Fear, God, and State

A stunning hypothesis from the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

High levels of support often observed for governmental and religious systems can be explained, in part, as a means of coping with the threat posed by chronically or situationally fluctuating levels of perceived personal control. Three experiments demonstrated a causal relation between lowered perceptions of personal control and … increased beliefs in the existence of a controlling God and defense of the overarching socio-political system.  A 4th experiment showed … a challenge to the usefulness of external systems of control led to increased illusory perceptions of personal control. … A cross-national data set demonstrated that lower levels of personal control are associated with higher support for governmental control.

It seems we hope a stronger and more benevolent God or State will protect us when feel less able to protect ourselves.  I’d guess similar effects hold for medicine and media – we believe in doc effectiveness more when we fear out of control of our health, and we believe in media accuracy more when we rely more on their info to protect us.  Can we find data on which beliefs tend to be more biased: confidence in authorities when we feel out of control, or less confidence in authorities when we feel more in control?

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  • ” Can we find data on which beliefs tend to be more biased: confidence in authorities when we feel out of control, or less confidence in authorities when we feel more in control?”

    That’s a very good question.

    I think people probably expect to have more to gain from the protection of government/god/medicine/etc than they expect to gain by distrusting those. Does that mean that the former is less rational? Hmm.

  • Lior

    I would agree with Michael,

    When people feel in control of their lives, they still understand their limitations. When people have a god or government to blindly believe in, they have a worse assessment of its ability. Especially if they believe in a God whose limits are boundless.

  • Well, do you believe “more” in doc effectiveness, or do you suppose that, since you don’t know what’s going on, there is a possibility that your condition might be illuminated by medical information from someone with more expertise?

    But, even if we grant that we will study ONLY the first and untutored inference in any given situation, I think the data on bias will have to be sorted out, because there are at least three other situations falling under the same rubric:

    (1) Young children are protected by their parents against the terrors of new experiences, and this habit of looking for protection crosses over into adult life;

    (2) In the spiritual path, the ascent to higher consciousness (a.k.a. “God”) is coincident with the total breakdown of control by the ego-consciousness — but this regular psychological mechanism crosses-over, in misunderstood words, into many received and erroneous religious conceptions which reinforce the “God-the-flying-ghost-concept” to relieve anxiety;

    (3) In liberal democracy, we have the inverse case: we believe that personal control is ENHANCED and reinforced by our particular sociopolitical system, and indeed we have MORE confidence in those authorities who espouse this same belief in personal control — especially in trusting them to perform correctly in personally-distressing times of emergency and war!

  • Constant

    The “higher power” of alcoholics anonymous may play a similar role. As I understand it, members appeal to and place themselves into the hands of the higher power in those moments when they feel least able to control their own alcoholism. According to the Alcohol Anonymous Big Book (quoted via Wikipedia):

    The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.

  • burger flipper

    I suspect the bias is much stronger when we feel a lack of control.

    The most salient example I can think of is the huge boost in Presidential approval ratings following traumatic events such as 9/11 rising up into the 90’s. Do approval ratings drop as elections approach and voters may feel an illusion control (in the process, if not in the world at large).

  • Wow. Thanks for posting this, Robin.

  • Humeirah Fasq

    Personal control comes hand in hand with a lucid awareness of oneself- this comprises an acceptance of not only one’s morally good but also morally bad inclinations. After all, such moral biasness is created through an artificial separation of values, which apparently originates from Platos philosophy. These values have also infiltrated non religious systems (an obvious example is the UN), thanks of course to Sir Thomas Aquinas.

    At the end of the day any ‘system’ of whatever nature, which of course seeks to homogenize values and standards would inevitably be of interest to those who cannot make up their own values and standards.(as Nietzsche says for those who can only obey and not command) Systems crush individualism. And individualism increases with personal control. That is why thinking atheists, as I like to call them, are not part of any system whatsoever because they create their own values, and eventually develop their own very individualistic traits.

    Very existentialist and very Nietzschean.

  • Alan

    “It seems we hope a stronger and more benevolent God or State will protect us when feel less able to protect ourselves.”

    The fact that we are dealing with a cross-national data set is especially interesting. I will have to read the journal article. Obviously, notions of deity and political identity will vary widely.

    One emblematic example of overt trust in a benevolent detity is in the “Gott mit Uns” belt buckle worn by German soldiers in WWI–translated as God with Us. In other contexts, the notion of King and Country is almost fungible with God and Country. They say there are no atheists in foxholes (whether an apt saying or not is debatable).

    On the other hand, might not widespread belief in a benevolent deity or government also give rise to hubris, a tendency to taking unreasonable risks–in a word, moral hazard?

  • Lord

    I think investor research documents the degree to which confidence leads investors astray while lack of confidence can either lead to trust in the market, trust in an advisor, or distrust and avoidance of the market. While advisors can be the province of con men and scoundrels, they tend to be the preferred choice and tend to outperform most individual investors though certainly not all. This would suggest self-confidence is more biased.

  • We know that feeling unable to control events is extraordinarily stressful, much more so than being exposed to negative events which we have some ability to respond to in an effective way. See Learned Helplessness for a very brief summary.

    It is reasonable to expect people to create delusions of control and influence when reality offers them no way to respond. It’s the belief that makes us feel better, and so it will tend to be produced regardless of whether it has any basing in truth.

    If people don’t have any way to improve their economic conditions, but they have the power to give government more authority, they will delude themselves that the government will improve their economic conditions and give it more power. Possibly if their ideology holds that government power is bad, they will reduce it to increase their feelings of control even if it leads to an overall increase in harm, or even if it ends up harming them directly.

  • John

    >A 4th experiment showed … a challenge to the usefulness of external systems of control led to increased illusory perceptions of personal control.

    So being an entrepreneur and being a libertarian reinforce each other. Interesting.

  • Interesting post.

    Of course the key difference between faith that God will solve our problems and faith that the State will solve our problems is that, regardless of its effectiveness, at the very minimum, the State actually exists.

  • Mary

    Couldn’t the relationship work the other way around? People who are taught to respect and obey authority cede control to that authority and do not feel the responsibility to make their own decisions.

  • Emily

    If you’re interested in people who have been doing this sort of thing for a while, in addition to people who have critiqued these sorts of accounts, you might want to check out Terror Management Theory. The idea is to study an individual’s ideological reactions following a reminder of her mortality, or “mortality salience.” The experiments (though often difficult to get past ethics review boards) do have a number of robust results. The theory in which they are nestled is bit more open to objections.

  • A while ago I played around with the GSS data to look at the link between religious fundamentalism and crime. The results can be seen here:

    Fundamentalist people do not seem to be more criminal than non-fundamentalists but they seem to live in places where crime is common and experience more fear in their daily environment. I concluded my post by speculating that mortality salience is a key factor here: living in a bad place makes you more fearful, and this makes you conservative one way or another.

  • this makes sense, I think people start first to become attached to this stronger force but if nothing happened they totally lose hope and become depressed. when someone finds himself totally helpless especially when it lasts for a long time he may question God’s existence or the presence of a mighty force that can save him.

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  • Did anyone get the actual citation here? The link has been broken

  • For future reference since the link is broken, this article was

    God and the Government: Testing a Compensatory Control Mechanism for the Support of External Systems

    August 2008 
    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.1.18 ·
    now available from: PubMed / SciHub https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5246869_God_and_the_Government_Testing_a_Compensatory_Control_Mechanism_for_the_Support_of_External_Systems