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Why Religious Thinking Inspires Self-Control

New research suggests that everyone–even atheists–exhibit better self-control when they are thinking about spiritual or religious matters. But why does everyone seem to obey God?

What’s the Latest Development?

New psychological research shows that people are better at controlling their desires when they are thinking about God. Scientists at Queen’s University in Ontario, prompted people to think about God, albeit subconsciously, then gave people various tests of self-control. In one test, participants were given a nickel for every swallow they could tolerate of a foul orange juice-vinegar concoction. “Interestingly, those students primed to think of God could endure much more discomfort and swilled twice as much sour juice.” In another test, those with God on the brain preferred a long-term reward of $6 over a short-term gain of $5.

What’s the Big Idea?

As evidence that the thought of God was working unconsciously, even self-described atheists and agnostics obeyed rules better when prompted with religious thoughts. Scientists behind the experiment described religious thought as “important psychological nutrients” that “refuel” our inner resources, like eating fruit after exercising. “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.” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles says that thinking of God makes doing the right thing easier, not mandatory. 

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