Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


Anxiety makes people go to extremes (see the DESIRE and ANXIETY section for an explanation of the basic process). In dozens of studies we have shown that various anxiety-related threats make people become more certain, biased, and inflexible in their opinions; more haughty in their biased view of themselves; more hostile and vengeful; more willing to take risks; and more willing to kill, die, and go to extremes for religion. All of these extreme reactions have been linked to approach motivated states that give people a kind of motivational tunnel-vision, unable to see the wider range of perspectives. 

People seem to approach whatever extreme is salient in the anxious moment. Accordingly, reminding people of compassionate and charitable values and beliefs causes them to react to experimentally manipulated anxieties by
becoming more extremely forgiving. If compassionate values are not primed ahead of time, however, then participants respond to the same anxious experiences in the opposite direction, i.e., by becoming more hostile and vengeful, in line
with more selfish ambient values. In some of our experiments we prime compassionate values by reminding people of their religious belief systems (which across all religions almost always revolve around ideas of love and forgiveness). The religious component is not necessary in our experiments, however. Reminding people of prosocial values with religious or secular primes similarly reversed the normative tendency toward reactive hostility. 

Extreme and hostile reactions to anxiety are intuitive and prevalent responses to anxiety that undermine social viability. It has been suggested by religious historian Karen Armstrong, in The Great Transformation, that one of the reasons for the evolution of religion may have been its capacity to redirect antisocial reactions toward prosocial ideals of kindness and virtue.  Despite the high profile examples of religious hypocrisy and hostility in the news, our empirical work on religion has indeed found that for most people (Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, in our studies), religious beliefs boost generous and forgiving reactions in anxious circumstances (see RELIGION link for a description of this research). 

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.