By guest blogger Sofia Deleniv
“…Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.”
This passage, pulled from Isaiah 41.10, is just one example of the Bible’s many references to God’s power to protect. And this protective persona might affect you much more than you think. At least that’s what emerged in 2015, when researchers from Stanford University published a string of studies finding that people prompted to think of God made significantly riskier decisions — whether or not they were religious.
The scientists’ explanation, promptly picked up by the media, was that thinking of God makes risk-taking less intimidating because it primes us to expect divine protection. As of recently, however, this narrative has not stood up to scrutiny. The first pre-registered replication of this study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that the effect was probably no more than an exciting false positive.
The failure to replicate such a high-profile experiment will probably come as a disappointment. The original publication had certainly generated a global splash, giving rise to headlines like “God is my co-pilot” and “Thank God for risky behaviour”. In many ways, the study stated a convincing case. It featured nine experiments, all of which concurred that being reminded of God triggered a significant increase in people’s tendency to take on risk. In these experiments, a mix of religious and non-religious participants from across the US were prompted to think either of God or an unrelated topic, such as astronomy. In most cases, this was achieved by having participants solve scrambled sentences, which either contained religions words (e.g. “spirit” or “divine”) or non-religious words.
Participants then indicated how likely they were to engage in a range of risky behaviours related to ethical dilemmas (like taking credit for someone else’s work), safety concerns (driving a car without a seatbelt) or social risk (starting a whole new career in one’s mid-thirties). The effects seemed clear. Those who had been primed to think of God were significantly more likely to consider engaging in risky behaviours, as long as these did not involve an ethical transgression. Moreover, participants in the “God-prime” condition perceived significantly less risk in all of these behaviours, as if thinking of God really had reduced the sense of threat.
But some researchers were concerned. Looking at the string of statistical results, many of which had just made it over the threshold of significance, one couldn’t help but wonder — what if this divine protection effect was just a statistical blip? The answer arrived a few weeks ago, when Will Gervais from the University of Kentucky and colleagues repeated two of the original 2015 experiments in exact detail, but with one crucial difference. They recruited a substantially larger sample of over a thousand participants, which was designed to give the researchers a very strong probability of detecting the “God-prime” effect, if it did really exist. Their study revealed no evidence that being primed to think of God had the power to make people choose riskier behaviours. There was no effect even when the authors ran a mini meta-analysis combining their own findings with those of the original publication.
So far, this failed replication has not been met with the media attention that surrounded the original paper. Perhaps that study struck a chord because it resonated with our long-held ideas about the function of religion. Many sociologists and psychologists believe that religion helps individuals deal with stress by offering a padding of divine protection, which makes the chaos and volatility of daily life less frightening. Indeed, the “God comfort hypothesis” has received considerable support from international surveys, which find that national levels of religion tend to go hand-in-hand with governmental instability and poor material security. Strife might directly throw previously unbelieving people into the arms of God. This was observed in Christchurch, New Zealand, where researchers spotted a sudden spike in religiosity in the aftermath of its devastating 2011 earthquake. Thus, when researchers discovered that the sense of security associated with God not only gives us perceived shelter from risk, but actually emboldens us to seek it out, their findings might have enjoyed some degree of automatic credibility.
But experience should have taught us that caution is the better policy. Researchers have failed to replicate a host of high-profile discoveries, from the controversial effects of “power posing” on our confidence and stress hormones, to the Macbeth Effect, which claims that having our moral purity threatened makes us literally want to clean ourselves. As psychological science works to recover from its replication crisis, and scientific editors increasingly realise the importance of publishing negative results, communicators of popular science may need to be careful about overstating the certainty of new and exciting findings. As with the God-priming effect, some discoveries might not be scientific scripture after all.
Post written by Sofia Deleniv for the BPS Research Digest. Sofia holds a degree in Experimental Psychology and has just completed her PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, where she investigated sensory processing using a mix of electrophysiology and computer modelling. In 2015, she decided to try her hand at science writing by starting her blog ‘The Neurosphere‘. Since then, her work has appeared in magazines such as the New Scientist and Discover. You can visit her Twitter feed for updates on her written work and other exciting bits of science.
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