A few years ago, a friend posted on Facebook the story of Antoinette Tuff, an elementary school bookkeeper in Georgia who confronted a gunman holding an AK47 and talked him out of opening fire. It was an incredibly inspiring show of bravery—but my friend, an outspoken atheist and professional parkour athlete (he’s pretty badass himself), was most fascinated by Tuff’s belief in God. Tuff had attributed her actions to her faith, and my friend wondered how that might equip people with an "otherwise impossible bravery."
Well, it turns out, scientists are attempting to answer that very question. In a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that thinking about God indeed made participants bigger risk takers. In fact, simply being reminded of God emboldened some people.
Researchers at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business asked nearly 900 participants to take a series of online surveys. Some of the participants were subtly “reminded” of God by solving word puzzles that incorporated God-related terms or reading text about God. Afterward, the God-aware participants were more willing to engage in risky behaviors than those who weren’t reminded of God—to a certain moral extent.
In one study, participants had to choose between two activities: one that offered a small "bonus payment" if they were willing to look at an "extremely bright color" that could potentially damage their eyes, and another that involved looking at a "harmless darker color." Researchers reported that those who had been "reminded" of God beforehand were more likely to take the more dangerous path versus those who hadn't.
Where does the moral component come in? Well, in another activity, participants had to choose between clicking on three online ads: one that offered to teach you how to bribe (immoral much?), one for skydiving (risky, but morally irrelevant), and one for video games (neutral). Some of the ads were changed to include a small reference to God, such as "God knows what you’re missing! Find skydiving near you." When the skydiving ads mentioned God, people were more likely to click it, but when the bribery ad mentioned God, they were less likely to click it.
(This finding is consistent with previous research that shows that religious beliefs and activity are tied to decreases in risky behaviors that are morally tinged, like substance abuse and gambling.)
While folks who were reminded of God did feel less danger associated with risky behaviors, they also felt more negative feelings towards God when things didn’t go their way—goddammit! And of course, it should be noted that this God-aware effect may not apply to those who simply don’t believe in God in the first place.
When it comes to Antoinette Tuff’s case, it’s moving to watch someone act so humbly after saving lives (including that of the shooter). In such extreme circumstances, perhaps faith in God activates or simply strengthens a latent lionheartedness. But as much credit as Tuff offers God, it's safe to say that not just any person with faith could have done what she did. I'm sure there's science to back that up, too.