Culture & Society

Kristin Laurin: Can Belief in God Affect How We Act at the Office?

Researchers find that just reading about God can affect people's behavior on tasks, even the behavior of non-believers.

November 05, 2013

| by Eilene Zimmerman



Pope Benedict XVI (R) celebrates a mass in Rome, 2009 (Reuters photo by Alessandro Bianchi)

More than 90% of Americans say they believe in God, or some approximation thereof, and psychologist Kristin Laurin has been trying to understand how those beliefs influence our behavior. Over the last several years, Laurin, now an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and a handful of psychologists at universities in Canada and the United States, have conducted studies in an effort to understand the connection between divine belief and earthly behavior. Does that belief affect how we behave, for example, at work or in school?

In several studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Laurin and her colleagues looked at whether awareness of God affects how we pursue our goals. In some cases, they looked to see if being reminded of God could decrease a person’s pursuit of a goal, possibly because the person feels that regardless of what he or she does, an omnipotent God controls what happens. Belief in God — or simply reminding people of the possibility that God exists — is sometimes associated with the belief that human actions cannot alter fate’s plan.

In other experiments, they looked to see if reminders of God might help people achieve their goals through “temptation resistance,” or refraining from undesirable behavior, such as passing up a high-calorie dessert when pursuing a dieting goal. Past studies have shown that people are more likely to avoid misbehaving when they are being watched and judged, and the imagined presence of a witness, such as God, can have as great an impact on behavior as the actual presence of a witness.

By decoupling active goal pursuit from temptation resistance in their experiments, the researchers hoped to tease apart why reminders of God might both help and hinder goal pursuit. They conducted six experiments that exposed college students to the idea of God and then assessed their performance on various measures of self-regulation.

In one experiment, 37 engineering students participated in what was called an “engineering skills” study. The students first completed a warm-up task that involved creating sentences using four words from a set of five. Some saw the word God or words related to the concept of God, such as divine, sacred, or prophet. Others saw words that were considered positive, such as sun, flowers, or puppy, or neutral words. After that, participants were asked to form as many words as they could from six specific letters and were told performance on the test was strongly linked to future success in engineering. Students who had been primed first with the God-related words formed only two-thirds as many words from the same letters as the students who were primed first with positive or neutral words. As Laurin and her colleagues predicted, the God-primed students didn’t appear to work as hard at achieving the goal.

To test whether reminding people of God could increase resistance to temptation, however, the researchers recruited 23 undergraduate students with self-professed healthy eating goals to participate in another study. The students first were asked to evaluate a student club website, where they read an excerpt from a speech either about the declassification of Pluto as a planet or a speech about God, with pronouncements showing omniscience such as: “God is the beginning and end of all things, all things else are from Him, and by Him, and in Him.”

The students were then given a bowl of 35 bite-sized cookies and asked to evaluate their taste by eating one or more. Left alone in a room for 10 minutes, individuals who had first read the speech about God ate, on average, fewer than 3 cookies while those who had read a speech about Pluto averaged nearly 8 cookies each.

To Laurin, the results from the first study indicate that people who think of God as powerful and intervening in their lives might be less likely to proactively pursue their goals because “there’s no sense in expending valuable energy proactively pursuing a goal if you believe that God will decide what happens to you,” she says. But if, instead, you are thinking of God as omniscient and watchful, as opposed to all-powerful, your conception of God might help you resist temptations that derail your pursuit of a goal. “That would mean there’s always someone watching you, and we know when people are being watched they don’t like to do — bad things.’” In the case of a health improvement goal, “that bad thing could be binging on chips and ice cream,” she says.


Everyone knows what the idea of God means, so even just thinking of it, even if you don't believe in it, that affects behavior.
Kirstin Laurin, assistant professor of organizational behavior

All six studies examined how exposure to God influences behavior when it comes to pursuing goals. Although the results were largely as Laurin and her colleagues predicted, one aspect surprised them, she says. “We found it doesn’t even matter what someone believes, or even whether they are an atheist. Everyone knows what the idea of God means, so even just thinking of it, even if you don’t believe in it, that affects behavior.”

References to God appear to affect people regardless of their religiosity, because the concept of God is so culturally ingrained. As a result, references to God could have far-reaching societal consequences, Laurin says, especially since self-regulation underlies much of health, happiness, and human productivity.

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