December 31, 2008
The Road to Resolutions
It's reportedly paved with high religiosity, say two Florida psychologists.
Christianity Today readers, or those like them, may have more success keeping those quick-to-fade (and out of vogue?) New Year's resolutions than secular or "spiritual but not religious" peers. That's the conclusion of John Tierney's recent New York Times piece about the high correlation between personal religiosity and self-control.
Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby are two psychologists at the University of Miami interested in religion professionally but who "personally . . . don't get down on the field much," quips McCullough. They just published the results of their 8-year study testing the hypothesis that religion gives people internal strength in Psychological Bulletin. McCullough and Willoughby concluded that the "controls" of religious belief typically used to explain religious folk's emphasis on morality - guilt, fear of punishment, exclusion from a worshiping community - do not fully account for their ability to resist temptation.
"Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there's a lot of activity in two parts of the brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion," McCullough said. "The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control."
According to McCullough, even individuals who go along with a worshiping community's organized rituals, but who don't necessarily subscribe to the beliefs taught there (the "extrinsically religious"), will not be able to practice self-discipline as much as those who go but actually absorb what is taught ("intrinsically religious").
So the conclusion of this study: Those who believe their actions, words, and decisions have meaning beyond immediate ramifications and what's now visible put more weight on their actions, words, and decisions. Makes sense to this terribly unscientific thinker.