Thinking About God Leads People to Believe They Are Safe from Dangerous Things

A person engaged in prayer. Several new studies show that thinking about God changes how we think about danger. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Even just thinking about God makes you feel supported and protected. And those thoughts, according to a new a study, influence how you respond to fear-based advertising.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University designed several experiments to probe how religious influences shape our response to commercials intended to strike fear into viewers. In one study, they showed an advertisement about the dangers of plastic water bottle chemicals to 186 people either in a business classroom or in a nondenominational campus chapel. The former group were more alarmed by the information in the commercial.

In another experiment, 602 participants wrote a response to either a quote about God providing support during difficult times or a nonreligious quote. The former group was less fearful in response to an ad about the risks of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in some plastic water bottles. The latter group, however, was less likely to purchase a water bottle with BPA.

Yet another approach, this one with 217 participants, found that writing about the concept of God made an ad about purchasing flood insurance less effective than writing about their favorite season. The findings will be published in the forthcoming Journal of Marketing Research.

A religious cross in the moonlight. Researchers found that writing about God, regardless of one's own beliefs, influenced how people responded to commercials carrying warnings of danger. David McNew/Getty Images

In short, a tie to religious beliefs dampened the blow of ads aiming to alert people to risky situations. "We find that people thinking about God aren't as interested in products that offer precautionary benefits when the advertising is rooted in fear," Keisha Cutright, co-author and marketing professor at Duke University, said in a statement.

"If an ad tries to scare people into getting a new vaccine, for example, those who are thinking about God won't respond as strongly," Cutright said. Instead, people drew on the comfort, support, and sense of protection that God provides. "We found they believe they will be supported no matter what happens, whereas people who were not thinking about God were not as likely to think things will be OK," said Cutright

The researchers think the findings have implications for targeted advertising. "Demographically speaking, marketers should think twice about using fear-based advertising in highly religious areas of the country, or among people who are more likely to be religious, as in older populations," she said. "You could likely sell the same product, but you should use a different tactic."

Interestingly, the studies conducted by Cutright and co-author Eugenia Wu found the same, though slightly weaker, effects among atheists. This suggests, according to Cutright, that even those who are not strong believers in God are still surrounded by the concepts of God within their culture.

Cutright emphasized these findings aren't suggesting religion or the belief in God prevents a person from listening to information on risks or dangers—particularly in advertisements in these studies. Rather, when the idea of God is on people's minds, their brains process information from advertisements differently. Cutright says a different approach to communicating messages about risk might be necessary for more religious people.