Government or God?
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Policy Social Impact Nov 1, 2010

Gov­ern­ment or God?

In times of uncer­tain­ty, peo­ple seek stability

Based on the research of

Aaron C. Kay

Steven Shepherd

Craig W. Blatz

Sook Ning Chua

Adam D. Galinsky

Vot­ing may feel like a reg­u­lar part of the polit­i­cal land­scape in many nations, but elec­tions are also peri­ods of uncertainty. 

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Events like elec­tions can shake people’s fun­da­men­tal need to believe in an order­ly struc­tured world. To counter this appre­hen­sion, new research sug­gests people’s faith in a high­er pow­er becomes stronger. Sur­pris­ing­ly, the research also finds that when faith in the sta­bil­i­ty of God or the gov­ern­ment is shak­en, peo­ple turn to the oth­er enti­ty to restore a sense of control.

Researchers exam­ined whether chang­ing polit­i­cal cli­mates can dri­ve reli­gious belief, espe­cial­ly faith in a con­trol­ling or inter­ven­tion­ist deity. They found that beliefs toward God and the gov­ern­ment can help sati­ate the same psy­cho­log­i­cal need for struc­ture and order and are inter­change­able with one another.

This research holds impor­tant impli­ca­tions for our under­stand­ing of the for­ma­tion and strength­en­ing of reli­gious belief,” says Adam Galin­sky, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment and one of the study’s authors.

This research holds impor­tant impli­ca­tions for our under­stand­ing of the for­ma­tion and strength­en­ing of reli­gious belief.” — Adam Galinsky

Although there are undoubt­ed­ly mul­ti­ple caus­es of reli­gious belief, one cause may be that when peo­ple per­ceive their gov­ern­ment as unsta­ble, they turn to God or oth­er reli­gious deities to ful­fill a need for order and con­trol in their lives,” adds Aaron Kay, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty and anoth­er of the study’s authors.

To test their the­o­ry, Galin­sky, Kay, and their col­leagues Steven Shep­herd, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Water­loo, Craig Blatz, an instruc­tor at Grant MacE­wan Uni­ver­si­ty and Sook Ning Chua of McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, con­duct­ed a diverse set of exper­i­men­tal designs, lab­o­ra­to­ry, field set­tings, and inde­pen­dent and depen­dent mea­sures. The exper­i­ments were designed to demon­strate that exter­nal sys­tems of con­trol can also com­pen­sate for one anoth­er. The researchers gath­ered results from col­lege cam­pus­es in Malaysia and Cana­da which found that per­cep­tions of decreased gov­ern­ment sta­bil­i­ty, such as imme­di­ate­ly before an elec­tion, led to increased beliefs in a con­trol­ling God. Con­verse­ly, increased per­cep­tions of polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty led to weak­er beliefs in an inter­ven­tion­ist God.

In a lon­gi­tu­di­nal field study con­duct­ed in Malaysia, the researchers test­ed people’s sense of gov­ern­men­tal sta­bil­i­ty and faith in a con­trol­ling God both before and after an elec­tion. Before the elec­tion, gov­ern­ment insta­bil­i­ty was per­ceived to be high and peo­ple were more like­ly to believe in a con­trol­ling God, com­pared with imme­di­ate­ly after an elec­tion, when a sense of gov­ern­ment sta­bil­i­ty had been restored. In anoth­er study, when par­tic­i­pants were led to believe that sci­en­tists have con­clud­ed that God is unlike­ly to inter­vene in the world’s affairs, they showed high­er lev­els of gov­ern­ment sup­port com­pared with par­tic­i­pants who were led to believe that God may play an inter­ven­tion­ist role.

Accord­ing to Kay, high­er lev­els of reli­gious belief, com­mit­ment, and pos­si­bly extrem­ism might be more like­ly in those coun­tries that have the least sta­ble gov­ern­ments and oth­er sec­u­lar institutions.

Par­tic­u­lar­ly in today’s land­scape and with the upcom­ing elec­tions, we find uncer­tain­ty swirling around gov­ern­ment,” Galin­sky says. It is in these cas­es when peo­ple are like­ly to turn to oth­er sources of con­trol, like putting faith in an inter­ven­ing God.”

Featured Faculty

Adam D. Galinsky

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2012

About the Research

Kay, Aaron C., Steven Shepherd, Craig W. Blatz, Sook Ning Chua, and Adam D. Galinsky. 2010. “For God (or) country: The hydraulic relation between government instability and belief in religious sources of control.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99(5): 725-739.

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