Religion: Xanax of the people?

Religion: Xanax of the people? March 5, 2009

Does religion help you be less anxious about mistakes? And if it does, is that a good thing? Researchers from the University of Toronto have shown that religious believers get less ‘error-related negativity’ (ERN) – a neurological response that’s associated with conflict anxiety – when they make mistakes . But another study that came out a month ago sheds some intriguing light on what the practical implications of this actually are.

What Michael Inzlicht and colleagues from Toronto did was put a bunch of students through the Stroop Test. This is an interesting test that basically measures how confused you get when the word blue is written in red ink (i.e. BLUE). The students were strapped to ECG monitors, which measured their ERN when they got the answers wrong, compared with when they got them right.

The religious believers got a lower spike in response to getting the answers wrong. Inzlicht interprets this as an effect of religion – the religious believers had less anxiety because religion reduces uncertainty-related distress. It’s an anxiolytic, like Xanax.

However, before rushing to judgement, it’s worth knowing that there are lots of things that can reduce your ERN. For example, if you are less anxious to begin with, then that will reduce your ERN. Simply putting a nice background on the computer monitor makes a difference (Larson et al, 2006). And if you try to do two tasks at once, your ERN on the first task goes down (Hideaki et al, 2002). Perhaps these religious types are simply thinking of something else?

But assuming that there is something to this, what are the implications? After all, maybe anxiety serves a useful purpose. Here’s Michael Inzlicht, lead author, commenting on the study:

“Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you’re paralyzed with fear,” he says. “However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?” (

Well, the other recent study on ERN comes from Diane Santesso and Sidney Segalowitz of Brock University in Ontario, Canada. They assessed ERN in late teenage boys and found that was negatively associated with risk propensity (risk taking, sensation seeking, and sensitivity to reward) . In other words, low ERN (like the religious believers had) makes you less concerned with the outcome of events.

What’s more, low ERN was also associated with low empathy. It’s as if the lack of anxiety meant they really didn’t care what others thought or felt.

Earlier research also shows that low ERN means that you don’t learn so well from negative experiences, although you do learn rather better from good ones (Frank et al, 2005). In other words, you don’t learn from your mistakes (because you’re not anxious about them). According to Matthew Bottvinick, a psychologist at Princeton University, this is exactly the role of the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain responsible for the ERN). He reckons that the anterior cingulate is responsible for assessing conflicts, and acts as a teaching signal driving a form of avoidance learning.

In other words, Xanax might well take away your anxiety, but is that necessarily a good thing?


ResearchBlogging.orgMichael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh, Kyle Nash (2009). Neural Markers of Religious Conviction. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02305.x

Diane L. Santesso, Sidney J. Segalowitz (2009). The error-related negativity is related to risk taking and empathy in young men. Psychophysiology, 46 (1), 143-152 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2008.00714.x

M FRANK, B WOROCH, T CURRAN (2005). Error-Related Negativity Predicts Reinforcement Learning and Conflict Biases. Neuron, 47 (4), 495-501 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2005.06.020

M. M. BOTVINICK (2007). Conflict monitoring and decision making: Reconciling two perspectives on anterior cingulate function. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7 (4), 356-366 DOI: 10.3758/CABN.7.4.356

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