Mediator variables help answer why a particular relationship exists between an explanatory and an outcome variable (Baron & Kenny, 1986). These models hypothesize that certain aspects of individual religiosity influence outcomes indirectly. In other words, the relationship between individual religiosity and outcomes is mediated by another factor (or set of factors).
In these models, religiosity is hypothesized to produce a change in a mediating factor, which, in turn, influences behavior. For example, practicing prayer and meditation at the individual level and salience of religious beliefs in peoples lives can offer positive psychological benefits, such as greater self-esteem, more hope and optimism, greater willingness to change, more positive coping, and higher self-control (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009). These positive benefits are hypothesized to lead to positive behaviors. Mediators can be specifically religious or generalized. For example, prayer can improve coping skills by offering generalized psychological benefits (e.g., the meditative nature of prayer offers a strategy for managing stress) or through specifically religious channels (e.g., through prayer a person turns his or her problems over to a higher power, thus decreasing perceived levels of stress). Prayer could also lead to negative coping if there is overreliance on religion to resolve every problem (Paragament, 2008).