Does thinking about God result in risk-taking?

Does thinking about God result in risk-taking?
Sculptures of Ganesha for Durga Puja. Shikher's Imagery/Getty

Above we see unfinished sculptures of the Hindu god Ganesha, patron of arts and sciences -- as well as the revered "remover of obstacles." So if you're even a partial-believer, you want Big G on your side -- but how does having a cosmic Deva in your corner affect your behavior?

According to new research published in Psychological Science, belief in a divine wingman might just make you more of a risk-taker.

The Study

In order to test the effects of "god thoughts" on risk-taking, a team of Stanford researchers subjected 900 participants to an online survey. While some participants enjoyed a god-free experience, others encountered the idea of God through written references or word scramble clues.


Then, they were invited to take some risks -- or at least the sort of risks to be had in an lone survey. We're talking the likes of, "You can choose a version of this survey with higher bonus pay, but you'll have to stare at a bright color that might damage your eyes." The results? The researchers found that participants who had been reminded of god prior to the choice took the riskier route 95.5 percent of the time, versus an 84.3 percent rate for those who made their choice without a god reminder.

They also conducted a test involving clickable ads for two kinds of risky behavior: non-moral risks like skydiving and moral risks like "Learn how to bribe!" Oh yeah, and for some of the participants, the ads mentioned god. I kid you not, one of the ads in the study reportedly stated, "God knows what you're missing! Find skydiving near you."

As you might expect, ads that mentioned a god were more likely to result in a click if the content was free of moral/ethical concerns. There's nothing in the Bible against skydiving, right?

Surrounded by Gods

Now of course this is just one study, and the researchers are quick to point out that it might fall apart among populations in which the divine is less of a protective force. And, despite my referencing of Ganesha, the study seems to hinge on more of an American monotheistic deity instead of a rich polytheistic pantheon.

But the results raise some interesting questions. While previous studies have approached the risk-taking/god thoughts angle from the standpoint of self-destructive behavior, this one engages the sort of risk-taking behavior more commonly experienced in everyday life -- the sort of everyday life where reminders of god are everywhere.

Could all those dashboard Jesus icons result in riskier driving? Do statues of Ganesha in a yoga classroom result in over-extension?

At any rate, these are just the latest findings on the topic of god thoughts and human behavior. In the past, studies have found that god thoughts can help believers: reduce distress, cultivate cooperation, cope with romantic rejection, resist the urge to cheat on tests and boost willpower (while also decreasing personal goal motivation).

Just remember to ask your doctor if belief in God is right for you before beginning treatment.