Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Does Religious Faith Improve Test Performance?

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Does Religious Faith Improve Test Performance?

Article excerpt

There are several studies in the extant literature showing that brief contact with stimuli that are reliably associated with certain kinds of behavior can evoke or cue that behavior. For example, Berkowitz and LePage (1967) found that participants who momentarily handled a gun subsequently behaved more aggressively than those who handled an object not associated with violence. More recently, Klinesmith, Kasser, and McAndrew (2006) found that contact with guns served as a cue for aggression, and Mast and McAndrew (2011) showed that merely listening to violent lyrics embedded in heavy metal music caused males to behave more aggressively than males who listened to non-violent heavy metal music or no music at all. More relevant to the present study is the finding that Biblical passages that described violence triggered more violence in college students as compared to a control group told that the passages came from an ancient scroll (Bushman, Ridge, Das, Key, & Busath, 2007).

Are there cues that prime behaviors other than violence? A recent paper showed that belief in superstition can indirectly improve performance on several tasks (Damisch, Stoberock, & Mussweiler, 2010). The authors reported four experiments in which they identified and activated common superstitious cues (e.g. keeping one's fingers crossed, lucky charm). In all four, those who had been randomly assigned to the group in which a superstition had been activated performed better on a motor skills task, a memory task, or an anagram game as compared to a control group. In two of the four experiments the authors showed that superstitions "work" by enhancing task-related self-efficacy, which in turn improves performance, probably because those with higher self-efficacy persist longer at the task.

Many studies have been designed to determine if religious faith confers benefits to true believers (see Seeman, Dubin, & Seeman, 2003, for a review). Seeman et al. (2003) concluded that the evidence does link Judeo-Christian religious practices to healthier blood pressure and immune functioning. Graham and Haidt (2010) argue that the health and happiness benefits enjoyed by religious people stem from participation in a religious congregation and a sense of belonging to a religious community. Others provide support for the argument that religious faith alleviates the anxiety that originates from knowing that we humans will eventually die (Jonas & Fischer, 2006; Vail, Rothschild, Weise, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Greenberg, 2010).

Does religious faith "work" in the same way that superstitions do? Superstitions have been described as unfounded beliefs (Damisch et al., 2010), as have religious beliefs (Dawkins, 2006). People are most likely to engage in superstitious (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008) and religious behavior (Kay, Gaucher, McGregor, & Nash, 2010) when they experience low levels of perceived control.

We wondered if religious faith might also confer performance benefits. Specifically, we hypothesized that religiosity, cued by responding to a scale measuring religious beliefs, would enhance task-related self-efficacy and performance in much the same way that a primed superstition (e.g., a lucky rabbit's foot) did in the Damisch et al. (2010) study.

EXPERIMENT 1

Method

Participants. The sample consisted of 141 college students (81 females, 52 males, and 8 with missing gender) from one private and three public universities, (two located in PA, one in MO, and one in GA) ranging in age from 18-50 years (M =20.48; SD =3.97). The private university has historical ties to a large Protestant denomination, but is no longer officially connected with it. Participants were randomly assigned to an experimental (n = 70) or control (n =71) group.

Materials. To manipulate the variable of religious faith, we used a priming technique. The experimental group filled out an eight-item version of Maltby's (1999) 12-item Age-Universal I-E Scale. …

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