You’d think that people who believe in guardian angels would take advantage of their (perceived) situation. If you believed you had an invisible, mystical being following you around, whose only reason for being was your protection — wouldn’t you want to test the boundaries, take some risks? Jump out of a few planes, eat some questionable street meat? Nope, says an interesting paper just published in SAGE Open, which suggests that people who believe in guardian angels tend to be more cautious.
Interviews with 198 people showed that 45 percent believed in “a personal spirit or supernatural power” that watched over them. Further questions were designed to assess the participants’ attitudes toward risk-taking — for example, the question asking how risky the volunteers would rate driving 20 kilometers (12 miles) over the speed limit. Those who believed in guardian angels rated speeding as riskier than those who didn’t believe in the concept.
It’s the opposite of what lead study author David Etkin, a professor of disaster management at York University, expected to find. And while this study didn’t test why the believers were more risk-averse, he has a theory. People who are more cautious also tend to be more fearful, and so he believes it makes sense that these are the types of people who want to believe in a spiritual safekeeper. “I originally thought, Okay, if you believe in a guardian angel, you’ll feel more protected, which means you’ll probably feel more willing to take risks,” he said. “But I think believing in guardian angels is a coping mechanism, to make themselves feel safer.” (Though things can get messy when non-religious people try to explain why religious people believe what they do, and Etkin notes that he’s not a believer himself.)
It seems like an odd study for a professor of disaster management to design, but Etkin’s work is concerned with how people perceive risk, and he says his field tends to ignore the important role faith plays in that. For example, in the aftermath of a disaster, he’s seen how faith-based groups help survivors develop resilience, but how, exactly, does this happen? “I think there’s a tendency in our industry to be very secular, and I think that we’re missing a whole aspect of the human experience,” he said. To keep people safe in a disaster, it helps to understand where they’re coming from.