Does Thinking About God Increase Our Willingness to Make Risky Decisions?

Mar 8, 2015

By Jalees Rehman

There are at least two ways of how the topic of trust in God is broached in Friday sermons that I have attended in the United States. Some imams lament the decrease of trust in God in the age of modernity. Instead of trusting God that He is looking out for the believers, modern day Muslims believe that they can control their destiny on their own without any Divine assistance. These imams see this lack of trust in God as a sign of weakening faith and an overall demise in piety. But in recent years, I have also heard an increasing number of sermons mentioning an important story from the Muslim tradition. In this story, Prophet Muhammad asked a Bedouin why he was leaving his camel untied and thus taking the risk that this valuable animal might wander off and disappear. When the Bedouin responded that he placed his trust in God who would ensure that the animal stayed put, the Prophet told him that he still needed to first tie up his camel and then place his trust in God. Sermons referring to this story admonish their audience to avoid the trap of fatalism. Just because you trust God does not mean that it obviates the need for rational and responsible action by each individual.

It is much easier for me to identify with the camel-tying camp because I find it rather challenging to take risks exclusively based on the trust in an inscrutable and minimally communicative entity. Both, believers and non-believers, take risks in personal matters such as finance or health. However, in my experience, many believers who make a risky financial decision or take a health risk by rejecting a medical treatment backed by strong scientific evidence tend to invoke the name of God when explaining why they took the risk. There is a sense that God is there to back them up and provide some security if the risky decision leads to a detrimental outcome. It would therefore not be far-fetched to conclude that invoking the name of God may increase risk-taking behavior, especially in people with firm religious beliefs. Nevertheless, psychological research in the past decades has suggested the opposite: Religiosity and reminders of God seem to be associated with a reduction in risk-taking behavior.

Daniella Kupor and her colleagues at Stanford University have recently published the paper “Anticipating Divine Protection? Reminders of God Can Increase Nonmoral Risk Taking” which takes a new look at the link between invoking the name of God and risky behaviors. The researchers hypothesized that reminders of God may have opposite effects on varying types of risk-taking behavior. For example, risk-taking behavior that is deemed ‘immoral’ such as taking sexual risks or cheating may be suppressed by invoking God, whereas taking non-moral risks, such as making risky investments or sky-diving, might be increased because reminders of God provide a sense of security. According to Kupor and colleagues, it is important to classify the type of risky behavior in relation to how society perceives God’s approval or disapproval of the behavior. The researchers conducted a variety of experiments to test this hypothesis using online study participants.

One of the experiments involved running ads on a social media network and then assessing the rate of how often the social media users clicked on slightly different wordings of the ad texts. The researchers ran the ads 452,051 times on accounts registered to users over the age of 18 years residing in the United States. The participants either saw ads for non-moral risk-taking behavior (skydiving), moral risk-taking behavior (bribery) or a control behavior (playing video games) and each ad came either in a ‘God version’ or a standard version.

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4 comments on “Does Thinking About God Increase Our Willingness to Make Risky Decisions?

  • Many years ago I read about an elderly man living in Findhorn in Scotland who needed to get to some place far away, perhaps in France. He headed out, with taking anything — no money, food or clothes. People were very nice to him, gave him food, places to sleep, rides etc. He wrote about his adventure insisting that all his good luck was caused by god rewarding him for his complete trust in holy providence.

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  • I have a problem with the wording they chose on these grounds

    “God knows what you are missing” vs “You don’t know what you are missing”. We are all familiar with the context of people saying God knows what you are missing is generally emotionally associated with high emotion, you don’t know what you are missing sounds like some academic discussion or at least someone very boring talking. This may prove nothing but our ability to become excited or drawn into excitement on the basis of how speech sounds and have nothing to do with God as a concept in itself. The act of using the word God for any other context other than expression of religious conviction only a few hundred years ago could see you accused of apostasy. So even though that has softened it is still taboo in many religious households and considered much like swearing at the least if not blasphemy. Which sounds more exciting “That was F*&KING AWESOME” or “that was really awesome”. I think this has more to do with advertising strategies than religion.

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  • Strange… I skydive and the majority of skydivers and base jumpers I meet are atheist or agnostic, some are Buddhist and some are into that new age spiritual sh!t but I don’t think I’ve met too many religious ones, certainly no fundies anyway..

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