Study Shows that Anxiety Trigger Religious Extremism


In a series of studies at York University researchers discovered that anxiety and uncertainty can cause people to become more idealistic and more radical in their religious beliefs.

Researchers used over 600 participants and placed them in an anxiety producing or neutral situation and asked to express their personal goals and rank their degree of conviction for their religious principles. This included asking participants if they would be willing to give their lives for their faith or support a war in its defense. The study showed that anxious conditions caused participants to become much more engaged in their ideals and extreme in their religious convictions.

One study demonstrated that people who are thinking over personal dilemmas caused a general surge toward more idealistic personal goals. In another study, participants struggling with a confusing mathematical passage caused a spike in radical religious extremes, and yet in another study, reflecting on relationship uncertainties caused the same religious eagerness.


A basic motivational process called Reactive Approach Motivation (RAM) is the probable cause for this religious extreme, according to lead researcher Ian McGregor, Associate Professor in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health.

“Approach motivation is a tenacious state in which people become ‘locked and loaded’ on whatever goal or ideal they are promoting. They feel powerful, and thoughts and feelings related to other issues recede,” he says.
“RAM is usually an adaptive goal regulation process that can re-orient people toward alternative avenues for effective goal pursuit when they hit a snag. Our research shows that humans can sometimes co-opt RAM for short term relief from anxiety, however,” said McGregor.

“By simply promoting ideals and convictions in their own minds, people can activate approach motivation, narrow their motivational focus away from anxious problems, and feel serene as a result,” says McGregor.
“Anxiety-provoking threats sometimes also cause people to become paranoid and more submissive to externally-controlling forces, so we wanted to rule out that interpretation for our results,” he says.

Last year in the journal Psychological Science, the same authors and collaborators at the University of Toronto found that strong religious beliefs are associated with low activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that becomes active in anxious predicaments.

“Taken together, the results of this research program suggest that bold but vulnerable people gravitate to idealistic and religious extremes for relief from anxiety,” McGregor says.