TORONTO — Religion may
provide a “buffer” allowing the devout to feel less anxiety when they make
mistakes, compared with non-believers, according to new scientific research.
Researchers at the
University of Toronto measured “error-related negativity” — people’s defensive
response to errors — and compared it to religious belief.
Their findings were
published in the journal Psychological Science.
In the experiments,
participants had electrodes measuring their brain activity as they performed
One test of 40 students involved making a
grammatically-correct sentence out of jumbled words; some of the sentences
contained words with religious connotations, like “sacred” or “divine.”
Another experiment required
participants to identify the color of words that flashed on a screen. Some
words were depicted in their correct color while others were not.
They were then asked to
quantify their belief in God on a scale of zero to seven.
The study found that those
who were religious or claimed belief in God “showed low levels of
distress-related neural activity” when they learned of their test errors,
compared with nonbelievers.
By contrast, atheists
demonstrated a “heightened neural response” and reacted more defensively when they
learned of their errors, wrote the study’s lead author, Michael Inzlicht, an
associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
Inzlicht and co-author Alexa
Tullett added, “Thinking about one’s religion, consciously or otherwise, acts
as a bulwark against defensive reactions to errors; it muffles the cortical
The authors note that many “varieties
of belief” — not just religion — can produce a similar calming dynamic as long
as it provides “meaning and structure” to one’s life.
“If thinking about religion
leads people to react to their errors with less distress and defensiveness …
in the long run, this effect may translate to religious people living their
lives with greater equanimity than nonreligious people, being better able to
cope with the
pressures of living in a