Anxiety ridden people can get extremely religious
Anxiety and uncertainty may be at root of religious extremism, new Canadian
The findings by York University researchers appear in this month’s issue of
the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In a series of studies, over 600 participants were placed in
anxiety-provoking or neutral situations and then asked to describe their
personal goals and rate their degree of conviction for their religious
ideals. This included asking participants whether they would give their
lives for their faith or support a war in its defence.
Across all studies, anxious conditions caused participants to become more
eagerly engaged in their ideals and extreme in their religious convictions.
In one study, mulling over a personal dilemma caused a general surge toward
more idealistic personal goals. In another, struggling with a confusing
mathematical passage caused a spike in radical religious extremes. In yet
another, reflecting on relationship uncertainties caused the same religious
Researchers found that religious zeal reactions were most pronounced among
participants with bold personalities (defined as having high self-esteem and
being action-oriented, eager and tenacious), who were already vulnerable to
anxiety, and felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life.
A basic motivational process called Reactive Approach Motivation (RAM) is
responsible, according to lead researcher Ian McGregor, Associate Professor
in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health.
He said: "Approach motivation is a tenacious state in which people become
‘locked and loaded’ on whatever goal or ideal they are promoting. They feel
powerful, and thoughts and feelings related to other issues recede.
RAM is usually an adaptive goal regulation process that can re-orient people
toward alternative avenues for effective goal pursuit when they hit a snag.
Our research shows that humans can sometimes co-opt RAM for short term
relief from anxiety, however. By simply promoting ideals and convictions in
their own minds, people can activate approach motivation, narrow their
motivational focus away from anxious problems, and feel serene as a result."
Researchers also measured participants’ superstitious beliefs and deference
toward a controlling God in order to distinguish religious zeal from meeker
forms of devotion.
McGregor said: "Anxiety-provoking threats sometimes also cause people to
become paranoid and more submissive to externally-controlling forces, so we
wanted to rule out that interpretation for our results."
Anxious uncertainty had no effect on either superstition or religious
Findings published last year in the journal Psychological Science by the
same authors and collaborators at the University of Toronto found that
strong religious beliefs are associated with low activity in the anterior
cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that becomes active in anxious
McGregor said: "Taken together, the results of this research program suggest
that bold but vulnerable people gravitate to idealistic and religious
extremes for relief from anxiety."