God Concepts Shape Our Behavior

Religion has been a thread that runs constant throughout our world’s history. Wars have been fought, lives have been lost and heinous acts of violence have committed in the name of religion. But religion has also prompted acts of mercy, kindness, and benevolence. How is it that religion can motivate such different behaviors? Kathryn A. Johnson of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University wanted to find that out. In a recent study, Johnson looked at how an individual’s conception of God, which is flexible and fluid across religions, affects a person’s behavior.

Johnson interviewed Catholic and non-Catholic Christian college students and asked them about their God concepts. She conducted three separate studies in which she provided God images that were authoritarian, benevolent, or forgiving. She assessed how these images influenced the participants’ behavior, specifically looking at pro-social behavior or aggressive behavior. Johnson found that all of the participants associated an authoritarian and punishing God with aggressive behavior and a benevolent and merciful God with altruism and volunteerism. However, non-Catholic Christians were more likely to forgive others when they viewed a benevolent God concept, and were less likely to forgive when they saw a punishing God. Also, images of an authoritarian God decreased willingness to engage in altruistic or charitable acts.

Because these God concepts exist across nearly every religion, these results are compelling indeed. Johnson believes this study shows that God concept a person holds directly influences their behavior. Although this study only looked at varying God concepts among Catholic and non-Catholic Christians, it gives us a glimpse into the positive and negative impact of religious concepts. Johnson hopes that this study, which looks at behavior toward others, will prompt other researchers to examine the internal influences of the many God concepts held by different religious groups and across various cultures. “Future research should focus on how concepts of a benevolent God might interact with self-identity, moral obligations, and intrinsic motivations leading to increased pro-social behaviors,” Johnson said.

Johnson, K. A., Li, Y. J., Cohen, A. B., and Okun, M. A. (2012). Friends in high places: The influence of authoritarian and benevolent god-concepts on social attitudes and behaviors. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030138

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  • Cyndi

    January 25th, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    It is very true indeed, that our interpretation of God shapes our decisions and who we are as individuals, which forms our self-image and our self-esteem. I thank God, that through the Holy Catholic Church Roman Curia, a Judicial Judge kindly helped me discern the Essence of God towards me as God’s daughter. I’m pleasantly surprised to discover a new aspect of God’s mercy, His great love and gentle-kindness, which gradually awakens a newness within self. There’s no dull moment in my life. I’m very grateful to God who gradually awakens and strengthens my will to receive His loving Essence towards me as His daughter. All the hard work in seeking to Know Him was worth it, which was also revealed to me through a very kind and gentle social worker counselor. Keep up the very good work.

  • Wilson

    January 25th, 2013 at 11:45 PM

    it’s true that a person’s Behavior , at be influenced by his concept of God. And for the same reason it is better to have a neutral or no ‘image’ of God so to speak..some religions do a pretty good job at doing this by having no image of God.

  • Clement

    January 26th, 2013 at 1:29 PM

    “Wars have been fought, lives have been lost and heinous acts of violence have committed in the name of religion.”

    I beg to differ. While it is easy to blame the wrong doings of people and entire communities on religion fact is that reposition is hardly the reason for such events. Take a look at historical events or even the present day ones. Fact is that wars and disagreements have arisen due to land, resources, ideology or other things. But often religion is made to look like the reason.

  • barbara

    January 27th, 2013 at 5:20 AM

    This is all well and good, but what about those who have no real concept of God and His benevolence, what if they have no real feelings about the whole concept of religion one way or another? It would seem that this would make them immune to all of this even though it is found all across the board of religion in most parts of the world.

  • jason

    January 27th, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    whatever may be the concept of god for one it influences only to the level that a person wants it to…not every religious person would react the same…it’s. not that simple you know.

  • Pauline

    January 28th, 2013 at 4:02 AM

    Even as an adult, my own thoughts are often heavily influenced by the message that I received in church that week. This is how strongly God’s love can influence you if you are willing to let it in.

  • Lana R

    January 28th, 2013 at 10:23 AM

    Picking up cues from concept of god is one thing. But how you interpret and apply it to your own actions is white another. Not easy for many people to pick up cues and apply their own logic but that is what is not following the herd, that is critical thinking, something very important yet so largely ignored.

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