2013. Vol.4, No.12, 970-974
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
Are Religious Affections Positive or Negative?—The Role
of Religious Affections on Executive Control
Hailan Liu, Qin Zhang*
Learning and Cognition Key Laboratory of Beijing, Department of Psychology, Capital Normal
University, Beijing, China
Email:, *
Received September 17th, 2013; revised October 18th, 2013; accepted November 15th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Hailan Liu, Qin Zhang. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Com-
mons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, pro-
vided the original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copy-
rights © 2013 are reserved for SCIRP and the owner of the intellectual property Hailan Liu, Qin Zhang. All
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The present study investigated the influence of religious affections on executive control compared with
positive and negative emotions using emotional priming paradigm and the letter flanker task. 58 partici-
pants (Tibetan Buddhists, 28 males and 30 females) were required to identify the central target letter after
primed by religious, positive, or negative pictures. There was a space (loose) or no space (close) between
neighboring letters. The results revealed that in close condition both religious affections-prime and nega-
tive emotional-prime reduced the flanker effect in response accuracy (ACC) compared to positive emo-
tional-prime for female participants. It means that religious affections do not function as positive emo-
tions on executive control. Moreover, for females, when primed by religious pictures, the ACC flanker
effect was negatively related to the arousal of religious pictures, but when primed by negative pictures,
the flanker effect in response time was positively related to the valence of negative pictures. The correla-
tion analysis indicates that religious affections and negative emotions may influence executive control in
different ways. These findings suggest that religious affections exert their special influence on executive
control, not simply positive or negative.
Keywords: Religious Affections; Executive Control; Positive Emotions; Negative Emotions
Religion is a powerful social force that can influence social
outcomes, and a psychological force that can shape human
behavior. McCullough and Willoughby (2009) defined religion
as cognition, affect, and behavior that derives from awareness
of, or perceived interaction with, supernatural entities that are
assumed to play an important role in human affairs. According
to this definition, there are three psychological components of
religion: religious cognition, religious affections, and religious
Most religious doctrines emphasize self-control that people
must suppress certain thoughts and behaviors to align them-
selves with a particular set of religious standards (McCullough
& Willoughby, 2009), then the links between religion and hu-
man behavior may be attributed to the influence of religion on
self-regulation and self-control. Self-regulation can be broadly
defined as goal-directed behaviors (Hofmann et al., 2012). Self-
control, a narrower subset of self-regulatory processes, on one
hand refers to behaviors to pursue the goal that conflicts with
another, to counteract or override a prepotent response; on the
other hand, refers to the internal resources available to inhibit,
override, or alter responses (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009).
Empirical researches find that religion can promote self-regu-
lation and self-control (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009).
Hofmann et al. (2012) outlined that successful self-regulation
and self-control depended on executive control.
As to the influence of religion on self-regulation and self-
control, researchers paid their attention to the influence of re-
ligion on executive control as well. Several studies revealed
that religious behaviors such as meditation and prayer could
promote the executive control. Tang et al. (2007) found that
even for inexperienced meditations, short-term training medita-
tion could improve their abilities to resolve mental conflict
(measured with a cognitive measure called the Attention Net-
work Test), which is an executive operation. Chan and Wool-
lacott (2007) found that experienced mediators performed bet-
ter on the Stroop task (a task with the same executive operation
measured by the Attention Network Test) than inexperienced
meditations did. Moreover, correlation analyses showed that
Stroop effect was negatively associated with the time per day
that participants reported meditating in daily life. McCullough
and Willoughby (2009), Cahn and Polich (2013) reviewed
neuroelectric and imaging studies about meditation, and found
that, the meditation compared with control conditions produced
activity increases in areas (frontal and parietal cortices, and
anterior cingulated) subserving to attention and response inhibi-
In addition to religious behaviors, the priming of religious
concepts also could promote executive control. Inzlicht and
Tullet (2010, experiment 1) asked subjects (18 Christian, 8
*Corresponding author.
Hindu, 8 Muslim, 2 Buddhist, 1 agnostic, and 1 “other”) to
perform the Stroop task after consciously primed God concepts.
Participants in religious-prime condition wrote a paragraph
describing what their religion means and explains in their lives.
