Thursday, January 1, 2009

Stop the Presses: Values Influence People

In his Findings column in the NYT, John Tierney reports on a new study by University of Miami psychologists Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby that finds "religious belief and piety promote self-control." The tone of the article is one of semi-serious surprise:

Does this mean that nonbelievers like me should start going to church? Even if you don’t believe in a supernatural god, you could try improving your self-control by at least going along with the rituals of organized religion.

Hold on, atheists. Before we all make a mad dash for a pew, Tierney continues:

But that probably wouldn’t work either, Dr. McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.

Great. So what now?

Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals. Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.

“People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values,” he said. “Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.” [Italics mine.]

Really, John? This is news?

I typically admire Tierney's articles, but this one is tantamount to reporting that "morality aids in decision making." Should it surprise anyone that adhering to a system of values, even a wrong one, influences how someone behaves?