Rituals boost self-control

Temple prayer in Bali – complex ritual can improve self-controlMaybe you’ve heard of the “marshmallow experiment” for testing people’s self-control. In this classic psychology study, scientists offered young children a choice: either eat a single marshmallow immediately, or wait for a few minutes and get to eat two. Findings have shown a remarkable correlation between children’s ability to delay gratification and a plethora of positive outcomes later in life, from higher SAT scores to better physical health. But where does self-control come from in the first place? A new study published in the journal Child Development suggests that one answer may be “rituals.” Specifically, children who played a complex, ritualized game many times over a three-month span showed improved self-control afterwards – and, crucially, this effect was strongest for children who heard no practical justification for the game’s rules. [Read more…]

Religion builds self-control and excludes outsiders – simultaneously

Connor Wood

Two Muslim men praying

Religion sure seems to care a lot about self-control. From the Ten Commandments to Shariah law to rule-bound Zen monasticism, most religious communities impose tremendous restrictions on their members. (Not for them the wide-open ethos of “If it feels good, do it.”) Yet despite their dreary-seeming, duty-oriented value systems, religious adherents tend to be slightly happier and longer-lived than their nonreligious peers. What gives? In a new paper, I spend a lot of pages arguing that religious constraints on behavior and elevated personal well-being are actually inextricable from one another, because following all those rules builds self-control – one of the best predictors of life outcomes. The catch? The very practices that build self-control are the same tools religions use to discriminate against outsiders. [Read more…]

Is willpower really a finite resource?

Connor Wood

Willpower

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a big groundswell in empirical research on religion. This is a good thing, because it means now we can actually point at data to answer questions about what role religion plays in culture, or whether religion is here to stay.* But just because empirical psychologists and cognitive scientists are publishing data-heavy papers on religion doesn’t mean everything they say is the gospel truth (pun intended). One recent paper shows that even our most cherished scientific conclusions can turn out to be red herrings, thanks to publication bias, cherry-picking results, and good old human error. [Read more…]

Religion and creativity: A follow-up

Connor Wood

Last week, I posted a piece on this blog that quickly became…quite controversial. In it, I claimed that religious commitment was positively correlated with personal stability, but negatively correlated with creativity. My aim was to point out what had long seemed to me a personally frustrating dynamic, and to raise questions about how to reconcile or overcome it. Many readers appreciated my perspective, but plenty more thought I was off in left field. Some rejected my claim that religion is associated with stability and tight relationships. Others questioned my working definitions of creativity, religion, and science. But the most common rejoinder was, “What about all the creative religious people, and spectacular religious art, throughout history?”

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Prisoners who attend religious services have fewer disciplinary problems

Nicholas C. DiDonato 

Civil authorities have long wondered what leads some prisoners to reform themselves and go on the path towards good citizenship, while others become lifetime prisoners through repeated offenses. While any answer to this question involves many variables and dimensions, religion’s role continues to be a matter of great dispute. Seeking a balanced analysis, criminologist Kent Kerley (University of Alabama at Birmingham) and colleagues argue that after controlling for demographics, criminal history, and self-control, frequent attendance at religious services predicts reduced prison deviance.

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