People tend to seek out and take greater risks when they receive reminders that God exists, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. The researchers say this link is due to people’s belief that a sovereign God will protect them from potential negative outcomes.
Prior research has suggested that being religious is associated with a decrease in risky behaviors, such as substance abuse and gambling, but the researchers noticed that all these risks shared a negative moral component.
Since people tend to view God as a source of protection and security, the researchers hypothesized that thinking about God may have a totally different effect on other types of risks that have no moral connotation. To test this theory, they conducted a group of online survey studies involving nearly 900 participants.
The findings showed 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 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.
Participants who had just been reminded of God were more likely to choose the dangerous version of the experiment (95.5 percent) than participants who had not been reminded of God (84.3 percent).
In another experiment, 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 non-moral 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 (God knows what you’re missing! Find skydiving near you.)
Interestingly, when the ad included a reference to God, people clicked on the skydiving (non-moral risk) ad more often. They also clicked less often on the bribing (moral risk). People clicked about the same number of times on the computer games ad, whether they mentioned God or not.
“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,” says lead researcher Daniella Kupor of Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
Furthermore, participants who were reminded of God perceived less danger in various risky behaviors than participants who were not reminded of God. 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.
“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, or use one of the many colloquial expressions that use the word ‘God.’
In fact, the word ‘God’ is one of the most common nouns in the English language,” says Kupor. “The fact that reminders of God are so ubiquitous suggests that this effect may impact a large number of people.”