October 28th, 2011
03:55 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – It’s become an increasingly hot topic of debate between atheists and religious people: Is belief in God helpful or hurtful?
A study published Thursday by the American Psychological Association suggests that believing may be a little of both.
According to the study, simple reminders of God have both positive and negative effects on people’s motivation. The report, which focused primarily on students, found that religious reminders both diminish a person’s desire to complete personal goals and improve a person’s ability to resist temptation.
Researchers are calling the report, "Divergent Effects of Activating Thoughts of God on Self-Regulation," the “the first empirical evidence” of its kind.
“Our lives are literally replete with reminders and symbols of God,” wrote researcher Aaron Kay of Duke University in an e-mail to CNN. “Our success at work, school, or even athletics depends on more than just skill. The beliefs we adopt – or are exposed to even if we don’t consciously adopt them – may impact how we pursue our goal.”
The study tracked 353 college students in six experiments that attempted to test how the idea of God can influence people’s motivations. Believing in God or any other spiritual power was not a requirement for the study.
In one experiment, researchers told the students the test they were taking would gauge their career success and then asked students whether they believed God had a hand in that success.
Each student was given a “warm-up” exercise in which they had to create sentences using words. Half were given test with religious words, while the other were given non-religious words.
The test had each student "form as many words as they could in five minutes, using any combination of specific letters,” reported the study. The number of words produced was taken as a gauge of motivation.
Of the students who believed in an involved God, the ones who participated the God-related word game fared worse than those who used non-religious word. There was, however, no difference among those who did not believe in an involved God.
Kay summed up the findings this way: Imagine two students, one believes her grade depends on how hard she works and the second believes that her grade is determined by whether the professor asked questions she knows.
According to Kay, the research suggests that someone who thinks part of their grade is out of their control would not study as hard as someone who believes they are in complete control.
“[This belief] can diminish a person’s perception that he or she – and he or she alone – has complete control over his or her outcomes,” wrote Kay. “From a motivation perspective, this is very important, since beliefs in personal control are key components of motivation.”
To test temptation, half of the students read a passage about God and half read a passage unrelated to God. “Participants who said eating healthy food was important to them ate fewer cookies after reading a short passage about God than those who read a passage unrelated to God,” reported the study.
“Basically what we found was that when people think about God, it seems to help them resist temptation,” said Grainee Fitzsimons, professor at Duke University. “It is the mindset that he is always watching and judging that motivates people to behave well.”
The findings were first published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.