You’ve felt it before: the embarrassed, self-conscious realization that you’ve just committed a major error, made a mistake when you should have been performing better. We all experience this unpleasant feeling. Measuring electrical activity in the brain, researchers call it “error-related negativity,” relating it particularly to a part of the midbrain called the anterior cingulate cortex. New research indicates that religiousness may reduce activity in this part of the brain, physiologically buffering people against their own mistakes. Most interestingly, the source of this effect may be the generation of meaning itself.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a structure located near the front-center of the brain, is involved in alerting people when something is out of the ordinary or unexpected in their environment. More broadly, it’s related to feelings of anxiety – from learning about a natural disaster to realizing we’ve just called an acquaintance by the wrong name, stressful or jarring experiences activate the ACC and generate feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and stress.
Unfortunately for the neurotically inclined, our own mistakes and errors are one of the most important sources of ACC-related anxiety. The error-related negativity response is a buildup of negative electrical charge in the brain that shows up on electroencephalograph (EEG) readings about 100 to 150 milliseconds after a person commits an error; for example, error-related negativity signatures show up in brain readouts about a tenth of a second after a research subject errs in, say, completing a math problem. Most researchers believe that this negativity response begins in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Knowing the empirical relationship between stress, mistakes, and the ACC, University of Toronto researchers Michael Inzlicht, Alexa M. Tullett, and Marie Good wondered whether religion – which is often related to lower stress levels in epidemiological and psychological studies – might buffer people from the negative effects of their own mistakes. Recruiting a religiously diverse sample that included representatives from most major religions as well as atheists and agnostics, Inzlicht and colleagues had volunteers take a common test that measures how well test-takers can make quick visual decisions about images and words shown on a computer screen. The particular test they chose is notoriously difficult, so nearly everyone makes numerous mistakes when they take it. This gave the researchers plenty of opportunity to measure what participants’ brains were doing when they messed up.
In the first test, participants were broken into groups depending on whether or not they scored beforehand as “religiously zealous.” Zealots were those who agreed with such statements as “In my heart I believe that my religious beliefs are more correct than others.” Compared with non-zealots, the religious enthusiasts showed markedly less EEG response to their mistakes on the visual test, suggesting that they were experiencing less anxiety after committing errors.
In the next test, the researchers simply asked whether volunteers believed in God – a significantly less dramatic measure of subjects’ religiosity. Again, the results indicated a strong relationship between participants’ belief in God and lack of anxiety after committing mistakes on the test.
Interestingly, in addition to showing less error-related negativity on the EEG readouts after each mistake, religious believers and religious zealots alike actually committed fewer errors than their nonbelieving peers. This may have been because the believers, feeling less anxiety after each individual mistake, were less stressed overall and so better able to focus on the task at hand, but the authors of the study couldn’t be completely sure.
They were more confident, though, about the reasons for the general connection between lowered anxiety levels and high religiousness. The researchers suggested that the main reason for this association was that religiousness, including belief in God, makes life seem more orderly and meaningful, thus reducing stress at the neurological level. This explanation, which they called the “motivated meaning-making account,” asserts that people are driven to discover order and continuity in the world, and that this need is higher when they feel that their own level of control is reduced – such as when they’re making lots of mistakes.
In short, any type of disorder or lack of control makes people feel anxious. Since our own mistakes and errors are registered by our brains as disorder, the order-creating function of religion helps buffer us against the unpleasant neurological effects of our own failures.
But Inzlicht and colleagues realized that other explanations might also fit the data, so they examined some alternative hypotheses. The first two suggested that religious people might be less able to pay attention to the test or the errors they were making as they took it. But the fact that religious people tended to perform better on the test led the researchers to quickly reject these possibilities.
The third hypothesis postulated that religious people were less cognitively flexible, or able to adapt to new data. This would explain why their brains showed less error-related negativity – they simply weren’t synthesizing the information that they were making mistakes. In blunt language, this would suggest that religious people were a bit too dimwitted to actually realize they were making errors. However, controlling for IQ and for measures of close-mindedness did nothing to eliminate the effect, so the researchers dismissed this hypothesis as well. They concluded that the most likely cause for reduced anxiety response among believers really was that religious belief increased participants’ sense of order and meaning, and thus made them less anxious about their own mistakes. The EGG readings simply showed the byproducts of this effect.
In a secondary test of their hypothesis, Inzlicht and colleagues carried out a similar study with the same computerized visual test. This time, though, they also measured participants’ startle blink response along with their brain electrical activity. The startle blink response is an instinctive physical reaction that causes us to flinch, partially closing our eyes, when we’re faced with negative stimuli. These negative stimuli include loud, sudden noises and violence, but also our own seemingly innocuous errors in everyday life. As predicted, religious believers showed less startle response, as well as less error-related negativity response stemming from the ACC.
The final study connected all the dots. Each participant in this study read one of three fake newspaper articles that suggested that scientists had met at a conference to decide whether life had meaning and the world was orderly. According to one article, the scientists had decided that life was meaningless and the world was chaotic and fundamentally unintelligible. The other articles both argued that the universe actually was orderly. But one claimed that people could never understand this order, while the other reported that the scientists had decided that understanding was possible.
The participants then took a similar visual perception test, and their error-related negativity responses were measured with EEG instruments. The results confirmed the researchers’ expectations: participants who had been led to believe that the world had order and meaning showed significantly less anxiety and ACC activity after committing mistakes than those who had been told the universe was chaotic and random. More interestingly, it didn’t matter whether participants thought that they could ever actually understand that order or not; just the assertion that there was a basic pattern to existence was enough to make subjects less anxious about the mistakes they made.
The results Inzlicht and colleagues reported suggest that the need for meaning and order is not to be dismissed as fuzzy, emotional, or subjective. It actually affects people’s neurological functioning, and can have profound effects not only on their inner psychological states, but also their actual performance on difficult tasks. The implications for the evolutionary adaptiveness of religious belief are obvious. And this research may provide a concrete link for researchers who investigate the connection between religion and health – if religious people react less anxiously to their own mistakes and to cognitive dissonance in general, they may be less stressed overall and therefore less susceptible to illnesses, disease, and stress-related disorders.
However, like almost anything having to do with religion, there’s also a downside. As mentioned above, innocuous belief in God led to reduced anxiety and better performance among believers… but so did jingoistic religious zealotry. As usual, the uncomfortable truth is that religion can benefit its followers even when it makes them close-minded or prejudiced against outsiders.
We seem to need to feel that the world has order and meaning, but religious systems that denigrate outsiders, subjugate women and minorities, and advocate holy wars can provide that meaning just as efficiently as peaceful, inclusive faiths. In the end, it’s probably up to us to balance our various needs. Meaning and order are important, but so are the needs of others to be allowed to live their lives without being judged or assaulted for beliefs that may differ from our own. If we’re lucky, more research into the scientific basis for religious behavior may give us hints into how this balance can be achieved – even if we have to make a few mistakes along the way.
Click here for the abstract to Inzlicht et al.'s article, "The Need to Believe: A Neuroscience Account of Religion as a Motivated Process," in Religion, Brain, & Behavior.