Unconscious religious priming has robust effects on the behavior of religious people

Priming is defined by Explorable as “exposure to a stimulus [that]influences response to a later stimulus.” Research on priming has shown that you can affect people’s behavior by subtly reminding them of certain concepts. The scientific community has raised several questions related to religious priming in particular: Is it a real phenomenon? Does it positively affect behavior? Is it effective for both religious and non-religious people?

In a study published in Personal and Social Psychology Review in early 2016, researchers from the University of Oregon and the University of British Columbia attempted to answer some of these questions.

“Recently, two large-scale failures to replicate highly cited unconscious priming studies have raised questions about the robustness of priming effects in social psychology,” said Azim F. Shariff, principal investigator and corresponding author of the study.

The team conducted a meta-analysis of 94 studies with the goal of answering three questions: “Does religious priming have reliable psychological effects?” “Does religious priming cause people to engage in prosocial behavior (behavior that benefits others)?” and “Do religious priming effects depend on pre-existing dispositional religious belief?”

Researchers found that, in general, religious priming does indeed have an effect on behavior.  After controlling for possible biases, the effect was still significant.

The team also found that different types of priming had a variety of effects on participants. The most effective style of priming was contextual; in other words, questioning a participant in plain view of a church or while playing religious music in the background.

Regarding prosocial behavior, data showed a statistically significant effect size.  In other words, individuals who received religious priming were more likely to exhibit prosocial behaviors (e.g. offering to give money to a charity rather than keep it; abstaining from cheating on a task where cheating is convenient).

“Importantly, we of course do not claim that religion solely encourages prosociality,” said Shariff.

“However…[there is]evidence that aspects of religious beliefs and rituals motivate people to sacrifice self-interest for others.”

Finally, researchers found a small but statistically significant difference between the effect of religious priming on religious and non-religious individuals.  In other words, participants who identified themselves as religious believers were more likely to be affected by religious priming than those who identified as non-believers or non-committed.

“All psychological findings remain open questions,” wrote Shariff. “Nevertheless, the present analyses reveal support for the effect of religious priming on prosocial behavior for religious participants.”