Leap of Faith: How Belief in God Spurs Risk-Taking

Summary: Religious beliefs influence risk-taking behaviors. Focusing on Christian Americans, the research found that those who view God as a protective figure are more confident in undertaking risks.

The study, examining ‘morally neutral’ risks like recreational and career-based activities, suggests that faith acts as a psychological safety net, encouraging believers to pursue opportunities they might otherwise avoid. This highlights how religious beliefs can shape decision-making in everyday life.

Key Facts:

  1. Belief in a protective God increases willingness to take ‘morally neutral’ risks.
  2. The study focused on scenarios like mountain climbing and career changes.
  3. Findings indicate that religious beliefs offer a sense of safety, influencing risk-taking decisions.

Source: York University

Does thinking about faith make religious people more likely to take leaps? A new study lead by York University’s Faculty of Health says yes, finding that participants were more likely to take risks when thinking about God as a benevolent protector.  

“While the theoretical link between a belief in God and risk taking has been around for a while, the methods previous studies employed to test this weren’t the strongest, based on current best practices,” says lead author Cindel White, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.

This shows a man jumping from a cliff.
White says the findings don’t tell us whether religious people are more likely to pursue risks than non-religious ones, but they may point to a sense of safety a belief in God provides. Credit: Neuroscience News

“Our carefully designed study confirmed that those who believe God will protect them from negative consequences will feel more confident in pursuing potentially dangerous or uncertain activities because of a perceived safety net.”

The study, Do reminders of God increase willingness to take risks? – published Monday in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and written by White and collaborators from The University of British Columbia, Chloe Dean and Kristin Laurin – looked specifically at Christian Americans, who are known to believe in a God who protects them from harm. White also focused specifically on what she refers to as “morally neutral” risks.

“We know from previous research that religious people might be less inclined to take risks that have immoral connotations, such as drug use, and we also know that people might feel more encouraged by God to take on risks that are morally positive, like helping a person in need,” White explains. 

Instead, the researchers focused on scenarios involving recreational risks like mountain climbing, and social and career-based risks, like moving to a new place to pursue a new job opportunity, finding a reliable link.

White says the findings don’t tell us whether religious people are more likely to pursue risks than non-religious ones, but they may point to a sense of safety a belief in God provides.

“These results support the argument that as Christians go through their daily life, these beliefs about God can be used to make them feel better if they choose to pursue a risk. It does make sense that this relationship between beliefs about God and risky behaviour is part of a broader set of religious beliefs that help people cope with uncertainty and fear and stressors in daily life and help them see their lives in a more positive way and therefore, make them more likely to pursue opportunities that they might otherwise avoid.”

About this neurotheology and risk-taking research news

Author: Emina Gamulin
Source: York University
Contact: Emina Gamulin – York University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Do reminders of God increase willingness to take risks?” by Cindel White et al. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology


Do reminders of God increase willingness to take risks?

Many people, and American Christians in particular, view God as a benevolent protector. Those who believe in God may therefore expect that they can safely engage in potentially risky activities, secure in the knowledge that God will look out for their best interests and ensure good outcomes. Initial experiments supported this hypothesis, but recent attempts to replicate them failed.

This unreliable pattern may reflect a false conceptual hypothesis, or an inadequate method: Both the initial reports and the replication attempts used outdated religious priming methods we now know to be ineffective. The present research aimed to clarify the relationship between thinking about God and risk-taking behaviors.

A pilot study (N = 264) showed that American Christians do expect that God will protect them during risky activities; moreover, those who hold this expectation more strongly report greater willingness to take risks.

This registered report then used a high-powered preregistered experiment to test whether having participants explicitly think about God’s (presumably protective) influence over what happens in their lives increases their willingness to take risks.

Results confirmed that American Christian participants were more willing to take non-moral risks when thinking about God, compared to a control condition, d = 0.28, 95% CI [0.12, 0.44], p < .001. This pattern was robust to different exclusion criteria and was consistent across domains of career, recreational, and social risks.

By using the most recent and sensitive methods, this study provides a more definitive test of the conceptual hypothesis that thinking about God can influence risk-taking.

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