Mike McCullough has posted a prepublication copy of the article that he and fellow University of Miami psychologist Brian Willoughby wrote for the Psychological Bulletin. After reviewing years of empirical evidence (including many replicated research findings in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology), McCullough and Willoughby conclude that certain aspects of religious belief and behavior foster self-control. Prayer and meditation affect the parts of the brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control, the authors find, and religion often gives people clear standards for their behavior and the sense that God is watching what they do.
As a result, those who are religious might be better at achieving long-term goals, they say, because self-control allows them to forgo small rewards in the short term. And when people see their goals as valued and "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing them. The findings also might explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse and delinquency.
"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," says McCullough. Yet, he adds, "the same social force that motivates acts of charity and generosity can also motivate people to strap bomb belts around their waists and then blow themselves up in crowded city buses. By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything." —Heather Wax