Thursday, March 12

Do Religious People Have More Self-Control?

From TierneyLab (

Dr. McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami, says he learned a lot from the comments here at the Lab:

I was fascinated by the variety of religious activities that many of you have found useful for increasing self-control, including ritual dietary restrictions, meditation, ritual fasting, and rituals of self-examination and repentance. It seems that many readers could also identify with the idea that overdoing it in the religious realm can cause breakdowns in self-control—a sort of “spiritual burn-out.” Finally, many contributors felt that non-religious ideals—one contributor listed equanimity, mindfulness, compassion, for instance—could help to generate the self-control benefits that seem to be associated with religiosity (though some of you were skeptical about this possibility).

Here are answers from Dr. McCullough to three questions repeatedly raised by Lab readers:

1. “Isn’t it possible that religious people are lying about how much self-control they have.” Sure, but this possibility has grown more unlikely as more evidence has come in. We’re doing studies in my lab right now that enable us to measure people’s self-control by way of behavior and physiological functioning, rather than relying solely on what people say about themselves. These results should tell us more about how meaningful the links between religion and self-control really are.

2. “Couldn’t self-control make people more religious, rather than the other way around?” Absolutely. The fact two variables are related doesn’t mean that one causes the other. Some good causal evidence exists, but we’re doing more research that should help us determine whether religion improves self-control, whether low self-control turns people off of religion, or whether some other variable increases people’s self-control and their religiosity.

3.“What about all those pedophile priests and suicide bombers?” Religion spawns a lot of ugliness, it’s true, and some religious people (and religious leaders) are responsible for some truly horrible behavior. However, those facts are a bit of a distraction from the main question we’ve been asking, which, in its simplified form, is this: “If you take two people who are identical in every way except that one is more religious than the other, will the religious person have more self-control?” I’m not claiming that religion is a panacea, but the scientific support for the idea that religiosity is associated with many benefits for health, well-being, and social adjustment is now quite overwhelming. You can review the evidence here (pdf) and decide for yourself.

We want to determine whether these linkages come from religion’s ability to promote self-control. Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t. That’s why we do research! A religion/self-control link could also tell us some things about how the propensity for religion evolved to become a universal human characteristic.

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