In the control condition, participants wrote a paragraph of their
favorite season. Theists who consciously affirmed their reli-
gious beliefs made fewer errors on incongruent Stroop trials
than theists did in the control group. What’s more, implicit
religious-prime also could promote executive control using
Stroop task (Rounding et. al., 2012: study 4). The priming task
required participants to unscramble each of 10 five-word sen-
tences by dropping an irrelevant word. In the religious-prime
condition, half of the sentences contained one religious-prime
word, such as God, spirit, or divine, in each sentence. In the
control condition, all sentences contained five neutral words.
Theists in the religious-prime condition had faster reaction
times on incongruent Stroop trials than participants in control
condition. These results offered supports for the link between
religious beliefs and executive control.
As studies above showed, religious behaviors and the prim-
ing of religious concepts can promote self-control through ex-
ecutive control. However, as an important part of religion, reli-
gious affections seem to lack attention from those who are in-
terested in links between religion and executive control.
Edwards (1746) argued that emotions are an important part
of true religion, and he provided both “negative” and “positive”
signs of true religious affections. Edwards (1746) noted “The
holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the
affection; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow,
gratitude, compassion and zeal (p. 14)… religion lies in the
affections, and maintain the contrary (p. 17)…” However, he
also mentioned that love is the sum of all religion, and fountain
of all other affections.
Mostly, religious affections are related to positive emotions.
In recent years, numerous empirical researches have shown that
religiousness is significantly associated with higher levels of
life satisfaction (Blaine & Crocker, 1995) and happiness (Clark,
Friedman, & Martin, 1999; Paloma & Pendleton, 1990), but
with lower levels of depression (Blaine & Crocker, 1995; Idler,
1987; Koenig et al., 1988; Strawbridge et al., 1998) and anxiety
(Koenig et al., 1988). Researches also revealed that, like posi-
tive emotions (Tice et al., 2007; Ren, Hu, Zhang, & Huang,
2010), religiousness could refuel self-control resource with
resource depletion (Rounding et al., 2012: study 3).
Do religious affections function as positive emotions on self-
regulation and self-control? It’s premature to draw a conclusion
from the existing evidences and more experimental supports are
needed for this opinion.
Overview of the Experiment
In the present study, we used emotional priming paradigm
and letter flanker task to investigate the influence of religious
affections on executive control. We used positive, negative and
religious pictures to induce emotions in the experiment. Flanker
task is a typical task involved in attention control, in which
stimulus-driven and goal-directed processes compete for lim-
ited attentional resources. Attention control is an executive
operation regarded as one of the main “battlefields” of self-
regulation and self-control (Knudsen, 2007).
The hypothesis of the experiment is that religious affections
function as positive emotions on executive control. In this case
we expect that religious affections have similar influence as
positive emotions on executive control. All participants were
Tibetan Buddhists. As the literature showed, female Tibetan
Buddhists were more religious and more active in all religious
practices than male Tibetan Buddhists in China (Yang, 2011),
and then the gender factor was also taken into analysis.
58 students (28 males, 30 females) with normal or corrected-
to-normal vision from Journal of Lhasa teachers college in
China (mean age = 20.5 years, SD = 1.97) participated in this
experiment. All the participants were Tibetan Buddhists.
Stimuli and Procedure
Stimuli consisted of emotional pictures and flanker letters.
There are 60 pictures (20 positive, 20 negative, and 20 reli-
gious). Positive and negative pictures were from the Interna-
tional Affective Picture System (IAPS) (Lang, Bradley, &
Cuthbert, 1999). These pictures were selected on the basis of
their scores in arousal and valence. The difference between
positive and negative pictures reached significance in valence,
but not in arousal (valence: Mpositive = 7.482, Mnegative = 2.428, t
= 26.46, p < 0.001; arousal: Mpositive = 5.173, M negative = 5.652, t
= 1.84, p > 0.05). The religious pictures about Tibetan Bud-
dhism were from internet. We also asked another 25 students
(Tibetan Buddhists) absent in the experiment to fill out scaling
test for all 60 pictures, assessing each picture’s valence, arousal,
and the religious affection level ( to what extent the picture can
arouse your feelings for the Buddha and the Buddhism). Three
types of pictures were different in valence with each other (ps <
0.05) (see Table 1). As we can see, religious pictures were very
positive in valence. Positive pictures’ arousal level was lower
than other two types of pictures (ps < 0.05). Religious affec-
tions level of religious pictures was higher than other two types
of pictures (ps < 0.05).
