How the Concept of “God” Influences Goal Pursuit

Does thinking about god help you in life? It’s a question whose answer will likely never be accepted by many, but that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to find it. A new study examining self-regulation reveals that thinking about god does help you achieve your goal, but only if your goal is to successfully resist the urge to do something.

Leveraging classic and recent theorizing on self-regulation and social cognition, we predict and test for 2 divergent effects of exposure to notions of God on self-regulatory processes. Specifically, we show that participants reminded of God (vs. neutral or positive concepts) demonstrate both decreased active goal pursuit (Studies 1, 2, and 5) and increased temptation resistance (Studies 3, 4, and 5).

The researchers believe the findings are due to god’s reputation for omnipotence and omniscience. If god is always watching, you better not do that bad thing, but if god controls everything, it’s less important to fervently pursue your goals. The neat thing about the study is that because the self-regulation patterns exhibited by subjects in the experiment were independent of existing religiosity, it means that the less-religious or agnostic may be influenced by the concept of god as much as a somebody devout.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the idea that God helps you resist temptation while decreasing your pursuit of other goals makes a lot of sense. Throughout most of history it’s been more beneficial for survival to resist temptation (e.g. not breaking the law when ruled by a king, avoiding the shortcut through the dangerous part of the forest, etc.) than to actively pursue a goal (e.g. working hard at your merchant business). What’s interesting is that the trend is now starting to reverse. We live in a world that’s safer than ever, and globalization means that those who single-mindedly pursue a goal and succeed on a global level will reap untold rewards. Even those who succumb to the dangerous temptation of eating unhealthy can fix many of those problems with money made from strong goal pursuit.

Laurin, K., Kay, A., & Fitzsimons, G. (2012). Divergent effects of activating thoughts of God on self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (1), 4-21 DOI: 10.1037/a0025971


7 Responses to How the Concept of “God” Influences Goal Pursuit

  1. rightlyknightly says:

    Really interesting article – it’s always good to try and empiricise faith!

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  3. Jay Mani says:

    Not anything that I have not previously pondered but still a great read and wonderfully enlightening.

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  6. tempus fugit says:

    I see your point but the parables of the talents and minas rebuke the notion that God expects us to do less than parlay our gifts into something more than a life of idleness might yield. The message of such lessons compels us to create authentic value in some way, shape, or form from that with which we begin any legitimate enterprise. The fullness of scripture instructs man to be a faithful steward of God’s wealth–however much–not some kind of quasi-inert, repressed automaton. If by decreased active-goal pursuit you mean less ambition, then I would suggest there is a difference between self-advancement and the accomplishment of more universal “goods.” If one’s goal begins with the good of himself, then its halo of value is likely rather small–though it’s quantifiability may be easier to observe and measure. Whereas if one’s goal begins with the good of others, its halo of value may be exponential–though more difficult to measure empirically as a function of individual advancement.

    Hmmm…was Mother Theresa goal-oriented?

  7. ryukochan says:

    Mother Theresa was goal oriented – ditto Desmond Tutu, Pat Robertson, and numerous others in the Christian faith. The problem with that way of thinking is that this study represents a generalization. As a group, the strongly religious are less fixated on Earthly rewards, and more likely to leave the big deal things to their God, since he is the author and director of everything anyway.

    To take it out of a religious context, you could say that the existence of a small population of female body builders (in proportion to the earth’s population) does not substantially alter the truth that across the populace, men have greater upper body strength and muscle mass than women. Similarly, the existence of a small population of highly motivated religious doesn’t substantially alter the truth that the majority of religious people (who believe in an omniscient/omnipotent God) are not so goal oriented.

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