The religious may fare better when the going gets tough

Jonathan Morgan


There’s no shortage of research on religion and health. Most of it suggests that the religious not only live longer, but are also likely to live better. Yet in spite of this abundance of research there’s still little to explain precisely why religion is related to health. Ferreting out the cause is a difficult task, but new research out of this field suggests that self-regulation may be an important piece of the reason.

Read MoreSelf-regulation is what most of us would call self-control. The ability to self-regulate has to do with setting goals, monitoring progress towards those goals, and adjusting behavior accordingly. So, having self-control means you’re able to keep moving towards a goal despite difficulties and setbacks. When you decide to diet, you’re still enticed by that tasty Boston crème donut, but you don’t give in.

As you might expect, the ability to self-regulate has been shown to be related to health. The example above should make the reason clear. But is self-regulation also related to religiosity?

So far, the answer to this question has been mixed. Theoretically the relationship would make sense: the behavioral and psychological demands of being religious (for example, attending ceremonies, engaging in prayer or meditation, and adjusting  one’s actions to a code of behavior) should strengthen one’s ability to self-regulate in other situations. But the empirical tests of this theoretical relationship have gone both ways.

Some studies have found that priming individuals with God-related words or concepts increased their persistence in difficult tasks. These studies would suggest that activation of religious concepts strengthens one’s self-control. But other studies have found that religiosity in general did not predict persistence. So, if people weren’t primed beforehand, religiosity had no bearing on how long someone would continue to work on a frustrating puzzle. These ambiguous results are somewhat baffling, but new research by psychologists Kaylyn Watterson and Brian Giesler from Butler University may reconcile the seemingly contradictory findings.

Watterson and Giesler used the strength model of self-regulation to design a more nuanced study of religiosity and self-regulation. This model of self-regulation was made popular by psychologist Roy Baumeister and writer John Teirney’s book Willpower. They suggest that self-regulation acts very much like a muscle. So, if you go all day turning down donuts you may exhaust this muscle to the point that you aren’t able to follow through on that workout you had planned after work. This may also explain why the kitchen sink always seems to become messier during exam week.

The strength model carries two important implications for any research in self-regulation. First, it suggests that we can build our self-regulatory ability. If regular weight training builds muscle, then practicing self-control builds our capacity to self-regulate. This analogy is not just theoretical: one study found that after two weeks of a self-control exercise, like actively trying to have good posture, participants showed dramatic improvement in self-regulation. So, self-regulation can flag or grow.

Secondly, the increased capacity for self-regulation would only be observable under “heavy lifting.” Everyone has enough self-regulation for the common tasks we face each day. High levels of self-regulation may only become apparent when people are facing uncommonly difficult tasks. This second implication may explain why past research showed the same amount of self-regulation among the religious and non-religious.  If the task wasn’t overly demanding, then no dramatic difference would emerge.

To test this hypothesis, Watterson and Giesler split their participants into two groups. One group was assigned a series of unsolvable anagrams. This is a common task used to measure self-regulation: the longer you persist on this understandably frustrating task, the higher your self-regulation. The second group was assigned the same task, but only after first squeezing a handgrip for as long as possible. This may seem to be confusing metaphors and mistaking actual strength for self-regulation, but previous research has shown that maintaining a grip on this type of device depends on self-control, not bodily strength. So, by squeezing the grip for as long as possible, this second group was depleting their pool of resources before beginning the unsolvable anagrams. If high levels of self-regulation only become apparent under especially demanding tasks, then this second group would separate the tenacious from the others.

And that is precisely what the researchers found. In the first group that only did the anagrams, religiosity had no correlation to persistence. But in the second group, with depleted resources, religiosity became a strong predictor of how long participants would continue to work on the anagrams.  This would suggest that a high level of religiosity predicts a larger reserve of self-control. But that increased amount of willpower may only become apparent under stress.

This study is among the first to provide empirical evidence for the link between religion and self-regulation. But drawing the line of causation is trickier. In fact, some longitudinal research suggests that religion doesn’t so much lead to self-control as vice-versa. So, someone with a high level of self-control may be more likely to become religious then their less-disciplined counterparts. But to really understand the direction of causation would demand more deep analysis.

For now, Watterson and Giesler have provided clean and compelling evidence for why past studies found such mixed results in linking religiosity and self-regulation. The relationship only became apparent by digging a little deeper and demanding a little more. This experiment also supports the strength model of self-regulation. If willpower is something that can be exercised – whether religiosity leads to self-control or the other way around – then the regular demands of religious practices surely can’t hurt.

  • Per Smith

    Let me preface this by saying that I’m highly dubious about most religion/irreligion and health studies (and I mean that no matter the direction of the results). They are usually performed, like this study, on very culturally insular and small samples (75 total participants?!?). They also often uncritically refer to the variable “religion” as if the specific “religiosity” they are measuring actually accounts for “religion” as a universal human phenomenon. Not so. Not remotely so.

    So now that I’ve made my bias clear I wonder what this study is actually measuring. Self-regulation or stubborn self-delusion? Are they really the same? It would have been nice if the researchers followed the task up with a battery of questions aimed at how the participants considered the (impossible) task they were asked to perform. Did some of them decide that it was indeed impossible and give up for that reason? Is accurately assessing one’s inability to complete a task unhealthy? Wouldn’t healthy self-regulation actually include the ability to stop doing something as well as persisting in a task? So what exactly is being measured here?

  • Jonathan

    Hi Per,
    Thanks for the comment and question.
    Often I too want larger and more diverse samples in these studies. But even small results can contribute to illuminating larger patterns! The variable “religiosity” has been nuanced in many different ways: spirituality vs. religiosity; intrinsic/extrinsic; various views of god; various types of prayer; amount of time devoted to religious activities… The categories become pretty complex and are well tested and debated.

    As for this study in particular: my take is that they are measuring self-control. Self-control has to do with setting goals and moving towards those goals through difficulty. While the “goal” of completing the anagram test may seem artificial, both the anagram test and the grip-test are peer reviewed measures for self-regulation. You are right to point out that it is not necessarily a lack of self-control that would lead someone to stop on this task. But I know few people with the computing power to prove that an anagram was in fact insolvable! It seems most likely to me that people gave up out of frustration rather than cleverness.

    While small, I think this study does provide a helpful clarification to earlier ambiguities in the research around self-regulation and religion.