Skip to content

Thinking about God may encourage risk taking

Here’s how belief in a higher power can act like a psychological safety net.
Wooden pews in a church provide a traditional seating option for parishioners.
Man prays in a Catholic church in Brooklyn, New York.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Most God-fearing Americans feel the Almighty has got their back: Some 97 percent of those who believe in the God of the Bible say God has protected them at some point. So how does believing one has a buffer against harm affect a person’s approach to risk? Do believers take more risks, thinking God will ultimately save them from bad outcomes, or do they take fewer, fearing God would want them to feel the effects of risky decisions?

York University psychologist Cindel White and colleagues at the University of British Columbia ran a survey study to find out. “We wanted to know whether thinking about God affected taking risks in their personal life,” White told me. “So we created a very simple experiment where we manipulated whether people were actually thinking about God when they were considering whether or not to perform a risk in their social life, their career, or a recreational setting.”

Thinking about God made believers slightly more willing to take future risks.

For their survey, White and colleagues recruited 631 American Christians and asked them to write about some risk that they considered taking. Later, they asked these same participants how willing they would be to take this risk over the course of the next three months. To try to tease out the influence of their beliefs about God, they broke them into two groups: The experimental group was told “Before you answer these questions, please think about God’s influence over what happens in your life. Think about your likelihood of engaging in this risky activity or behavior, after considering God’s influence over your life.”

The control group was merely told to “think about your likelihood of engaging in this risky activity or behavior.” The idea was that by priming the idea of God, any influence their beliefs about God might have on their decision-making would be emphasized, at the forefront of their mind. It turns out thinking about God made believers slightly more willing to take future risks.

Previous work aimed at sussing out the impact of God beliefs on risk taking had produced inconsistent results. According to White, this is because the prior studies were not using a deep enough method of priming. “The general idea of priming is you’re activating some concept in the participant’s mind. This can take many different forms,” she says. “In some studies this is very implicit and seemingly unconscious, where an idea or image is presented outside of their obvious awareness.”

In other words, in an effort not to clue participants into the purpose of the study and influence the outcome, some researchers try to use methods that hide from participants the fact that they are being primed. For example, they might be asked to unscramble words, and in the experimental condition, half of those words would be related to God and religion. This is called “implicit priming,” and results in a shallow priming that does not sufficiently activate the kinds of beliefs about religion that might affect decisions, according to White.

The risk of using explicit priming, of course, is that the participants might catch on to what the experimenters are doing, which can skew results, because people will tend to behave in a way they believe the experimenters want them to (this is called “demand characteristics”). To make sure this effect wasn’t influencing results, White had the believers attempt to guess the hypothesis of the experiment, and found over 90 percent of the guesses had nothing to do with God or religion.

Should people take more risks? Some studies suggest that the answer is yes. People (and other animals) tend to be irrationally risk averse, preferring safer options to risky ones with a higher expected value. But belief in God, it seems, can provide a psychological safety net.

This article originally appeared on Nautilus, a science and culture magazine for curious readers. Sign up for the Nautilus newsletter.


Up Next