This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Olga Antonenko and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on February 22, 2012.
These may seem like questions for philosophers or theologians, but some social psychologists have chimed in with their own evidence-based opinions. Their answer is a resounding … “Well, people certainly think so!”
Most people live with the assumption that there is an order and reason underlying the things that happen in the universe. In fact, it could be said that one of the larger cognitive motivators in life is the preservation of that belief. Without this sense of order, we would be left with a terrifying and chaotic existence in which a terrible fate could befall us at any time.
Some may argue that this chaotic view of life is closer to reality than any sense of meaning or order. We do, indeed, live a life in which something terrible can happen at any moment for no reason. Innocent people die every day and horrendous criminals get away with terrible acts. Senseless natural disasters befall thousands of people every year. So, is this sense of stability and rationality a false hope held by the feeble minded among us? Probably not.
In the face of senseless tragedies, we feel a sense of anger, injustice, and confusion. These reactions are quick and automatic. They indicate that, at our core, we all feel that the things that happen need to have a reason. The deaths of innocent people don’t pass without notice. It shakes our internal sense of order, which needs to be restored.
While many of us look inside ourselves for a sense of stability, we also look for external sources of order. Today, I want to talk about two sources of stability that many people rely on – God and government.
Both God and government are powerful entities and each has control over our lives. Our nation’s government creates a structured society by securing economic stability, providing social welfare, keeping criminals off the streets, and defending national security. Similarly, for believers, God has the power to create a structured and meaningful universe, punish sinners, and reward the virtuous.
A set of fascinating studies shows that these two large sources of external control are important, widely accepted, and interchangeable. That is, when one is threatened, we increase our confidence in the other. When our faith in the government is shaken, we believe more in the presence of God or a God-like entity that has the power to control the universe. Conversely, when our belief in God or a God-like entity is threatened, we increase our support for the government.
The first study from the set asked participants from Malaysia to report on their attitudes towards God and the government during a time of political instability. In 2008, milestone elections left much of the country feeling that their government was highly unstable. When this source or control was shaken, the researchers hypothesized that participants would increase their faith and confidence in a controlling God or God-like entity. Indeed, the data showed that participants’ ratings of government instability two weeks before the election predicted their faith in a controlling God or God-like entity two weeks after the election.
To examine this relationship further, the researchers simulated this situation in the lab. Researchers had one group of Canadian participants read an article discussing the instability of their government, while another group read an article about its stability. The group who read the article discussing government instability was more likely to endorse belief in a controlling God than the group who read about government stability. This group was more likely to agree with statements discussing the presence of God or a non-human entity that is in control of the things in the universe.
These two studies give support for the idea that when the stability of the government is threatened, people increase their faith in God – an alternate source of support.
The researcher’s final study tested the reverse effect and showed that when people’s beliefs in God are threatened, they put more faith in the government. Paralleling the previous study, half the participants read a fake journal article in which notable physicist were either endorsing the existence of a controlling God-like force in the universe or discounting the existence of such a force. Those participants exposed to an article which discounted the existence of a God-like being, were then more likely to support the government.
These studies are notable in several ways. A previous body of research has demonstrated that when events shake our sense of order, we feel a loss of personal control and turn to external sources of control including our religious faith and the government. It is as though we need something larger than us and more powerful to protect and guide our lives. What is notable in this newer research is that people may substitute one source of control for another. This has many implications for interpreting the relationship between religion and government in many nations. If these two sources of power are interchangeable, perhaps governments preserve their authority by either wedding themselves to religion or, conversely, putting serious limitations to religion among their constituents.
I welcome thoughts and feedback on these interesting and controversial attempts to explain some of our deepest held beliefs and most fundamental attitudes.
Kay, A., Shepherd, S., Blatz, C., Chua, S., & Galinsky, A. (2010). For God (or) country: The hydraulic relation between government instability and belief in religious sources of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99 (5), 725-739 DOI: 10.1037/a0021140