No matter if you're a believer, thinking about God and religion may turn you into a slacker, according to a new study.
"More than 90 percent of people in the world agree that God or a similar spiritual power exists or may exist,"study researcher Kristin Laurin of the University of Waterloo in Canada, said in a statement. "This is the first empirical evidence that 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."
Even for those without a personal belief in God, U.S. culture is saturated with religious references and imagery that could impact them, Laurin said. The study's results were independent of the participants' religious beliefs. Even without knowing it, these signs and signals can have a psychological effect.
A Gallup poll in May found that more than nine out of 10 Americans believe in God. These numbers drop for groups of younger Americans, liberals, those living in the Eastern United States, those with postgraduate educations and political independents. However, belief in God is nearly universal among Republicans and conservatives and, to a slightly lesser degree, in the South.
In the new study, the researchers primed more than 350 engineering students with the idea of God or faith, for example, by having participants write a sentence using a list of words with spiritual connotations. Students then completed skill tests in which they had to make as many words as possible from a group of letters. When prompted with religious imagery or language beforehand, the students came up with fewer words, regardless of their religious background, than those who hadn't been primed with such imagery.
The researchers think the lack of effort in the "religious-primed" group could be dictated by a belief that fate is in God's hands. If the students believe that God controls their destiny, trying to be better isn't going to help them actually be better, resulting in less effort. This entire thought process seems to be unconscious, but just the presence of these God-conjuring words or images could alter behavior.
A second study tempted participants with cookies after they had read one of two passages — one about God and the other on a non-religious topic. Participants who read the God passage not only reported a greater willingness to resist temptation, but also were less likely to help themselves to the cookies.
This effect, however, was found only among participants who had previously said they believe an omniscient entity watches over them and notices when they misbehave, though the strength of their devotion to that God didn't come into play in any of the experiments, the researchers found.
The researchers say like the "Santa Claus" effect, people "behave" because God knows when they've been bad or good. Being reminded of the presence of an all-knowing God helps people resist temptations, for fear they will be "caught" by God and punished, the researchers speculate.
The study was published online Oct. 24 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.