When it comes to taming destructive impulses, God may be your best bet. Just ask those who have turned their lives around through Alcoholics Anonymous. AA’s iconic 12 steps are unabashedly spiritual, directing members to surrender their agency to a higher power in exchange for the strength to overcome their drinking-related demons. Though not everyone agrees with its focus on spirituality, AA is still the world’s most-used program for addiction recovery.
The faith-based approach is no coincidence. Studies show that increasing spiritual practice can lead to decreased alcohol use, while teenagers who practice religion regularly are more likely to avoid risky behaviors such as cigarette smoking, unprotected sex, and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
But those aren’t the only types of risks people engage in.
In a new study in Psychological Science, Stanford University researchers found that a belief in God can actually have the opposite effect: Faith in a higher power can encourage people to take greater risks than they would normally. The key distinction is the nature of the risk. When they examined past studies, the researchers realized that most of the risky behaviors that had been looked at—drinking, gambling, smoking—tended to have a moral dimension.
“Reminders of God make people turn away from immoral things more broadly,” Daniella Kupor, a graduate student at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and lead author on the study, told me. “We wondered whether, when it comes to risk with no moral connotations, reminders of God would actually cause people to feel safe and protected—and therefore cause people to be more willing to take risks.”
Apparently they do. For the study, Kupor and her co-authors surveyed almost 900 participants and found that they were more likely to consider doing risky activities—including skydiving, biking without a helmet, or making a bold romantic overture—after being seeing words or passages of text relating to the almighty. After reading religious passages or word lists sprinkled with words such as God or divine and being asked to choose between a non-risky and risky behavior, participants were more likely to choose the latter.
The researchers attributed this finding to the way participants thought about God. For these people, He was not your angry, fire-and-brimstone God nor a member of a polytheistic pantheon, but rather a source of divine protection. This was not entirely surprising: Most study participants reported belonging to a Judeo-Christian faith, meaning they shared a similar concept of the almighty. Like a bulletproof vest, or the magic feather that allows Dumbo to fly, they trusted this protective talisman to see them safely through danger.
For one of the surveys, participants were asked whether they wanted to look at an “extremely bright color” that could potentially damage their eyes, in exchange for a small bonus payment. More than 95 percent of the people who had been primed with God references opted to look at the bright color, compared to 84 percent of those who had not. Another survey showed that people given reminders of God were more likely to consider doing an extreme sport, like skydiving. After all, why not jump out of a plane if you know God is there to protect you—or at least send you to heaven if you don’t make it?
Researchers gained further insight into participants’ relationship with God when they tested what happened when taking a risk turned out badly. In one experiment, participants took part in an exercise that was rigged so they would always lose money. In a survey afterward, they reported feeling pretty lousy toward their supposedly divine protector. It was like doing a trust exercises where you close your eyes and fall backward, expecting someone to catch you—and that person lets you hit the floor. And he was supposed to be such a nice guy.
The study serves as a reminder that risks are not always about behaving badly, says George Stavros, executive director of the Danielsen Institute on religion and psychology at Boston University.* “The question is: What is the intentionality?” says Savros, who was not involved in the study. “In some cases, wisely-approached risk-taking can make people feel alive.”
Understanding how the idea of God can impact people differently depending on the type of risk at hand could also have implications for developing treatment programs. When it comes to actions clearly deemed immoral, for instance, some good old-fashioned Catholic/Jewish/Muslim/insert-religion-here guilt might still be the answer. But if you’re trying to curb your skydiving habit, don’t look at God—he’s on the sidelines giving you the thumbs-up.
Correction, March 4, 2015: This article originally misspelled George Stavros’ last name.