This is an awkward question for a heathen to contemplate, but I felt obliged to raise it with Michael McCullough after reading his report in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin. He and a fellow psychologist at the University of Miami, Brian Willoughby, have reviewed eight decades of research and concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control.
This sounded to me uncomfortably similar to the conclusion of the nuns who taught me in grade school, but Dr. McCullough has no evangelical motives. He confesses to not being much of a devotee himself. “When it comes to religion,” he said, “professionally, I’m a fan, but personally, I don’t get down on the field much.”
His professional interest arose from a desire to understand why religion evolved and why it seems to help so many people. Researchers around the world have repeatedly found that devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.
These results have been ascribed to the rules imposed on believers and to the social support they receive from fellow worshipers, but these external factors didn’t account for all the benefits. In the new paper, the Miami psychologists surveyed the literature to test the proposition that religion gives people internal strength.
“We simply asked if there was good evidence that people who are more religious have more self-control,” Dr. McCullough. “For a long time it wasn’t cool for social scientists to study religion, but some researchers were quietly chugging along for decades. When you add it all up, it turns out there are remarkably consistent findings that religiosity correlates with higher self-control.”
The article also deals with the issue of self-selection: perhaps people already with more self-control go to church rather than going to church leading to greater self-control. But, in addition to this, the article goes through some well-worn information about the brain activity of those meditating:
“Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” he said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”
But for those of you who describe yourself as "spiritual" but not "religious," the results actually do not work for you!
In one personality study, strongly religious people were compared with people who subscribed to more general spiritual notions, like the idea that their lives were “directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being” or that they felt “a spiritual connection to other people.” The religious people scored relatively high in conscientiousness and self-control, whereas the spiritual people tended to score relatively low.
“Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors.”
It is about a community structure, a social mechanism, that inculcates particular values, that gives interpersonal communal support, while, at the same time, engages in collective rituals. Nonetheless, belief, too, has a place. Just going to church evidently doesn't count either:
Does this mean that nonbelievers like me should start going to church? Even if you don’t believe in a supernatural god, you could try improving your self-control by at least going along with the rituals of organized religion.
But that probably wouldn’t work either, Dr. McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.
This seems to be the strangest part of the study for me (there are some other flags to raise as well): how do you control for intrinsically religious and extrinsically religious? Do you just ask people which they are? Do people admit to coming to church only to impress people? Although perhaps they might in a laboratory setting, where none of their fellow churchgoers are around, where they don't feel the need to impress people.
Where's all of this going? How, then, can a non-believer become more self-controlled for a New Year's Resolution?
Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals.
Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.
“People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values,” he said. “Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.”
Of course, it requires some self-control to carry out that exercise — and maybe more effort than it takes to go to church.
“Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages.”
Maybe not belief in God, per se (let's not leave out the Buddhists who can be enormously self-controlled!), but integration into a system of beliefs, symbols, and practices.
Ultimately, however, I wonder what behaviors count as constituting self-control and what behaviors constitute a lack of self-control? Would not these shift from context to context?
Here are the behaviors casually dropped as mere examples (not the full set of behaviors) in the article (and these are not necessarily in any order of importance):
Conscientiousness to fellow human beings
Going to the Dentist
Lack of Self-Control:
Whose values do these behaviors reflect? Whose do they fail to reflect? Or, were these values chosen for the NYTimes article for the newspaper's primarily American readership, while other valued behaviors from studies of other places and other religious contexts were excluded? The article does not disclose this information. The information about the brainscans showing the activation of the parts of the brain that account for self-control during meditation and so forth is interesting, but we might need to control for what counts as self-control.