Researchers at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, have found that religious people are less anxious than non-believers when they make mistakes.
In the study, they found that religious people exhibit lower activity than non-believers in a brain region linked to anxiety when erring on a simple test.
"Religion offers an interpretative framework to understand the world. It lets you know when to act, how to act, and what to do in specific situation. It provides a kind of blueprint on how to interact with the world," New Scientist quoted Michael Inzlicht, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, who led the new study, as saying.
He said that religion, and perhaps other strongly held belief systems, buffer against second-guessing decisions.
For the study, Inzlicht's team tested 50 university students from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. Christians made up most participants, but his team also tested Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists.
With a technique that gauges brain activity via dozens of electrodes on the scalp called electroencephalography (EEG), the researchers focused on action in a small brain area called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
"When it's fired, the response engendered is 'uh oh, pay attention, something is amiss here'," he said.
People with anxiety disorders tend to show high activity in this region, and drugs that treat their symptoms calm brain activity in the ACC.
Volunteers took a simple test that other neuroscientists have used to measure ACC activity. On a monitor, subjects see a colour spelled out in letters that either correspond to or contradict the meaning of the word, for example, red spelled out in red letters or blue spelled out in yellow letters, for instance.
Volunteers must press a button to indicate the colour of the letters. The students with strong religious beliefs, as measured by their agreement with statements such as "My religion is better than others" or "I would support a war if my religion supported it", exhibited less ACC activation than students with less fervent beliefs.
Tests with another group of students, who were asked how strongly they believed or disbelieved in God, came to a similar conclusion.
Even after accounting for self-esteem, intelligence and other personality traits, the researchers found that religious devotion predicted volunteers' ACC activity.
One explanation is that people with a genetic predisposition to reduced ACC activity gravitate toward religion.
"It's possible that if you're born with a certain kind of brain, you're predisposed to religion," Inzlicht said.
However, he suspects that religious belief is driving the association.
The study is published in the journal of Psychological Science.