Those who believe in guardian angels more risk averse: York U study

Prof. David Etkin

Imagine believing that you have an all-powerful spirit watching over you, ready to intervene and protect you from danger. Would that allow you take more risks and live a more adventurous life?

The answer is probably not, according to “Risk Perception and Belief in Guardian Spirits,” a new study out of York University published this week in SAGE Open, which examined the link between belief and risk-taking behaviour.

David Etkin
David Etkin

“We hypothesized that a belief in guardian spirits would tend to be associated with a decreased risk perception and therefore an increase in risk-taking behaviour,” says disaster and emergency management Professor David Etkin, the study’s lead author. “However, we found that instead of this belief making people able to take more risks because they feel protected, the results clearly indicated that those who believe in guardian angels are more likely to be risk-averse.”

Etkin and a team of graduate students in the Disaster and Emergency Management program interviewed 198 people for the study, noting how interviewees viewed risk, what sort of risky behaviour they participated in and why they chose to do so. Sixty-eight per cent of those who indicated a belief in guardian spirits said it affected how they take risks, with a clear majority indicating that they were more risk-averse than non-believers. Sample questions included asking on a scale of one to five how risky it would be to drive a car 20 kilometres over the speed limit, with believers rating it riskier than non-believers.

“It appears that the dominant cause-and-effect relationship is opposite to the one we originally hypothesized. We think that those who are more risk-averse use belief in guardian spirits as a coping mechanism to deal with their fear and anxiety over perceived risks in their environment,” says Etkin.

He says studying a topic like this in the framework of disaster and emergency management is important because it can help identify differing levels of risk taking in populations when developing community plans for disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.