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Faith found to reduce errors on psychological test

March 6, 2009
Courtesy University of Toronto
and World Science staff

At least for one type of test, be­lief in God can help re­duce mis­takes and anx­i­e­ty, ac­cord­ing to new re­search that al­so shows dis­tinct brain ac­ti­vity pat­terns in be­liev­ers.

In two stud­ies led by Uni­ver­s­ity of To­ron­to psy­cholo­g­ist Mi­chael In­zlicht, par­ti­ci­pants per­formed a Stroop task, a well-known psy­chological test that as­s­eses cog­ni­tive con­trol. Mean­while, elec­trodes meas­ured brain ac­ti­vity in the test-takers.

At least for one type of test, be­lief in God can help re­duce mis­takes and anx­i­e­ty, ac­cord­ing to new re­search that al­so shows dis­tinct brain ac­ti­vity pat­terns in be­liev­ers. (Image: Tou Tou­ke)


Com­pared to non-be­liev­ers, In­zlicht found, re­li­gious par­ti­ci­pants showed sig­nif­i­cantly less ac­ti­vity in a part of the brain called the an­te­ri­or cin­gu­late cor­tex. This struc­ture is be­lieved to help mod­i­fy be­hav­ior by sig­nal­ing when at­ten­tion and con­trol are needed, usu­ally as a re­sult of some anx­i­e­ty-producing event like mak­ing a mis­take. 

The stronger their re­li­gious zeal and faith, the less cell ac­ti­vity in that zone—and the few­er er­rors sub­jects made, In­zlicht and col­leagues re­ported. They de­tailed the find­ings in the cur­rent on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The anterior cingu­late cor­tex might be thought of as an “alarm bell” that rings when some­one “has just made a mis­take or ex­pe­ri­ences un­cer­tain­ty,” said In­zlicht. “We found that re­li­gious peo­ple or even peo­ple who simply be­lieve in the ex­ist­ence of God show sig­nif­i­cantly less brain ac­ti­vity in rela­t­ion to their own er­rors. They’re much less anx­ious and feel less stressed when they have made an er­ror.”

These cor­rela­t­ions re­mained strong af­ter tak­ing in­to ac­count for per­son­al­ity and cog­ni­tive abil­ity, In­zlicht re­marked. The find­ings, he added, show re­li­gious be­lief has a calm­ing ef­fect on its devo­tees, which makes them less likely to feel anx­ious about mak­ing er­rors or fac­ing the un­known.

The Stroop task meas­ures a per­son’s abil­ity to in­hib­it one re­ac­tion in or­der to do or say some­thing else that gives a cor­rect an­swer. For in­stance, a test-taker might be asked to quickly state the col­or ink in which a word is printed, though the word it­self names a dif­fer­ent col­or.

In­zlicht de­clined to ex­trap­o­late too much from the test re­sults to real life, cau­tion­ing that anx­i­e­ty is a “double-edged sword” that is some­times nec­es­sary and help­ful. Ex­ces­sive anx­i­e­ty may leave you “par­a­lyzed with fear,” he not­ed, but “it al­so serves a very use­ful func­tion in that it alerts us when we’re mak­ing mis­takes.” With­out that, “what im­pe­tus do you have to change or im­prove your be­hav­iour so you don’t make the same mis­takes again and again?”


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At least for one type of test, belief in God can help reduce mistakes and anxiety, according to new research that also shows distinct brain activity patterns in believers. In two studies led by University of Toronto psychologist Michael Inzlicht, participants performed a Stroop task, a well-known psychological test that asseses cognitive control. Meanwhile, electrodes measured brain activity in the test-takers. Compared to non-believers, Inzlicht found that the religious participants showed significantly less activity in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This structure is believed to help modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake. The stronger their religious zeal and faith, the less cell activity in that zone—and the fewer errors subjects made, Inzlicht and colleagues reported. They detailed the findings in the current online issue of the research journal Psychological Science. “You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical alarm bell that rings” when someone “has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty,” said Inzlicht. “We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.” These correlations remained strong after taking into account for personality and cognitive ability, Inzlicht remarked. The findings, he added, show religious belief has a calming effect on its devotees, which makes them less likely to feel anxious about making errors or facing the unknown. The Stroop task measures a person’s ability to inhibit one reaction in order to do or say something else that gives a correct answer. For instance, a test-taker might be asked to quickly state the color ink in which a word is printed, though the word itself names a different color. Inzlicht declined to extrapolate too much from the test results to real life, cautioning that anxiety is a “double-edged sword” that is sometimes necessary and helpful. Excessive anxiety may leave you “paralyzed with fear,” he noted, but “it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes.” Without that, “what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?”