Does religion make people more self-controlled? A review of research from the lab and life

Zeve J. Marcus, Michael E. McCullough

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Religion is associated with a wide range of socially desirable behaviors and outcomes (particularly among adolescents), including lower rates of crime and delinquency, better school performance, and abstinence from risky sexual practices and substance use. What should we make of these associations? Are they causal? And if so, what are the intermediate psychological processes through which religion obtains its effects on such outcomes? With regard to this third question, we describe a decade's worth of research into a hypothesis that religion obtains its behavioral effects through its intermediate effects on self-control. In this review, we focus on evidence from experiments and longitudinal studies, which provide more rigorous tests of cause-and-effect relationships than simple cross-sectional correlational studies can. We find little convincing evidence for the idea that implicit and explicit activations of religious cognition in the laboratory exert a robust influence on self-control on the scale of minutes and hours. We do find evidence, however, that rituals (most notably, prayer), along with exposure to religious environments and institutions in the real world (e.g. religious schooling) influence self-control on the scale of weeks, months, and years — a conclusion that is also supported by rigorous longitudinal research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)167-170
Number of pages4
JournalCurrent Opinion in Psychology
StatePublished - Aug 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Adolescent health
  • Attention
  • Behavior
  • Cognition
  • Discounting
  • Executive function
  • Monitoring
  • Psychosocial development
  • Religiosity
  • Religious participation
  • Rituals
  • Self-control
  • Self-regulation
  • Social perception
  • Spirituality
  • Substance abuse

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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