Researchers know that religious people tend to live longer, healthier lives (tough luck, atheists), but knowledge of exactly how belief translates into vitality has proved to be as elusive as the nature of faith itself. Fresh research offers a tantalizing clue, Tom Jacobs blogs for Miller-McCune (June 21, 2010). It appears that people with faith simply don’t get as stressed out as people without it.
University of Toronto psychologist Michael Inzlicht and collaborator Alexa Tullett set out to study “error-related negativity,” measurable in the brain as an instantaneous response associated with defensiveness over mistakes. They tested 39 college students from diverse spiritual backgrounds using electrodes and a series of games. Some were exposed to sacred terminology before they performed certain tasks, some were not. In the end, theist students who were primed to think about their faith exhibited the least neural distress after making mistakes. Atheists, on the other hand, were ablaze with defensive activity.
The negative health effects of stress are, of course, well known. If having faith blunts the distress of errors, the researchers believe, spiritual people may have an advantage in coping with our topsy-turvy world. Intriguingly, they point out that this stress-busting effect isn’t exclusive to religious faith: Any belief system that provides a stable window on the world will do.