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“Particularly in today’s landscape ... we find uncertainty swirling around government. It is in these cases when people are likely to turn to other sources of control, like putting faith in an intervening God.” — Adam Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management

Adam Galinsky

Why people embrace God before elections

New research by Professor Adam Galinsky explores the interchangeable relationship between government and religious belief

10/27/2010 - As Americans consider which candidate to vote for in the upcoming elections, they are reminded of the government’s vulnerability and wonder how their decisions will affect a fragile financial landscape.

This sense of instability can have wide implications, not just for government but also for faith in religion and God, according to new research from Northwestern University and Duke University.

The study examines how people cope with events that shake their fundamental need to believe in an orderly, structured world and suggests that when a government weakens, people’s faith in a higher power becomes stronger. Surprisingly, the research also finds that when faith in the stability of God or the government is shaken, people turn to the other entity to restore a sense of control.

Professors Aaron Kay, Adam Galinsky and their colleagues examined whether changing political climates can drive religious belief, especially faith in a controlling or interventionist deity. They found that beliefs toward God and the government can help satiate the same psychological need for structure and order and are interchangeable with one another.

“This research holds important implications for our understanding of the formation and strengthening of religious belief,” said Galinsky, the Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management at the Kellogg School.

Lead author Kay, an associate professor at Duke University, added, “Although there are undoubtedly multiple causes of religious belief, one cause may be that when people perceive their government as unstable, they turn to God or other religious deities to fulfill a need for order and control in their lives.”

To test their theory, the authors conducted a diverse set of experimental designs, laboratory, field settings, and independent and dependent measures. The experiments were designed to demonstrate that external systems of control can also compensate for one another. The researchers gathered results from college campuses in Malaysia and Canada which found that perceptions of decreased government stability, such as immediately before an election, led to increased beliefs in a controlling God. Conversely, increased perceptions of political stability led to weaker beliefs in an interventionist God.

In a longitudinal field study conducted in Malaysia, the researchers tested people’s sense of governmental stability and faith in a controlling God both before and after an election. Before the election, government instability was perceived to be high and people were more likely to believe in a controlling God, compared with immediately after an election, when a sense of government stability had been restored. In another study, when participants were led to believe that scientists have concluded that God is unlikely to intervene in the world’s affairs (e.g., is not an effective source of control), they showed higher levels of government support compared with participants who were led to believe that God may play an interventionist role.

According to Kay, one implication of this research is that higher levels of religious belief, commitment, and possibly extremism might be more likely in those countries that have the least stable governments and other secular institutions.

Galinsky noted the timely relevance of their research: “Particularly in today’s landscape and with the upcoming elections, we find uncertainty swirling around government. It is in these cases when people are likely to turn to other sources of control, like putting faith in an intervening God.”

The new study, entitled “For God (or) Country: The Hydraulic Relation Between Government Instability and Belief in Religious Sources of Control,” will be published in the November issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (published by the American Psychological Association). Kay and Galinsky co-authored the study with Stephen Shephard of the University of Waterloo, Craig Blatz of Grant MacEwan University and Sook Ning Chua of McGill University.

MORE INFORMATION: To see the full study, or to arrange an interview with Professor Galinsky, contact Aaron Mays.