Study: Thinking "It Could Be Worse" Increases Belief in God

Every day at almost exactly 8:30 a.m., you take exit 159 to get to work. Today there is a five car pile-up around that time and several individuals are seriously injured, except for you; you were home sick that day.

We all know what might happen next.

"That could have been me," you think, as you hear about it on Facebook. "Here I was complaining about getting sick, but it could have been worse. God kept me safe at home by giving me the flu."

According to a recent study, this pattern of thinking--looking at how things could have been worse, and giving credit to divine or supernatural intervention--is a very human thing to do.

When exploring the impulse for religious beliefs, scientists often use subtle prompts that can trigger an individual's mind to think and behave religiously in one way or another. In one study, cheating was reduced when individuals were reminded of God, and this effect (of reduced cheating) remained true regardless of whether the participant was religious or not.

As much as we'd like to conclude otherwise, we aren't entirely aware of why we think or act in certain ways. But does this mean that individuals are always disengaged consciously when drawing religious conclusions?

In this new study ("There But for the Grace of God: Counterfactuals Influence Religious Belief and Images of the Divine"), published in this month's Social Psychological and Personality Science, authors Anneke Buffone (University of Pennsylvania), and Shira Gabriel and Michael Poulin (State University of New York at Buffalo), found that religious faith was increased in participants when they were asked to deliberately consider the "it could be worse" scenario.

"The current research is concerned with the age-old question of how believers find evidence in their lives for the existence of God," they write. Finding this evidence--what the individual sees as clues of a divine being--is made possible by counterfactual thinking, or asking how things could be different under other circumstances.

Their research consisted of two studies, the first looked at 280 undergraduate students. The second study included a diverse group of 99 non-college participants. Participants were asked to write about an important event that was either negative or positive. Thinking of that event, one third were asked to discuss how life could be better (upward counterfactuals), one third about how life could be worse (downward counterfactuals), and one third were asked to write about the event in more detail. The religious component of the study was initially kept out of the process, but they followed up these essays with a questionnaire that evaluated the strength of participants' religiosity.

The authors discovered that, considering counterfactuals lead the religious "to the belief that an event did not occur by chance alone, then individuals search for a likely source of this fate, which leads them to God, which then increases their religious faith." This remained true for both studies.

"Furthermore," they write, "we found that this effect is driven particularly by downward counterfactuals." In other words, thinking about how things could be worse is a powerful factor in driving individuals to look for divine action.

The authors focused on the beliefs driving "current major theistic religions" in the United States, which "encourage believers to reflect on the events in their lives to find evidence for the existence of God." But they recognize the limitations of the study; the effects may hold stronger for some faiths than others. For example, diverse perspectives on how active God is in controlling the universe requires further research.

The study intends to show that religious conclusions may often be complex cognitive processes. "Religious conviction does not have to be grounded in blindly accepting dogma or scriptures, but can be deducted by logical reasoning processes as well," the authors say in a press release. "From a scientific standpoint this work helps explain how religious conviction can prevail despite a lack of concrete, physical evidence for religious claims."