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Randomness, Attributions of Arousal, and Belief in God

Author(s): Aaron C. Kay, David A. Moscovitch and Kristin Laurin

Source: Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 2 (FEBURUARY 2010), pp. 216-218
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science
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Snort Report psychological science

Psychological Science
Randomness, Attribution The Author(s) 2010
Reprints and permission: http://www
and Belief in God
DOI: I O.I 177/0956797609357750


Aaron C. Kay, David A. Moscovitch, and Kristin Laurin

University of Waterloo

Received 5/7/09; Revision accepted 6/17/09

attribute the cause of any experienced arousal to this salient

Beliefs in God, or similar spiritual forces, have permeated every
source (Proulx & Heine, 2008; Zanna & Cooper, 1974).
culture the world has seen, past or present (Atran & Norenza-
yan, 2004). Although there are likely many reasons whyHypothesizing
such that beliefs in supernatural control function, at
least&in part, to down-regulate the aversive arousal associated
beliefs are so strongly held (Kirkpatrick, 1998; Norenzayan
with randomness, we expected the randomness primes to
Hansen, 2006), attempts to cope with perceptions of random-
increase beliefs in God, but only for those participants not
ness may be a key factor. Randomness is presumed to be highly
aversive (Pennebaker & Stone, 2004), and people will given
go tothe opportunity to attribute the cause of their arousal to
the ingested
considerable lengths to reaffirm order in the face of evidence to pill.
the contrary (e.g., by blaming victims of random misfortune or
seeing patterns in random arrays; Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004;
Lerner, 1980; Whitson & Galinsky, 2008; also see Heine,
Thirty-seven undergraduates (62% female; mean age = 19
Proulx, & Vohs, 2006). Affirming the existence of a controlling
years; 35% Caucasian, 35% Asian, 8% East Indian, 5% Afri-
God, therefore, may provide an excellent means for insulating
oneself from the aversive arousal associated with randomness.
can Canadian, 5% Middle Eastern, 11% unspecified) regis-
tered for an experiment concerning "effects of an herbal
However, no experimental test of this hypothesis exists.
Park (2005) has suggested that traumatic events cansupplement on color perception." Upon arrival, participants
strengthen belief in God because of the threat they pose to read a brochure about the product. Half read that, according to
nonrandomness, but this correlational research (also see Lau-federal testing, it has no side effects, and half read that it has a
rin, Kay, & Moscovitch, 2008) focused only on negative single side effect, "mild arousal or anxiety." This information
was also conveyed orally. Participants then swallowed a pill
events and assumed (rather than directly assessed) the role of
randomness. Some research has manipulated self-conceptions that supposedly contained the supplement (but actually con-
tained inert microcrystalline cellulose).
that may be related to preserving beliefs in order (e.g., Kay,
Gaucher, Napier, Callan, & Laurin, 2008; McGregor, Haji, While "waiting for the compound to metabolize," partici-
Nash, & Teper, 2008), but none has investigated randomness pants completed some questionnaires that were supposedly
directly, and none, crucially, has assessed the role of arousal unrelated
in to the experiment. The priming manipulation, com-
generating between-condition differences in belief in God. pleted first, required unscrambling each of 16 five-word sets
In this study, we employed a novel paradigm to test (a) to create a four- word sentence. For half the participants, eight
whether direct manipulations designed to prime thoughts words of in these sets were related to randomness (e.g., "chance,"
randomness cause increased beliefs in supernatural sources of "random"). For the other half, these randomness primes were
replaced with negatively valenced control words (e.g.,
control (even when controlling for negative valence) and (b)
whether this effect is due to arousal generated by thoughts "poorly,"
of "slimy"; i.e., negativity primes; see Bradley &
randomness. To heighten thoughts of randomness, we supra- Lange, 1999). (Table SI in the Supplemental Material avail-
able on-line contains the full set of stimuli.)
liminally primed half the participants with randomness-related
words; the other half were primed with words matched in nega- Next, three items assessed beliefs in supernatural sources
of control: Two measured belief that the universe is controlled
tive valence. To assess the role of arousal, we employed a mis-
by God or a similar nonhuman entity, and one measured belief
attribution paradigm (Zanna, & Cooper, 1974), which involved
requiring all participants to swallow a pill ostensibly contain-
ing an herbal supplement. Half the participants were told that
Corresponding Author:
the pill sometimes induces arousal as a side effect, and half Aaron C. Kay, University of Waterloo, Department of Psychology, 200
were told that the pill has no side effects. Previous work hasUniversity Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G I
shown that the side-effect condition leads participants E-mail:

