, as millions of deaths will attest.