Religious priming does not increase the ability to delay gratification: study

Woman confessing by Alexandre EggertNew research casts doubt on the claim that merely thinking about religious and moral concepts promotes higher levels of self-control.

The study, published in the July issue of Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis, found religious and moral priming had no effect on participants’ ability to delay gratification.

“Our research helps to debunk an idea that has been growing in the psychological literature over the last few years, that religious or moral concepts can somehow reduce participants’ impulsivity and replenish the ability to delay gratification,” Justin Marc David Harrison of the Charles Sturt University explained to PsyPost via email. “The studies that purported to show this were, in our view, confounded by the fact that the variables of interest (the measures affected by the primes or experimental manipulations) included an element of social desirability.”

“It was very easy for the participant to guess which response would cast them in a better ‘moral light,'” he added. “So the effects of the religious or moral concepts could have come about due to motivation to appear as a good person, rather than an increased ability to delay gratification for one’s own material benefit.”

The study was co-authored by Ryan Thomas McKay of Royal Holloway, University of London.

For their study, the researchers had 69 participants unscramble a sentence containing five words. Some of the sentences contained religious themes, while others contained secular moral themes, and some contained neutral themes. The participants then took part in an auction that was designed to measure their ability to delay gratification.

The experiment found no significant difference between participants who had unscrambled the sentences containing religious, moral and neutral themes.

“In our study we took social desirability out of the equation,” Harrison told PsyPost. “While we used similar priming tasks to evoke religious and moral ideas, the measure of gratification delay was much more complex, and it would have been really difficult for a participant to figure out which was the ‘socially impressive’ response. In contrast to earlier studies, the primes had no effect of the ability to delay gratification, even though doing so was clearly in the participants interest.”

Harrison and McKay’s study doesn’t completely invalidate previous findings on the topic of religious priming. However, it does suggest the previous findings need to be reinterpreted.

“Our study doesn’t negate earlier findings that religious and moral concepts influence people to be more generous or patient, but it seems that this effect is a result of a change in motivation rather than a magical top up of a depletable self control ‘resource,'” Harrison said.

The Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis was created to counteract the publication bias in psychology. Many journals only publish research that finds a statistically significant, positive conclusion. Studies that find no effect are often discarded, though they can be just as informative as studies that find an effect.

“If a study has null results psychologists will often abandon the research to move on to other ideas and not report the findings,” the journal explains in a FAQ. “The result is that the journals are filled with studies that reached significance. For example, there may have been 20 null studies conducted on a topic but one significant study reported in the literature.”

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