Researchers have proposed that the emergence of religion was a cultural adaptation necessary for promoting self-control. Self-control, in turn, may serve as a psychological pillar supporting a myriad of adaptive psychological and behavioral tendencies. If this proposal is true, then subtle reminders of religious concepts should result in higher levels of self-control. In a series of four experiments, we consistently found that when religious themes were made implicitly salient, people exercised greater self-control, which, in turn, augmented their ability to make decisions in a number of behavioral domains that are theoretically relevant to both major religions and humans’ evolutionary success. Furthermore, when self-control resources were minimized, making it difficult for people to exercise restraint on future unrelated self-control tasks, we found that implicit reminders of religious concepts refueled people’s ability to exercise self-control. Moreover, compared with morality- or death-related concepts, religion had a unique influence on self-control.I find this intriguing, of course, and I expect we're seeing yet another application of Ockham's so-called broom, sweeping confounding factors under the rug.
Jonah Lehrer, writing for the Wall Street Journal, does a decent job summarizing the study in simpler language. He writes,
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.Okay. So?
Why am I unimpressed with this result? Simple: God is very often conceived of as an all-knowing, judging character. The result may be able to be explained vastly more generally simply in terms of being in a situation in which people feel like they are being observed and judged, whoever that judge is, without the slightest appeal to any deities or other magic entities.
Indeed, if this experiment was repeated, controlling for perception of observation and judgment instead of "morality" and "death," say by giving the participants reasons to believe that they are on video that may be posted on the Internet, perhaps on YouTube, I would be willing to bet that exactly the same outcome would be found. While that does nothing to undermine the result of the researchers, that "religious concepts refueled people's ability to exercise self-control," it does a world of good toward breaking the illusion that religion is net-good for people and society, a perception that folks like Rabbi Wolpe are quick to exploit to their side (while providing absolutely no evidence for their theistic claims).
Since the believing (and even agnostic) public is often excited to hear information that feels confirmatory of religious beliefs, putting this study out there in this fashion has a slight ring of disingenuousness to it, particularly given the hotbed that religious discussions with a scientific flair have at the moment.
Until this study is followed up with a number of other controls, I simply feel it carries very little weight. It has to address many other ideas: Does thinking about the police have the same effect? The FBI? The government? Being on CCTV with a variety of different people on the other end? Being on full-out TV with possibly thousands or millions of viewers? Knowing they're being videoed and will be put on YouTube later with an unknown number of viewers?
Does it have to be an imaginary character that is connected to a thought-controlling system of orthodoxy that teaches people to hate themselves while pretending not to, that fuels fundamentalism of the most dangerous kinds, or will something infinitely, literally infinitely, more mundane do the trick instead?
On the other hand, we all know it works, sort of, on children with Santa Claus, so perhaps this research will be recommended in the same vein: it doesn't matter whether or not what they believe in is real so long as it keeps people behaving the way we want them to, for whatever reasons. That, though, is handing people a proxy for morality, one with many immoral strings attached, instead of facing the more difficult, yet more valuable and effective, challenge of teaching them to engage in moral reasoning for themselves.
That's why I often have problems with these studies. They nearly always have this bent to them that seems, very underhandedly, to suggest that there's something golden about religion or God, when in reality, there is always, always some more salient explanation available that gets overlooked because everyone wants to believe in magic. People set up God from a very early age as being an archetype of the silent watcher and judge.
Wolpe, in fact, subtly insults everyone by expressing the very notion that people need imaginary police to behave well, as written by Lehrer,
For Rabbi Wolpe, these results are an important reminder that human nature is deeply shaped by external structures. "People need a system of rules to live by," he says, adding: "People drive slower when they see a police car. God is a bit like that police car: Thinking about Him makes it easier to do the right thing."As we might expect, to compare, a little George Orwell is overwhelmingly apropos at a moment like this. From Nineteen Eighty-Four,
It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself--anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face...; was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime....
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