Magazine article USA TODAY

God Made Me Do It

Magazine article USA TODAY

God Made Me Do It

Article excerpt

WHAT DOES GOD have to do with the risks people are willing to take? The answer, new research suggests, depends on the nature of the risk. All risky acts, from starting a new business to driving above the speed limit, hold out the possibility of either a good outcome or a bad one--but some risks are more morally laden than others. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs talk about a higher power to help addicts overcome their risky behaviors; this is consistent with some past research that shows that religious people are less prone to take moral risks, or the kinds of risks that might trigger God's disapproval.

Yet, with risks that do not have such a moral element--skydiving or investing in a speculative stock, for instance--the opposite is true, according to a series of studies by a team of scholars from Stanford University Graduate School of Business, which includes Kristin Laurin and Jonathan Levav. "God is commonly viewed as a source of security," and feeling secure can make potential negative outcomes seem both less likely and less severe, the researchers write. If you believe that God will protect you from harm, then nonmoral risks will seem to have more upside than downside, thus making them more attractive.

It is impossible to say in a general way whether that is a good thing or not, relates Laurin, assistant professor of organizational behavior. The optimal level of risk-taking varies greatly from one situation to another, and it may not even be known in advance, although one thing is certain: "Most people wouldn't say they would take a risk just because they happen to be thinking about God right now," Laurin explains. "That's not a factor that people would want to go into their decisionmaking." Yet, it did affect people's choices in these experiments.

Moreover, the research did not find the effect only among believers--uncovering it even among people who said they do not believe in God. In one experiment conducted on Facebook, the researchers presented users with two slightly different versions of an ad for a local adventure: both urging users to click the ad to "find skydiving near you" and "feel the thrill." One ad proclaimed, "You don't know what you're missing!" while the other said, "God knows what you're missing!" People who saw the "God" version of the ad clicked more often. A pair of ads for an immoral risk--"Learn how to bribe with little risk of being caught!"--revealed the opposite pattern, with the God version attracting fewer clicks. When the advertised activity carried no risk at all--an ad for video games--the mention of God had no effect one way or the other. …

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