Participants were asked to perform the flanker task following
emotional pictures. Angle of vision was 0.5˚ × 0.7˚ (width ×
height) for each letter. On congruent trials, all the five letters
were the same (“SSSSS”, “HHHHH”, “S SSSS”, and “H HHH
H”); on incongruent trials, the central letter was different with
the others (“SSHSS”, “HHSHH”, “S S H S S”, and “H H S H
H”). The distance between letters had 2 levels: close (with no
space between letters) vs loose (with a space between letters),
such as “SSHSS” vs “S S H S S”. Participants were required to
identify the central letter via key press (for half participants,
pressing F for “H” and J for “S”, and half participants reverse).
Participants were told to press the corresponding key as quickly
and accurately as possible.
Each trial started with the presentation of fixation cross (800
Table 1.
Means of valence (1, negative, to 9, positive), arousal (1, calming, to 9,
arousing), and religious affection (1, none, to 7 very much) assessments
given by 25 students to three types of emotional pictures.
ValenceArousal Religious affection level
Positive pictures6.45 5.58 1.24
Negative pictures2.51 6.18 1.56
Religious pictures7.27 6.53 6.15
Open Access 971
ms) on the center of the screen. After a blank screen (200 ms),
the emotional picture was presented (1100 ms). 200 ms blank
screen later, the flanker task appeared on the center of the
screen with black background, and it remained visible until
response. The next trial started 1100 - 130 ms after the response
(see Figure 1). There were 2 blocks, each consisting 120 trials.
Before the beginning of the experiment, participants com-
pleted a practice block of 12 trials with neutral pictures, to en-
sure task instruction understanding. At the end of the experi-
ment, participants were required to report the degree of their
religious belief (from 1, irreligious, to 7, fiercely religious).
Experimental Design
Multi-factorial design was used, with prime type, congruency
between the target letter and flanker letters, distance between
neighboring letters, and gender as independent variables and
response time (RT) to flanker task and corresponding accuracy
(ACC) as dependent variables. 3(prime type: positive, negative,
and religious) × 2(congruency: congruent, incongruent) × 2(di-
stance: close, loose) × 2(gender: male, female) repeated meas-
ure analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted with gender
as between-group factor, and the other variables as within-
group factors.
Trials with RT larger than 3000 ms were excluded from the
The RT analysis revealed a significant main effect of emo-
tional prime type, F(2,112) = 38.897, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.655.
Further tests showed participants’ response was faster in posi-
tive emotional-prime condition than in negative emotional-
prime condition and religious affection-prime condition condi-
tions (ps < 0.05). The main effect of congruency also reached
significance, Mcongruent = 656 ms, Mincongruent = 701 ms, F(1,56) =
34.396, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.381. Participants’ responses were
slower for incongruent trials than for congruent trials.
The ACC analysis revealed a significant three-way interac-
tion between distance, congruency, and gender, F(1,56) =
10.196, p < 0.01, η2 = 0.154. Analysis of simple effect showed
that the effect of congruency was significant in loose condition
for males, F(1,56) = 4.228, p < 0.05, and in close condition for
females, F(1,56) = 5.872, p < 0.05. The three-way interaction
between the emotional prime type, distance, and congruency
Figure 1.
Example of one trial in religious affections condition.
reached marginal significance, F(2,112) = 2.760, p = 0.068, η2
= 0.047. Further tests showed that congruency effect was sig-
nificant only in close condition when primed by positive pic-
tures, F(1,56) = 7.683, p < 0.01, and the ACC was larger for
congruent trials than for incongruent trials.
