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Distrustful Deer in the Headlights of Uncertainty

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July 7, 2011 by Steven Worden

According to David Rosmarin and his associates, “Cognitive theory posits that underlying beliefs and thoughts lie at the root of human affect.” Or more simply, change your thoughts and beliefs and you change the way you feel. As that famous folk psychologist, Mark Twain, prescribed years ago, “Drag your thoughts away from your troubles … by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.” But it may be easier said than done. Sometimes those ears and heels can elude the grasp of sheer willpower. It is like being told not to think of a red rose. But what about thinking of your troubles in another context? Using another lens with which to view them? How would that work? Such were the questions of indirect change that drove Harvard Medical School researcher David Rosmarin and his colleagues.

Rosmarin and his co-authors in a recent article argue that one way to indirectly “drag your thoughts away from your troubles” may involve cultivating a trust in God. Perhaps we can take a cue from the old drunks in Alcoholics Anonymous when they told each other, “Let Go and Let God.” Rosmarin does start with the fact that research suggests that people who trust in God have less anxiety, worry, and depression. The question he and his colleagues ask is, “So, how does that work, exactly?”

First, they define trust. Trust consists of the belief in a God or a Higher Power that is looking out after your best interests. They link it to a traditional Jewish idea of a Divine Power that sees and understands everything (omniscient), is stronger than any other forces (omnipotent), and is merciful and generous (omnibenevolent). But how does trust in a powerful, smart, and kindly God lead to less worry?

The authors answer that question by discussing two research projects that involved both Jews and Christians. On the basis of their findings, Rosmarin and his associates argue that trust results in less worry through a mechanism they call “intolerance of uncertainty.” We all know of some people who, when they find themselves in an unfamiliar situation, may become fretful and even panicky. They may not even want to do anything for fear of making a mistake. A “deer in the headlights” as the saying goes. Researchers would consider such folks to have a high intolerance of uncertainty. They can’t stand it.

On the other hand, some people seem less bothered by unfamiliar, puzzling circumstances and seem less concerned by the chance of some unforeseen problem arising. They would be less disturbed or alarmed by unexpected events. Accordingly, researchers would consider them have a lower level of intolerance of uncertainty. They may be comfortable with some unpredictability.

According to Rosmarin and his colleagues, when they studied subjects who lacked trust in a good and powerful God who cared about them, they found that those subjects manifested a high intolerance for uncertainty. They felt more anxious and they worried more. They were the deer in the headlights.

On the other hand, the people who reported that they trusted in a God who cared about them felt less disturbed by uncertainty. They took a more positive view of the world and seemed less fearful of the possibility of negative events. As a result of this more confident perspective on the world and its hazards, they spent less time worrying and were apparently less incapacitated by anxiety. They simply stepped aside the oncoming car.
Does this study mean that people should hold a particular belief in a Divine Being because of reasons of mental health? No. The authors do not intend to argue theology. They simply teased out the manner in which belief in a particular type of a Divine Being seems to be associated with less emotional distress. It is just fascinating to see how the pathway can be uncovered.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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