Anxiety and uncertainty can egg us on to become more radical in our religious beliefs, according to a series of new studies.

In the studies, conducted by York University researchers, more than 600 participants were placed in anxiety-provoking or neutral situations.

They were then asked to describe their personal goals and rate their degree of conviction for their religious ideals.

This included asking participants whether they would give their lives for their faith or support a war in its defence.

Across all studies, anxious conditions caused participants to become more eagerly engaged in their ideals and extreme in their religious convictions.

In one study, mulling over a personal dilemma caused a general surge toward more idealistic personal goals.

These results were published in the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In another study, struggling with a confusing mathematical passage caused a spike in radical religious extremes. In yet another, reflecting on relationship uncertainties caused the same religious zeal reaction.

Researchers found that religious zeal reactions were most pronounced among participants with bold personalities (having high self-esteem and being action-oriented, eager and tenacious), who were already vulnerable to anxiety, and felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life.

“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,” says Ian McGregor, who led the study.

Mr. McGregor, associate professor in psychology, York University, attributed it to a basic motivational process called reactive approach motivation (RAM).

“(Reactive) 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 said.

Researchers also measured participants’ superstitious beliefs and deference toward a controlling god in order to distinguish religious zeal from meeker forms of devotion, said a York University release.

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