Believing in God and self-regulation

Self-regulation can be diminished through simple reminders of God, new research has suggested. However, the study - which has been published by the American Psychological Society - found this to be only one side of the coin, as belief in such a spiritual power might also help people resist temptation.

Investigators from the University of Waterloo in Canada discovered being reminded of the concept of God can cut two ways.

According to the researchers, who noted more than 90 per cent of people in the world agree that God or a similar power does or may exist, the level of religious devotion of study participants had no impact on the outcomes on any of the experiments carried out.

Kristin Laurin of the institute - which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007 - said: "Simple reminders of God can diminish some types of self-regulation, such as pursuing one's goals, yet can improve others, such as resisting temptation."

Professor Les Lancaster from Liverpool John Moores University, a Chartered Psychologist and chair of the British Psychological Society's Transpersonal Psychology Section, commented: "This paper establishes the influence our cognitive representations of God can have on goal-directed behaviour. 

"Of course, many cultural influences may be expected to shape those representations and the ingenious series of studies conducted by Laurin et al demonstrate that a range of factors impact on the way in which the reminders of God affect behaviour. 

"Thus, the decrease in goal-directed behaviour was only evident in those participants who were relatively more likely to ascribe events to forces outside of themselves. In other words, the God schema must be part of a much more complex network involving self and notions of agency. The studies indicate not only the impact of reminders of God, but also the crucial difference between immature and mature development of this more complex network – immature meaning childlike notions of dependence and fatalism.

"I am reminded of the well-known story of the man who is being engulfed by rising floodwaters. As the water rises, various opportunities arise for him to be saved – a passing boat, a helicopter, etc. Each time he refuses the assistance, calling out that he trusts that God will save him. After he dies, he complains to God that He abandoned him ... 'But who do you think sent you the boat and helicopter,' comes the reply! 

"At a time when interest in spirituality and mysticism seems to be growing, the studies are a timely reminder of the role transpersonal psychologists can play in encouraging mature notions of self and its participatory relationship with those deeper levels of being that many would label divine."