Is religious zeal a response to anxiety?

Psychological Science 20(3)In a recent article published in Psychological Science, Michael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh, and Kyle Nash demonstrate that people who score very high on measures of religious zeal and conviction make fewer errors on a standard measure of cognitive conflict. As the authors themselves say, “That greater belief in God predicted less cortical activity along with greater behavioral accuracy, even after we controlled for closed-mindedness and conservatism, implies that conviction is not the product of a rigid need for certainty.”

Stroop TaskThe authors measured the error related negativity potential (ERN) when participants were completing a Stroop task. In the Stroop task, you have to name the color of the ink that forms a color-word. So for example, you may be asked to name the color of a word that spells blue but that may be printed in red ink. The incongruence between the color and the word creates a cognitive conflict and that conflict can be measured in number of errors (naming the color of the ink instead of the word or vice versa) and via evoked potentials. The ERN is a well-studied brain electrical potential that appears when the cognitive system is trying to handle conflict in millisecond time windows. It is thought to be generated by networks involving the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC). 

In the study, participants demonstrated a reduced ERN in relation to the Stroop task relative to participants low on religious zeal. In order to help explain why religious participants both committed fewer errors and showed less of an ERN response the authors also had participants complete a battery of personality and cognitive measures. They found that the performance of religious participants could not be explained as a need for cognitive closure, closed-mindedness, or any of the big five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism).

Despite this pattern of results, the authors appear to endorse the old Freudian view of religion as a thing used to reduce anxiety and uncertainty. Nevertheless, the authors’ results are more consistent with a view that suggests religion enhances self-control, executive attention, evaluative judgment and the like.

The article, “Neural markers of religious conviction” can be found here.