Science Belief Is Stronger When People Face Stress, Anxiety
June 6, 2013

Science Belief Is Stronger When People Face Stress, Anxiety

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A study from Oxford University psychologists suggests that a faith in the explanatory and revealing power of science increases in the face of stress or anxiety. Non-religious people may be helped by a “belief in science” that offers comfort and reassurance in times of adversity, much like religious belief helps others.

“We found that being in a more stressful or anxiety-inducing situation increased participants' "belief in science",” says Dr. Miguel Farias, who led the study in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. “This belief in science we looked at says nothing of the legitimacy of science itself. Rather we were interested in the values individuals hold about science.”

Dr. Farias continues, “While most people accept science as a reliable source of knowledge about the world, some may hold science as a superior method for gathering knowledge, the only way to explain the world, or as having some unique and fundamental value in itself. This is a view of science that some atheists endorse.”

The findings, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, stress that investigating a belief in science carries no judgment on the value of science as a method. They also point out that drawing a parallel between the psychological benefits of religious faith and belief in science doesn't necessarily mean that scientific practice and religion are also similar in their basis.

Rather, the team suggests that their findings may highlight a basic human motivation to believe.

“It's not just believing in God that is important for gaining these psychological benefits, it is belief in general,” says Dr. Farias. “It may be that we as humans are just prone to have belief, and even atheists will hold non-supernatural beliefs that are reassuring and comforting.”

Prior studies have suggested that religious belief helps individuals cope with stress and anxiety. The team from Oxford wondered if this was specific to religious belief, or was a more general function of holding belief.

Participants were asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with a series of ten statements, which the researchers applied to their scale of “belief in science.” These statements included:

-- “Science tells us everything there is to know about what reality consists of.”

-- “All the tasks human beings face are soluble by science.”

-- “The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge.”

The first participant group consisted of 100 rowers, 52 of which were about to compete in a rowing regatta. The other 48 were about to engage in a normal training session. The researchers expected to find that the competitors were at a higher level of stress.

The 52 competitors returned scores showing greater belief in science than those in the training group, with a statistically significant difference in scores.

The competitors, as expected, reported a higher stress level, and both groups had a low degree of commitment to religion.

A second participant group consisted of a different set of 60 people randomly assigned to two groups. The first group was asked to write about the feelings aroused by thinking about their own death. The second group was asked to write about dental pain. Such an exercise has been used by a number of studies to induce a certain amount of “existential anxiety.”

The study subjects who had been asked to contemplate their own death reported higher stress, and scored higher in the belief in science scale.

The findings are consistent with the idea that a belief in science increases when secular individuals are exposed to threatening situations. The researchers suggest that a belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions.

The study only shows that stress or anxiety increases a belief in science. The researchers suggest that further study is needed to understand whether affirming a belief in science might then reduce subsequent experience of stress or anxiety.