TORONTO (RNS)—Religion may provide a “buffer” allowing the devout to feel less anxiety when they make mistakes, compared with nonbelievers, according to new scientific research.
Researchers at the University of Toronto measured “error-related negativity” —people’s defensive response to errors— and compared it to religious belief. Their findings were published in the journal Psychological Science. (Download the article as a pdf file)
In the experiments, participants had electrodes measuring their brain activity as they performed cognitive tests. One test of 40 students involved making a grammatically correct sentence out of jumbled words; some of the sentences contained words with religious connotations, like “sacred” or “divine.”
Another experiment required participants to identify the color of words that flashed on a screen. Some words were depicted in their correct color while others were not.
They were then asked to quantify their belief in God on a scale of zero to seven.
The study found participants who were religious or claimed belief in God “showed low levels of distress-related neural activity” when they learned of their test errors, compared with nonbelievers.
By contrast, atheists demonstrated a “heightened neural response” and reacted more defensively when they learned of their errors, wrote the study’s lead author, Michael Inzlicht, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
Inzlicht and co-author Alexa Tullett added, “Thinking about one’s religion, consciously or otherwise, acts as a bulwark against defensive reactions to errors; it muffles the cortical alarm bell. …
“If thinking about religion leads people to react to their errors with less distress and defensiveness … in the long run, this effect may translate to religious people living their lives with greater equanimity than nonreligious people, being better able to cope with the pressures of living in a sometimes-hostile world.”