Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations

Religion (and Ideology)

Religions are special kinds of groups—the word for religion comes from the root word meaning to bind together—“ligare.” Religions are idealistic and often involve role-model examplars, narratives, histories, and rituals that
serve to consolidate both group membership and commitment to the ideals that the religions promote. In the first social psychological investigation into religion, Allport identified two kinds of religion—intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic religion focused on prosocial values and ideals of compassion and kindness. Extrinsic religion, in contrast, focused on benefits to the self that religious group membership can confer. Intrinsic vs. extrinsic religion correlated with tendencies toward compassionate vs. hostile and discriminatory judgments, respectively, toward people outside the ingroup. Allport’s distinction maps roughly onto a related distinction identified by William James, in his classic, “Varieties of Religious Experience.” James identified “healthy-minded” religion as the relatively warm and compassionate kind, and “sick-souled” religion as the more hostile and punitive kind. Recent research shows that extrinsic/ sick-souled
varieties of religion are associated with compromised capacity for relationships—people with insecure attachment styles, who have difficulty forming close, trusting relationships, are drawn to the more hostile forms of religion.

Our research has found evidence for both antisocial and prosocial functions of religion in everyday life.  In one line of research, relatively minor anxious experiences made people more religiously zealous and willing to kill and die for their religious belief systems—religious zeal relieves anxiety.

Importantly, however, other evidence in our lab suggests that at least for the young adults in our sample, spontaneous adherence to religious beliefs orients people toward forgiveness. In a series of recently published experiments led by our collaborator Dr. Karina Schumann, we found that reminding people of their religious beliefs (i.e., intrinsic religion) eliminated hostile reactions to anxiety and replaced them with magnanimous ones. Among participants who had not been reminded of their religious beliefs, being assigned to complete a frustrating academic task in our laboratory made them assign harsher punishments to misbehaving student associations on campus, to workplace cheaters, and to corporate criminals. In contrast, among participants who had been reminded of their religious beliefs, the same frustrating experiences caused an opposite reaction and made them significantly more forgiving than they normally were. Similar effect sizes resulted when the experimentally induced anxiety arose from academic frustration or contemplating personal mortality. Effect sizes were similar among members of all the major religious groups that we had a large enough subsample to assess (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu; there were no effects among participants who identified with atheism or agnosticism). 

In sum, it seems that people use religion for anxiety relief. The effects described above are most extreme among anxious people, with anxiety arising from interpersonal uncertainty being especially highly correlated to all kinds of religious devotion. Depending on the kind of religion and context, the use of religion for peace of mind can have antisocial or prosocial consequences. It is important to note that the effects described here are not unique to religious ideology. Similar effects emerge with other identifications as well, e.g., political and cultural.


*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.