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February 27, 2015

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Thoughts of “God” found to increase risk-taking

Feb. 26, 2015
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Re­minders of “God” can make peo­ple more likely to seek out and take risks, ac­cord­ing to re­search pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The find­ings sug­gest that peo­ple are will­ing to take these risks be­cause they think of God as pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion, ac­cord­ing to the in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

“Ref­er­ences to God per­vade daily life—on any giv­en day you might see the word ‘God’ printed on U.S. cur­ren­cy, drive be­hind a car with a bump­er stick­er that ref­er­ences God,” said lead re­searcher Daniella Ku­por of Stan­ford Uni­vers­ity Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness in Cal­i­for­nia.

“In fact, the word ‘God’ is one of the most com­mon nouns in the Eng­lish lan­guage,” sug­gesting the risk ef­fect might tou­ch lots of peo­ple.

Many pre­vi­ous stud­ies had in­di­cat­ed that re­li­gios­ity and par­ticipa­t­ion in re­li­gious ac­ti­vi­ties are as­so­ci­at­ed with de­creases in peo­ple’s en­gage­ment in risky be­hav­iors like sub­stance abuse and gam­bling, but Ku­por and her col­leagues no­ticed that the risks ex­am­ined in these stud­ies tended to share a neg­a­tive mor­al com­po­nent.

The re­search­ers hy­poth­e­sized that the idea of God may have a dif­fer­ent ef­fect in rela­t­ion to risks that have no mor­al con­nota­t­ion. They de­cid­ed to test this.

In a group of on­line sur­vey stud­ies with nearly 900 par­ti­ci­pants, the re­search­ers found that peo­ple who were re­minded of “God”— ei­ther by work­ing on word scram­bles that in­clud­ed God-related words or by read­ing a par­a­graph about God—were more will­ing to en­gage in var­i­ous risky be­hav­iors than those par­ti­ci­pants who weren’t prompted to think about God.

In one stu­dy, for ex­am­ple, par­ti­ci­pants were asked to choose which ver­sion of the study they wanted to com­plete: one ver­sion would give them a small bo­nus pay­ment, but in­volved look­ing at an “ex­tremely bright col­or” that they were told could po­ten­tially dam­age their eyes, while the oth­er ver­sion in­volved look­ing at a harm­less darker col­or. The re­search­ers found that par­ti­ci­pants who had been re­minded of “God” pri­or to mak­ing their choice were more likely to opt for the dan­ger­ous ver­sion of the ex­pe­ri­ment (95.5 per­cent) than the par­ti­ci­pants who had­n’t been re­minded of God (84.3 per­cent).

In anoth­er stu­dy, the re­search­ers posted varia­t­ions of three ads on­line and recorded the click-through rates for each. There were ads that pro­mot­ed an immor­al risk (“Learn how to bribe”), ads that pro­mot­ed a non­mor­al risk (“Find sky­div­ing near you”), and ads that pro­mot­ed no risk (“Find amaz­ing vi­deogames”). In some cases, the ads in­clud­ed a men­tion of God (e.g., “God knows what you’re mis­sing! Find sky­div­ing near you.”)

The find­ings were clear, the re­search­ers said: When the ad in­clud­ed a ref­er­ence to God, peo­ple clicked on the sky­div­ing ad more of­ten, but they clicked on the brib­ing (mor­al risk) less of­ten. Peo­ple clicked about the same num­ber of times on the com­put­er games ad, with or with­out a men­tion of God.

“We were sur­prised to find that even a sim­ple col­lo­qui­al ex­pres­sion—‘­God knows what you’re mis­sing’—influences wheth­er peo­ple click on a real on­line ad that is pro­mot­ing a risky be­hav­ior,” said Ku­por.

Ad­di­tion­al find­ings in­di­cat­ed that peo­ple who were re­minded of “God” per­ceived less dan­ger in var­i­ous risky be­hav­iors than other participants. They also re­ported more neg­a­tive feel­ings to­ward God when they lost their po­ten­tial win­nings in a risk-related game, sug­gesting that they had ex­pected God to pro­tect them from los­ing the mon­ey and were dis­ap­point­ed in the out­come.

The re­search­ers said the ef­fect may not hold for peo­ple from cul­tures in which God is­n’t seen as pro­tective; none­the­less, the find­ings have broad rel­e­vance for mil­lions of peo­ple around the world.


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Reminders of God can make people more likely to seek out and take risks, according to research published in the research journal Psychological Science. The findings suggest that people are willing to take these risks because they think of God as providing protection, according to the investigators. “References to God pervade daily life — on any given day you might see the word ‘God’ printed on U.S. currency, drive behind a car with a bumper sticker that references God,” said lead researcher Daniella Kupor of Stanford University Graduate School of Business in California. “In fact, the word ‘God’ is one of the most common nouns in the English language,” suggesting the risk effect might touch lots of people. Many previous studies had indicated that religiosity and participation in religious activities are associated with decreases in people’s engagement in risky behaviors like substance abuse and gambling, but Kupor and her colleagues noticed that the risks examined in these studies tended to share a negative moral component. The researchers hypothesized that the idea of God may have a different effect in relation to risks that have no moral connotation. They decided to test this. In a group of online survey studies with nearly 900 participants, the researchers found that people who were reminded of “God”— either by working on word scrambles that included God-related words or by reading a paragraph about God — were more willing to engage in various risky behaviors than those participants who weren’t prompted to think about God. In one study, for example, participants were asked to choose which version of the study they wanted to complete: one version would give them a small bonus payment, but involved looking at an “extremely bright color” that they were told could potentially damage their eyes, while the other version involved looking at a harmless darker color. The researchers found that participants who had been reminded of “God” prior to making their choice were more likely to opt for the dangerous version of the experiment (95.5%) than the participants who hadn’t been reminded of God (84.3%). In another study, the researchers posted variations of three ads online and recorded the click-through rates for each. There were ads that promoted an immoral risk (“Learn how to bribe”), ads that promoted a nonmoral risk (“Find skydiving near you”), and ads that promoted no risk (“Find amazing video games”). In some cases, the ads included a mention of God (e.g., “God knows what you’re missing! Find skydiving near you.”) The findings were clear, the researchers said: When the ad included a reference to God, people clicked on the skydiving (nonmoral risk) ad more often, but they clicked on the bribing (moral risk) less often. People clicked about the same number of times on the computer games ad, with or without a mention of God. “We were surprised to find that even a simple colloquial expression — ‘God knows what you’re missing’ — influences whether people click on a real online ad that is promoting a risky behavior,” said Kupor. Additional findings indicated that people who were reminded of God perceived less danger in various risky behaviors than participants who were not reminded of God. And they reported more negative feelings toward God when they lost their potential winnings in a risk-related game, suggesting that they had expected God to protect them from losing the money and were disappointed in the outcome. The researchers said the effect may not hold for people from cultures in which God isn’t seen as protective; nonetheless, the findings have broad relevance for millions of people around the world.