Somebody helps those who help themselves: Study shows connection between religion and self-control

According to a report to be published in the upcoming issue of Psychological Bulletin, people who attend church regularly – or at least have internalized a strong commitment to religious values – will have an easier time keeping their New Year’s resolutions.  

It’s not just that it takes self-control to sit through religious services.  Even accounting for selection bias, according to this blog post in the New York Times, people who attend services end up with more self-control, even if they didn’t start with much. 

Further, people with strong religious convictions are better at resisting temptation (if that’s what one wants to do with it). 

But what’s most intriguing, from a Humanistic perspective, is the way in which the study does – and doesn’t – correlate “religion” and “spirituality.”



The study shows that people who are intrinsically motivated to go to services (of any kind) get the effect, while people who go for external reasons (because they’re pressured, or because they want a benefit like more self-control), don’t. 

At the same time, simply having spiritual values – of any kind – doesn’t do it either: they have to be acted upon in concrete ways.  People whose values lead them to take steps, like volunteering in soup kitchens or attending services, get the effect:  people who feel connected spiritually but don’t do anything about it don’t.

But Steve Pritzker, who directs Saybrook’s program in Consciousness and Spirituality, cautions that “self-control” itself isn’t necessarily a good thing.  “Religion has been a key factor in some of the worst tragedies in the world,” Dr. Pritzker says.  “One could say the terrorists who acted in 9/11 represented great examples of self-control.”

Religion also helps a great many people, Dr. Pritzker clarifies:  but its effects are best understood individually, on a case by case basis rather than through large generalizations that don’t make a distinction between having the self-control to tend the sick and the self-control to mortify one’s flesh.

The study “represents an easy answer,” Pritzker suggests – while the world is more complex.