How the Concept of “God” Influences Goal Pursuit
Does thinking about god help you in life? It’s a question whose answer will likely never be accepted by many, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to find it. A new study examining self-regulation reveals that thinking about god does help you achieve your goal, but only if your goal is to successfully resist the urge to do something.
Leveraging classic and recent theorizing on self-regulation and social cognition, we predict and test for 2 divergent effects of exposure to notions of God on self-regulatory processes. Specifically, we show that participants reminded of God (vs. neutral or positive concepts) demonstrate both decreased active goal pursuit (Studies 1, 2, and 5) and increased temptation resistance (Studies 3, 4, and 5).
The researchers believe the findings are due to god’s reputation for omnipotence and omniscience. If god is always watching, you better not do that bad thing, but if god controls everything, it’s less important to fervently pursue your goals. The neat thing about the study is that because the self-regulation patterns exhibited by subjects in the experiment were independent of existing religiosity, it means that the less-religious or agnostic may be influenced by the concept of god as much as a somebody devout.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the idea that God helps you resist temptation while decreasing your pursuit of other goals makes a lot of sense. Throughout most of history it’s been more beneficial for survival to resist temptation (e.g. not breaking the law when ruled by a king, avoiding the shortcut through the dangerous part of the forest, etc.) than to actively pursue a goal (e.g. working hard at your merchant business). What’s interesting is that the trend is now starting to reverse. We live in a world that’s safer than ever, and globalization means that those who single-mindedly pursue a goal and succeed on a global level will reap untold rewards. Even those who succumb to the dangerous temptation of eating unhealthy can fix many of those problems with money made from strong goal pursuit.
Laurin, K., Kay, A., & Fitzsimons, G. (2012). Divergent effects of activating thoughts of God on self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (1), 4-21 DOI: 10.1037/a0025971