Post No.: 0096
‘Priming’ is a fluffy technique that involves exposing people to a prior stimulus (or prime) in order to influence their responses to a subsequent stimulus, without their conscious guidance or intention. In experiments, people mentally primed with their own mortality tend to be more punitive and aggressive towards others (especially towards individuals who violate social norms), they are less likely to desecrate a religious symbol regardless of their faith, and they are more defensive of their own culture and cultural group (especially religious ones). So people tend to become more religious when reminded of their own mortality, at least implicitly or unconsciously and temporarily. And just as one feels one is facing an imminent threat of death, one can believe in almost any deity and afterlife – we’ll seek for literal or symbolic forms of solace or immortality wherever we can whenever we’re desperate! This doesn’t happen for everyone though.
Priming people to think of a time when they were not in control can spur them to believe in a controlling god. People who believe less in governmental institutions tend to believe more in gods and/or religious-type beliefs (which arguably might help explain why people who believe in relatively socialist policies and the benefit of laws and regulations are associated with trusting more in science, whilst people who believe in a small government are associated with more god-fearing and supernatural beliefs e.g. Canada compared to America; although we must be aware that these are only broad generalisations). Countries with less stable governments tend to have the most religious people (although some will argue is this a cause, effect or coincidence?) And if our governmental institutions are threatened, we’ll increase our beliefs in a controlling god. So in the face of uncertain secular control, people tend to turn to religious control. Again, this isn’t true for everyone though.
The ‘compensatory control model’ describes when we compensate for a lack of immediate control in one area by searching for control elsewhere (e.g. the certainty offered by religion – but really anything to protect us from feeling helplessly adrift in a chaotic or random world where we feel there is no control (including, loosely relatedly, maybe some anorexia sufferers controlling their diets when they feel like they cannot control other important parts of their life)) – this reduces anxiety, thus religion can be adaptive to reduce our existential worries. This may help explain why religious beliefs tend to be more prevalent in places of conflict and hardship, and tend to fade away as life becomes more easy and certain. When we have more security in other forms e.g. a stable government and economy – there is less need for religion to control or explain away the chaos.
But different features of religions serve different functions and come about through different cognitive biases, and ‘terror management’ (alleviating mortality fears) and ‘chaos management’ (alleviating lack of control fears) aren’t the only reasons religions exist (well some features of religions aren’t that comforting at all e.g. the threat of hell can be used as a device for social coercion and control). Religious or spiritual beliefs ultimately arise due to a variety of psychological and psychosocial factors.