Flanker Effect
We also calculated the flanker effect (the size of interference
of the flanker letters to the target letter) for RTs and ACCs (see
Table 2), RT flanker effect = RTincongruent – RTcongruent, ACC
flanker effect = ACCcongruent – ACCincongruent. A 3(emotional
prime type: positive, negative, and religious) × 2(distance be-
tween neighboring letters: close, loose) × 2(gender: male, fe-
male) repeated measures ANOVA was performed for RT and
ACC flanker effects. The analysis of RT flanker effects didn’t
find any significant effect. The analysis of ACC flanker effects
showed that the interaction between distance and gender was
significant, F(1,56) = 10.196, p < 0.01, η2 = 0.154.
Then we analyzed ACC flanker effects for males and for fe-
males respectively. A 3(emotional prime type: positive, nega-
tive, and religious) × 2(distance: close, loose) repeated meas-
ures ANOVA was conducted. For males, the analysis found no
significant main effect or interaction (ps > 0.05). For females,
the main effect of emotional prime was significant, F(2,58) =
3.518, p < 0.05η2 = 0.108. Further tests showed that the
ACC flanker effect in positive emotional-prime condition was
larger than in religious affection-prime condition (p < 0.05) and
negative emotional-prime condition (p = 0.072). The main ef-
fect of distance between letters was significant, F(1,29) = 7.602,
p < 0.05η2 = 0.208, and the ACC flanker effect in close con-
dition was larger than in loose condition. In addition, the inter-
action between emotional prime and distance reached marginal
significance, F (2,58) = 2.993, p = 0.058, η2 = 0.094. Analysis
of simple effect showed that the effect of emotional prime was
significant only in close condition, F(2,28) = 4.788, p < 0.05,
η2 = 0.255. The ACC flanker effect was larger in positive emo-
tional-prime condition than in other two emotional priming
conditions (ps < 0.05), but the difference of ACC flanker ef-
fects between negative emotional-prime condition and religious
affection-prime condition failed to reach significance (p > 0.05).
The ACC flanker effect under positive emotional-prime condi-
tion was mediated by distance between letters, F(1,29) =
10.954, p < 0.01η2 = 0.274, and ACC flanker effect in close
condition was larger than in loose condition.
In order to further compare the religious affection-prime with
negative emotional-prime, a correlation analysis was conducted.
For females, in close condition, when primed by negative pic-
tures, the RT flanker effect was positively related to the valence
of pictures, r = 0.518, p < 0.05. On the contrary, when primed
by religious pictures, the ACC flanker effect was negatively
related to the arousal of pictures, r = 0.491, p < 0.05. Put neg-
ative and positive pictures together (40 pictures), for females
the ACC flanker effect in close condition was positively related
to the valence of pictures, r = 0.322, p < 0.05. We also found
that the degree of participants’ religious belief they reported
themselves after the experiment was negatively related to the
RT flanker effect in close condition when primed by religious
pictures, r = 0.261, p < 0.05, the stronger their faith, the
smaller the flanker effect.
Open Access
In the experiment, the letter flanker task provides us an op-
portunity to investigate the impact of religious affection, posi-
tive and negative emotions on executive control.
First, results showed that, for females, in close condition, the
ACC flanker effect in positive emotional-prime trials was larger
compared with negative emotional-prime trials. The ACC flan-
ker effect in positive and negative emotional-prime trials was
positively related to the valence of pictures but not arousal.
These findings are compatible with the broaden-and-build the-
ory (Fredrickson, 1988, 2001) that positive emotions broaden
the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires, and nega-
tive emotions narrow the scope of attention and thought-action
repertoires. When the attention scope is broadened, the inter-
ference of flankers to target letter increases, resulting in flanker
effect increasing; and when the attention scope is narrowed, the
flanker effect decreases with the interference reduced (Fenske
& Eastwood, 2003; Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005; Rowe et al.,
2007). That is also why only in positive emotional-prime trials
ACC flanker effect was modulated by distance between letters,
larger in close condition.
