The study helps explain how religious beliefs are formed


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Feeling anxious can direct our attention and memory to supernatural beings like the gods, according to a study from the University of Otago.

The lead author, Dr. Thomas Swan, of the Department of Psychology, says the research may help explain how are formed.

For the study, published in International Journal of the Psychology of Religion, 972 participants completed an online withdrawal test to determine if the bias to remember supernatural agents was stronger , instead of non-anxious people.

Those who felt anxious were more likely to remember beings with supernatural abilities than those who did not.

“Anxiety is an emotion that evolved to make us pay more attention to potential threats, so when we feel anxious, a god who can read our thoughts and punish us for them or flood the Earth will be memorable, ”he says.

Previous research has shown it can lead to higher levels of religious belief, with the explanation that belief provides comfort. However, this so-called “comfort theory” has problems: why are there punishments and hellish infernos when these are far from comforting them?

Dr. Swan believes that the theory also does not address what happens between feeling anxious and becoming a believer. This research suggests that the first step is the cognitive effects of anxiety, which cause people to respond to and remember threats.

“In our previous research, we found this they are perceived as potentially threatening because they have capabilities that challenge our expectations about the world. The present research confirms that the cognitive effects of anxiety also extend to the threat posed by supernatural beings.

“Ironically, our research suggests that the theory of comfort has it a little behind us: Anxious people are attracted, at least initially, to the dreadful features of the gods, which may explain why so many gods have dreadful features. Comfort, we suspect, it comes later when some people transform their view of god into something more pleasurable that they believe is happier, ”he says.

Research also suggests that other supernatural concepts, such as ghosts, psychics, and astrology, will be digested in the same way because of how alarmingly they challenge our expectations of what is possible.

Dr. Swan hopes the research will encourage people to better understand how their emotional states affect the information they look at and remember, especially religious information.

“We should all keep in mind how we came to believe the things we do, especially the ones they have that they feel anxious most of the time; they should consider what attracts them and why. If they are reading fantastic novels, it can be harmless. If they find themselves joining a cult, it’s time to reflect. The same goes for people without disorders who are only in anxiety situations, such as sitting in a hospital bed or suffering from financial problems. “

Instead, he expects religious groups to pay more attention to people’s mental states.

“They should provide attention, but also give people time to overcome their problems before integrating them into a highly religious system of beliefs and practices. If they are still willing to join religion when the conflict ends , this could be a more ethical moment. ”

The study identifies the psychology of attraction to religious deities and superheroes

More information:
Thomas Swan et al, Anxiety Enhances Recall of Supernatural Agents, The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (2021). DOI: 10.1080 / 10508619.2021.1898808

Citation: Study Helps Explain How Religious Beliefs Are Formed (2021, May 24) Retrieved May 24, 2021 at

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