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Randomness, Attributions of Arousal, and Belief in God 2 1 7

control words. This

that the universe is governed by a supernatural effectsuch
order, disappeared
as when participant
karma. (See Table S2 in the Supplemental Material
given the available
opportunity on-the cause of any arousa
to attribute
line for the exact wording of theseexperienced to a pill ingested
items.) Responses earlier in the session. The
to each
item were made on a 7-point scale (ranging that belief in supernatural sources of control, s
1 , tremendously
doubtful, to 7, very likely), and scores and karma,
were may to
averaged function,
create in
a part, to defend again
tress control
single measure of belief in supernatural associated (a
with randomness, even when the percep
= .80).
randomness is not No
We then employed a tunneled debriefing. relatedparticipants
to traumatic events.

noted any suspicion regarding the priming stimuli, the pill's

Declaration of
ingredients, or the purpose of the experiment. Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interests with
respect to their authorship and/or the publication of this article.

An omnibus two-way analysis of variance revealed the Supplemental

pre- Material
dicted interaction between the priming and misattribution
Additional supporting information may be found at http://pss.sagepub
manipulations, F(l, 33) = 5.54, p < .03, r|p2 = .14 (see Table 1).
In the no-misattribution condition, the randomness primes led
to significantly stronger beliefs in the existence of supernatu-
ral sources of control than the negativity primes did, F(l,Atran,
33) = S., & Norenzayan, A. (2004). Religion's evolutionary land-
4.47, p < .05, r' 2 = .23. In the misattribution condition, how-
scape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion.
Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 27, 713-770.
ever, the randomness primes exerted no effect, F(l, 33) = 1 .62,
p = .21. Similarly, among participants primed with random- Bradley, M.M., & Lang, P.J. (1999). Affective norms for English
ness, the misattribution condition significantly reduced beliefswords (ANEW). Gainesville: University of Florida, Center for the
in supernatural control, F(l, 33) = 5.91, p < .03, r| 2 = .26, but
Study of Emotion and Attention.
among participants primed with the negatively valenced Heine, S.J., Proulx, T, & Vohs, K.D. (2006). The meaning mainte-
words, the misattribution manipulation exerted no effect, nance model: On the coherence of social motivations. Personal-

F(', 33) < 1. Last, a planned contrast indicated that beliefs ity
in and Social Psychology Review, 10, 88-1 10.
Jost, J.T., Banaji, M.R., & Nosek, B.A. (2004). A decade of system
supernatural control were significantly stronger in the critical
condition combining randomness primes and no misattribution justification theory: Accumulated evidence of conscious and
than in all other conditions, (33) = 2.15, p < .04; the strength unconscious
of bolstering of the status quo. Political Psychology,
beliefs in supernatural control did not differ significantly across
the other three conditions, all ts < 1.28, all/?s > .23. Kay, A.C., Gaucher, D., Napier, J.L., Callan, M.J., & Laurin, K.
(2008). God and the government: Testing a compensatory control
mechanism for the support of external systems. Journal of Per-
sonality and Social Psychology, 95, 1 8-35.
Experimental investigations of the psychological underpin-
Kirkpatrick, L.A. (1998). God as a substitute attachment figure: A
nings of religious belief remain relatively rare, despite the
longitudinal study of adult attachment style and religious change
clear societal consequences and prevalence of such beliefs,
in college students. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
24, 961-973.
and despite the contribution that this research can make to
researchers' understanding of basic psychological processes.
Laurin, K., Kay, A.C., & Moscovitch, D.M. (2008). On the belief in
Using a novel combination of experimental methodologies,
God: Towards an understanding of the emotional substrates of
we observed that participants primed with randomness-related
compensatory control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychol-
words exhibited heightened beliefs in spiritual control com-44, 1559-1562.
pared with participants primed with negativelyLerner,
M.J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delu-
sion. New York: Plenum.

McGregor, I., Haji, R., Nash, K.A., & Teper, R. (2008). Religious
Table I . Beliefs in Supernatural Control zeal and the uncertain self. Basic and Applied Social Psychology,
30, 183-188.
Randomness Negativity Norenzayan, A., & Hansen, I. G. (2006). Belief in supernatural agents
prime prime in the face of death. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
Misattribution condition M SD M SD 32, 174-187.
Park, C.L. (2005). Religion as a meaning-making framework in cop-
No misattribution 5. 1 5a 0.90 3.79b 1 .56 ing with life stress. Journal of Social Issues, 61, 707-729.
Misattribution 3.58b 1.68 4.50b 1.31 Pennebaker, J.W., & Stone, L.D. (2004). Translating traumatic expe-
Note: Within a row or column, means with different subscripts into language: Implications for child abuse and long-term
significantly different from each other, p < .05. health. In L.J. Koenig, L.S. Doll, A. O'Leary, & W. Pequegnat

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(Eds.), From
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