Study Sheds Light on Link Between Religion, Self-Control

Have New Year's resolutions for 2009? If you're religious, you're probably more likely to keep them, according to a new study.

For the study, University of Miami professor of Psychology Michael McCullough and his team evaluated eight decades worth of research on religion that had been conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world.

What they found in the end was "persuasive evidence" from a variety of domains within the social sciences – including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology – that religious beliefs and religious behaviors are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors so that they can pursue valued goals.

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"Religious lifestyles may contribute to self-control by providing people with clear standards for their behavior, by causing people to monitor their own behavior more closely, and by giving people the sense that God is watching their behavior," states one conclusion of the study, which will be published in the January 2009 issue of Psychological Bulletin.

"When people view their goals as 'sacred,' they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them," states another conclusion.

Researchers for decades have repeatedly found a correlation between religiosity and higher self-control among students and adults, noting that students who spent more time in Sunday school did better at laboratory tests measuring their self-discipline and that devout people were more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins.

Though some may question whether it was religious devotion that led to self-control or vice-versa, McCullough says self-selection bias was taken into account in his research and that there was still reason to believe that religion has a strong influence.

"When you add it all up, it turns out there are remarkably consistent findings that religiosity correlates with higher self-control," the professor told the New York Times.

But that's not to say the non-religious need to adopt a faith to build up self-control.

"People can have sacred values that aren't religious values," said McCullough, who confesses that he is not much of a devotee himself.

"You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year's resolutions that are consistent with them," he told the Times.

Still, it is worth noting that religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviors, less depression, and longer lives.

"By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything," McCullough says.

McCullough also says he and his team believes it may have been religion's ability to help people control themselves that helped people for centuries extend their natural self-control capabilities and, as a result, allowed them to thrive at difficult but necessary activities such as farming and teaming together to solve problems.

"We've been exploring … this possibility that what religion's really good at doing, and possibly why it evolved, is to help ancestral humans that were on their way to becoming modern to extend their abilities to control themselves and not engage in impulsive behavior that might have been beneficial in the short term but less desirable than other courses of behavior would have been in the long term," reported McCullough.

What McCullough and his team hope their study will do is give more explicit attention to the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior.

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