Second, the most exciting finding is that, religious affection
is a kind of emotion that different with positive and negative
emotions. It has its own special effect on executive control,
which is opposite to our expectation that religious affections
function as positive emotions on executive control. Results
revealed that for females in close condition, compared to posi-
tive emotional-prime the religious affections-prime reduced the
ACC flanker effect. This finding indicated that religious affec-
tions would not function as positive emotions on executive
control. As results shown, negative emotional-prime and reli-
gious affections-prime had no difference in the size of flanker
effect. Does it mean religious affections function as negative
emotions in flanker task? Our results showed that the flanker
effect was negatively related to the arousal of pictures in reli-
gious affections-prime condition whereas the flanker effect was
positively related to the valence of pictures in negative emo-
tional-prime condition. This result suggests that religious affec-
tions and negative emotions may do work in different ways on
executive attention.
It was reported that religion influences self-regulation and
self-control by influencing people’s goals. Religion may in-
crease people’s motivation to obtain goals by sanctifying them,
or endowing them with a sacred significance (McCullough &
Willoughby, 2009). Then the goals can obtain more mental
resource. Maybe, that’s why religion can refuel self-control
resource with and without resource depletion (Rounding et al.,
2012: study 3). We infer that religious affection provides more
mental resource for the flanker task to override the interference
from flanker letters. The impact of positive and negative emo-
tions on executive attention has nothing to do with the goal.
The scope of attention is broadened by positive emotions, and
was narrowed by negative emotions.
In addition, in close conditions, the degree of participants’
belief reported by themselves was negatively related to the RT
flanker effect in religious affection-prime condition only, the
stronger their faith, the smaller the flanker effect. The religious
affection derives from the interaction with “supernatural enti-
ties”. Religious affections are based on the religious belief, the
stronger their faith, the more potent their religious affections.
To some extent, this finding adds the evidence that religious
affections can reduce the interference from flanker letters.
Finally, there was no significant effect of emotional-prime on
executive control for males. We can explain this result from the
following aspects. In the first place, the sex difference of the
perception of the emotional stimuli (Hall, 1978; Montagne et al.,
2005; Hofer et al., 2006) may contribute to this result. Females
are more sensitive to the emotional stimulus, especially to the
negative emotional stimulus (Hall, 1978; Montagne et al., 2005;
Scholten et. al., 2005; Hofer et. al., 2006). Secondly, for Tibe-
tan Buddhism, female Tibetan Buddhists were more reli- gious
and more active in all religious practices than male Ti- betan
Buddhists in China (Yang, 2011), then the religious af- fections
induced by religious pictures are weaker for male par- ticipants
than female participants. At last, when performing cognitive
tasks, the emotions seem to have more influence on women’s
performance. Koch et al. (2007) asked participants to perform
an n-back verbal working memory task, and fMRI analysis
revealed that in women the interaction of verbal work- ing
memory and negative emotions was associated with more emo-
tion-associated areas (amygdala and the orbitofrontal cor- tex)
whereas in men regions (prefrontal and superior parietal regions)
commonly regarded as important for cognition and cognitive
control were activated.
Limitation and Future Directions
The limitation of the current study was the lack of a control
group. All participants of the study were Tibetan Buddhists. As
all Tibetans in China are Tibetan Buddhists, we can’t recruit
Tibetan participants without religious belief. Therefore, with a
non-Tibetan control group we can’t separate the ethnic factor
and the religious belief factor. As a remedy, we conducted the
correlation analysis between the level of participants’ religious
belief and flanker effects.
Future studies examining the influence of religious affections
on attention control may benefit from using eye-tracker. From
the current study, we only know that religious affections exert
different influence on attention control compared with positive
and negative emotions, but we are not clear of the mechanism
in which religious affections modulate the scope of attention. It
can be figured out by using eye-tracker.
In close condition, we found a reliable modulation of flanker
effect by the emotional-prime in female participants. Religious
affections-prime and negative emotional-prime reduced the
ACC flanker effect compared to positive emotional-prime, but
there was no significant difference of ACC flanker effect be-
tween religious affection-prime and negative emotional-prime
conditions. Correlation analysis revealed that the ACC flanker
effect was negatively related to the arousal of pictures in reli-
gious affection-prime condition whereas the RT flanker effect
was positively related to the valence of pictures in negative
emotional-prime condition. These findings from the experiment
suggest that religious affections exert their special influence on
executive control. Religious affections are emotions based on
religious belief, not simply positive or negative.
This research was funded by the Natural Science Foundation
of China (31070902) to Qin Zhang.
Open Access 973
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