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Thank God for Risky Behavior

New research finds thoughts of the almighty increase our propensity to take chances, unless morality is involved.
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(Photo: Skylines/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Skylines/Shutterstock)

Thinking of engaging in some big risk, be it starting a business or skiing down a dangerous slope? New research finds you're more likely to do so if you are reminded, however subtly, that you're being looked after and protected from possible harm.

Sure, wealthy parents or a good insurance agent can provide such reassurance. But so, it seems, can God.

A Stanford University team led by Daniella Kupor finds thoughts of God encourage risk-taking—so long as the behavior in question doesn't involve breaking moral codes. Reminders of the almighty may make one hesitate to burglarize a home, but they can inspire one to experiment with an extreme sport.

"This effect emerged across a range of risks and using several different types of reminders of God," the researchers write in the journal Psychological Science. Indeed, it was consistently found in eight different studies.

Most Americans receive countless daily reminders of a benevolent protector, and this research suggests that, for better or worse, these may inspire high-risk behavior.

For one of them, the researchers posted advertisements on a social networking website and noted click-through rates for each. "Individuals were unaware that their behavior was being studied," they note.

The fake postings advertised either skydiving (a risky behavior not associated with moral concerns), "learn how to bribe" (a risky behavior that is clearly immoral), or "amazing video games" (a non-risky activity). There were two versions of each ad: One declared "God knows what you're missing!" while the other proclaimed "You don't know what you're missing!"

Viewers clicked on the skydiving site more often if "God" was in the copy, suggesting that language increased their tolerance for risk. On the other hand, the term decreased clicking on the learn-to-bribe ad, suggesting it steers people away from moral transgressions. (The video game ad was not affected either way.)

In another study, 101 participants recruited online read either a short paragraph about God, or one about an unrelated topic. Then, in an ostensibly unrelated survey, they read "three scenarios that each described a risky decision: motorcycling without a helmet, wilderness camping, and backcountry skiing.

After reading each, they answered three questions about how dangerous they perceived the activity to be, including the likelihood they could get injured and how well they could cope if indeed that happened.

Those who had read briefly about God "reported a higher willingness to take risk, and also perceived less danger associated with those risks," the researchers report. "Reminders of God ... evoked a feeling of safety from potential harm."

In a final experiment, the 187 participants experienced a real-life disappointment: A virtual balloon they were blowing up exploded prematurely, ruining their opportunity to win money.

"Participants who had previously been primed with the concept of God experienced more negative feelings towards God (after the frustrating conclusion)," the researchers report. To a greater extent than those who were not thinking about divine power, they expected to be looked after, and felt anger and resentment that they were not.

The researchers add an important caveat to their findings: The association between reminders about God and risk may not hold "in cultures in which God is not perceived as a protector." Members of "fire and brimstone" congregations "may associate God with punishment more than security, which might eliminate the effect we observed," they write.

The same is likely true for cultures with multiple, competing gods who can't be counted on for protection. But most Americans receive countless daily reminders of a benevolent protector, and this research suggests that, for better or worse, these may inspire high-risk behavior.

“On any given day you might see the word ‘God’ printed on U.S. currency, drive behind a car with a bumper sticker that references God, or use one of the many colloquial expressions that use the word ‘God,'" Kupor notes. “The fact that reminders of God are so ubiquitous suggests that this effect may impact a large number of people.”

It also brings to mind some previous research that found people casting their ballots in a polling place located in a church were more likely to vote for conservative candidates. Could it be that, on some conscious or unconscious level, they decided there's less need for a welfare state if God is looking after them?