Poverty has a weaker impact on well-being in developing countries, and a new study suggests that national religiosity can explain this effect. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that religion helps alleviate the mental toll of poverty.
The psychological toll of poverty has been widely documented. Scientists have been hopeful that these negative effects will weaken as developing countries improve economically and become more able to care for low socioeconomic status (SES) citizens. But in direct contrast to this notion, recent studies have suggested that the psychological burden of poverty is actually stronger in developed nations.
Study authors Jana B. Berkessel and her team proposed that this surprising effect might be explained by greater religiosity in underdeveloped nations. The researchers explain that world religions tend to include norms that offer comfort in the face of poverty while disparaging wealth. Because developing nations tend to be more religious than developed nations, these countries should have more religious norms in place to alleviate the mental burden of poverty.
Berkessel and her fellow researchers analyzed three global data sets to test this theory. This data came from the Gallup World Poll (GWP), which surveyed over 1.5 million people from 156 nations, the Gosling-Potter Internet Personality Project (IPP), which surveyed more than 1.4 million people from 85 nations, and the World Values Survey (WVS), which surveyed more than 250,000 people from 92 nations.
Overall, the analysis revealed that lower SES was associated with lower well-being. However, in two of the three datasets, the link between SES and well-being was stronger in nations with higher economic development. Along with recent evidence, this suggests that people in richer countries are more psychologically burdened by poverty.
Next, the researchers found initial evidence that religiosity can explain this effect. Across all three data sets, national religiosity weakened the impact of SES on well-being — in countries that had higher levels of national religiosity, lower SES was less detrimental to well-being.
A final model revealed that controlling for national religiosity reduced the effect of national economic development on the mental health impact of lower SES. This suggests that national religiosity played a significant role in the link between higher economic development and the detrimental impact of lower SES.
According to the study authors, the findings offer compelling evidence that religion can explain why underdeveloped nations are less psychologically impacted by poverty. Considering that religiosity has been declining in Western countries, the authors note their concern that the harmful effects of lower SES may be on the rise.
“The present results suggest that social scientists and policymakers should take note of the dwindling levels of national religiosity and the possibility that the harmful effects of lower SES will rise further as a result,” Berkessel and her colleagues say. “The challenge will be to find alternatives to national religiosity to curb those harmful effects.”
The study, “National religiosity eases the psychological burden of poverty”, was authored by Jana B. Berkessel, Jochen E. Gebauer, Mohsen Joshanloo, Wiebke Bleidorn, Peter J. Rentfrow, Jeff Potter, and Samuel D. Gosling.