Field of Science

Xanax redux

There's a little corner of your brain - the anterior cingulate cortex - that's thought to play a role in monitoring errors. The electrical signals that flow from this part of the brain ramp up when the mind is challenged with conflicting information, an effect called 'error response negativity', or ERN. In short, ERN represents that anxious, uneasy feeling you sometimes get when you've made a mistake.

Back in 2009 Michael Inzlicht, at the University of Toronto in Canada, found that religious people had lower ERN compared to non-religious people when trying to complete a challenging task. Religion seemed to be acting as a kind of anxiolytic, a bit like the drug Xanax.

But is it religion, or religious people? Perhaps people who are attracted to religion are just naturally more chilled. Or can you actually reduce anxiety by infusing religious thoughts. In his latest study, he aimed to find out.

He took a bunch of students of varying religious beliefs, and subliminally primed some of them with religious thoughts by making them unscramble sentences with religious content. Others had to unscramble neutral sentences.

Then he got them to do the Stroop Colour Word Test, a challenging test that generates ERN.

Both the religious and non-religious performed equally well. And, unlike Inzlicht's first study, there was no intrinsic difference between the two group's ERN after the neutral prime. 

However, for those students that were religious, priming with religious thoughts beforehand reduced their ERN. For atheists, the opposite occurred. Their ERN actually increased if they had been previously exposed to religious messages.

It's not clear why this should be. Perhaps religion makes the religious feel comfortable, while for atheists it sets up an immediate conflict, so heightening their response. Maybe priming with reassuring thoughts about atheism would have the opposite effect:

"Maybe when atheists think about science, and the way our world is organized through that lens, it would offer them the same reassurance," suggests Inzlicht. "The point here is the power of the mind to change external circumstances." Vancouver Sun

It's also worth thinking about the implications of this study. On the face of it, reducing anxiety sounds like a good thing. But, like the sensation of pain, ERN is there for a reason. It's there to tell us when we are going down a blind alley, and to motivate us to stop. A low ERN is linked to pathologies such as autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

In this light, it's interesting to compare these results with another study earlier this year. This study found that priming with religious thoughts made people work longer to try to complete an impossible task - when the sensible thing to do was to abandon it as a lost cause. What's more, people primed with religion were actually more anxious afterwards, not less!

ResearchBlogging.orgMichael Inzlicht, & Alexa M. Tullett (2010). Reflecting on God: Religious Primes Can Reduce Neurophysiological Response to Errors Psychological Science : 10.1177/0956797610375451

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I would love to see the difference between atheists who were former adult believers and atheists who were never adult believers.

    Do these changes result from the practice of being religious or the disposition to be religious?

    "ERN" -- nice, easy acronym to remember.

  2. Well, FWIW if I were participating in a research study and I was asked to unscramble a sentence, and it turned out to have religious content, I would be pretty irritated. The ubiquity and presumption of religion are really annoying to me. So I dunno if that would increase ERN at all...

  3. "And, unlike Inzlicht's first study, there was no intrinsic difference between the two group's ERN after the neutral prime."

    Wait. What now? Does this mean that this finding is not reproducable? Which one would then be the glitch?

  4. ... or does even neutral priming have an intrinsic effect on the following task?

  5. Verquer - my read is that the study is not reproducible (or, at least, not reproduced). It's a real problem in the field of religious studies. Compared with medical science, where competition is fierce, often groups work in relative isolation and their reported findings are rarely (if ever) tested by own groups. Just not enough money in it. So the result is that we get lots of studies, but little confirmation.

  6. "So the result is that we get lots of studies, but little confirmation."

    That is unsatisfactory. You guys need more money. :)

    But still: Could neutral priming viewed as a successfully done task have a calming effect for the next task? My intuition would say yes, but I know that I cannot trust my intuition on these kind of things.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS