Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Religion may have evolved because of its ability to help people exercise self-control

 
Here's an example of evolutionary thinking by a psychologist at the University of Miami. Read the press release (below) and watch the video. It's only when you watch the video that you realize where Professor McCullough is coming from on this issue. He uses the word "evolution" to talk about cultural phenomena without necessarily including genetic changes. In other words, he is not talking about biological evolution.

This can be very confusing and I recommend that evolutionary psychologists change their practice. They should refer to "cultural evolution" and distinguish it from "biological evolution" whenever possible.
Religion may have evolved because of its ability to help people exercise self-control

A study by a University of Miami psychologist reveals that religion facilitates the exercise of self-control and attainment of long-term goals

CORAL GABLES, FL (December 30, 2008)—Self-control is critical for success in life, and a new study by University of Miami professor of Psychology Michael McCullough finds that religious people have more self-control than do their less religious counterparts. These findings imply that religious people may be better at pursuing and achieving long-term goals that are important to them and their religious groups. This, in turn, might help explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviors, less depression, and longer lives.

In this research project, McCullough evaluated 8 decades worth of research on religion, which has been conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world. He found persuasive evidence from a variety of domains within the social sciences, including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology, that religious beliefs and religious behaviors are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors, so that they can pursue valued goals. The research paper, which summarizes the results of their review of the existing science, will be published in the January 2009 issue of Psychological Bulletin.

"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," said McCullough. "We hope our paper will correct this oversight in the scientific literature." Among the most interesting conclusions that the research team drew were the following:
  • Religious rituals such as prayer and meditation affect the parts of the human brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control;
  • When people view their goals as "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them;
  • Religious lifestyles may contribute to self-control by providing people with clear standards for their behavior, by causing people to monitor their own behavior more closely, and by giving people the sense that God is watching their behavior;
  • The fact that religious people tend to be higher in self-control helps explain why religious people are less likely to misuse drugs and alcohol and experience problems with crime and delinquency.
McCullough's review of the research on religion and self-control contributes to a better understanding of "how the same social force that motivates acts of charity and generosity can also motivate people to strap bomb belts around their waists and then blow themselves up in crowded city buses," he explained. "By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything."

Among the study's more practical implications is that religious people may have at their disposal a set of unique psychological resources for adhering to their New Year's Resolutions in the year to come.
I leave it up to you, dear readers, to decide whether non-religious people (atheists) tend to have higher rates of substance abuse, worse school achievement, more delinquency, worse health behaviors, more depression, and shorter lives. It would imply that countries like Sweden, where half the population is non-religious, are in much worse shape than America, where more than 80% is religious. It would imply that extremely religious countries like Saudi Arabia must be near-perfect societies full of very old people.

Incidentally, the idea of "self-control" is not well explained. If you behave in a certain way because you fear punishment from your god or your priests, then this isn't exactly what I think of when I use the term "self-control."




5 comments :

  1. Like religion, evolution is now a suitcase word.

    Besides, there's no such thing as a religion of one. Shouldn't it state, "Tribalism may have endured because of its ability to help people exercise self-control."

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  2. I think there's a role for these sort of wild stabs in the dark during the formulating hypotheses stages. Is this topic still really so immature that a professor can still boldly list these as possible explanations without accompanying it with a large body of evidence or at the very least verifying that it is consistent with the evidence?

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  3. Another unclarified assumption that Prof. McCullough makes is that something beneficial at the social group level must also be beneficial at the individual level.

    That is greedy reductionism, and easily refuted using real world data like you mentioned, Sweden vs USA etc.

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  4. A happy new year to you.

    I leave it up to you, dear readers, to decide whether non-religious people (atheists) tend to have higher rates of substance abuse, worse school achievement, more delinquency, worse health behaviors, more depression, and shorter lives. It would imply that countries like Sweden, where half the population is non-religious, are in much worse shape than America, where more than 80% is religious. It would imply that extremely religious countries like Saudi Arabia must be near-perfect societies full of very old people.

    For theists that’s certainly a point worth pondering. However, in order to get a closer comparison of like with like it might be instructive to compare atheist and religious communities within a single country like say America or Sweden. To get a handle on any sub-cultural differences a variety of indices could be studied – for example suicide rates.

    As a theist and thus having the opportunity to be closely linked to Christian communities it’s true that religion gives rise to its own peculiar set problems (as does atheism). Perhaps “sickle cell disease” provides us with a metaphor in that we have here a case where gaining a level of immunity to one kind of pathology makes one susceptible to other kinds of pathology. Religion vs. atheism may be an optimization problem where no perfect solutions are to be found and a tense shifting quasi-equilibrium exists between the two kinds of life style. Hint: think also of the changing “equilibrium” in a chemical reaction as conditions change.

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  5. At the inauguration luncheon I was struck by how quickly people resorted to prayer when Ted Kennedy had his episode. It struck me that this served a number of functions but what stood out to me was that it gave something for people to do that kept them from interfering with a process that they would be ineffective or even counter-productive at. Praying allowed them to express their real concern without getting in the way. This diverting of attention and, in essence, is an exercise in self-control.

    Another example of the utility of religion is perhaps, the prayer before a meal. The natural impulse, especially when hungry, is to dive right in but forcing a wait for a ritual to be performed again exercises (in the strengthening sense) self-control.

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