Two studies were led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, Dr. Ian McGregor at York University, and doctoral candidates Jacob Hirsh and Kyle Nash.
Participants were hooked up to electrodes that measured brain activity. Then they performed a Stroop task - a well-known test of cognitive control. The Stroop Task is a psychological test of mental attention and flexibility. The task takes advantage of our ability to read words more quickly and automatically than we can name colors. If a word is printed or displayed in a color different from the color it actually names. For example, if the word "green" is written in blue ink we will say the word "green" more readily than we can name the color in which it is displayed.
The cognitive mechanism involved in this task is called directed attention, you have to manage your attention, inhibit or stop one response in order to say or do something else. However, when a participant makes an error the brain will register heightened electrical activity associated with stress.
Compared to non-believers, the religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed. This brain activity is usually triggered by an anxiety-producing event, such as making a mistake in a test. The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own errors.
"You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty," says lead author Inzlicht. "We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They're much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error."
What may be even more interesting though was that the researchers found that not-only were believers less stressed about their mistakes, but that they made fewer errors on the Stroop task than their non-believing counterparts.
However, the researchers acknowledged that stress response to errors can also a be a positive: "Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you're paralyzed with fear. However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we're making mistakes. If you don't experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behavior so you don't make the same mistakes again and again?"