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A new paper published in the journal Psychological Science takes a look at the impact that thoughts of God can have on a person’s risk-taking behavior, and the results are interesting. The Stanford University researchers were particularly interested in the impact religion might have on behaviors when the moral component was removed.

While previous research has linked religiosity or spirituality with a decrease in behaviors like alcoholism, head researcher Daniella Kupor and her team wanted to know if the decrease was linked to religion’s moral imperatives against such behavior, or if spirituality and religiosity lowered risk-taking in general.

To answer that question, the team examined participants’ responses to both morally neutral and morally negative risky behaviors, along with non-risky behaviors. The responses were gauged both with and without religious references. The results reaffirmed the link between religion and risky behaviors typically deemed immoral… but where moral judgment was neutral, thoughts of God seemed to actually increase risk-taking:

In a group of online survey studies with nearly 900 participants, the researchers found that people who were reminded of God — either by working on word scrambles that included God-related words or by reading a paragraph about God — were more willing to engage in various risky behaviors than those participants who weren’t prompted to think about God.

In one study, for example, participants were asked to choose which version of the study they wanted to complete: one version would give them a small bonus payment, but involved looking at an “extremely bright color” that they were told could potentially damage their eyes, while the other version involved looking at a harmless darker color. The researchers found that participants who had been reminded of God prior to making their choice were more likely to opt for the dangerous version of the experiment (95.5%) than the participants who hadn’t been reminded of God (84.3%).

That effect was observed even when the reference to God was a passing one. Researchers, for example, showed ads for a variety of activities — including immoral risks, morally-neutral risks, and non-risks — accompanied by the phrase “God knows what you’re missing!”

The findings were clear: When the ad included a reference to God, people clicked on the skydiving (nonmoral risk) ad more often, but they clicked on the bribing (moral risk) less often. People clicked about the same number of times on the [risk-free] computer games ad, with or without a mention of God.

While researchers caution that their findings are particular to beliefs that center around a protector-god, there does seem to be a link between belief in God and an increase in risk-taking. But what happens when God doesn’t actually protect his faithful?

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.

Which, if I had to take a guess, would probably explain the multitude of “God works in mysterious ways”-type platitudes religious people have thought up over the years: if you expect protection from your God, and it doesn’t come, you’re either going to feel let down and maybe even reevaluate why you thought you’d be protected… or you’re going to rationalize the experience away, as some sort of blessing-in-disguise from a wiser God.

At any rate, the intersection of belief and behavior is a fascinating one, and Kupor’s research examines a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t often get noticed. If you have a subscription, you can read the entire paper here.

(Image via orcaman on Flickr)