Religion Makes You Desirable—in the United States

i_love_faith_heart_t_shirt-p235984353191506522qw5h_210From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Previously, I took a look at some recent research on how competition for mates affects how religious people say they are. When a group of students in the United States were subtly reminded that there’s a lot of competition for potential mates, they responded by claiming to be more religious. One potential explanation for this is simply that being religious is seen as socially desirable.
If this were true, then you would expect that people who are inclined to “self enhance” (i.e., paint a rather flattering portrait of themselves) are also more likely to say they are religious. There have been a huge number of studies looking at this over the years (57 studies, in fact, totaling more than 15,000 subjects), and Constantine Sedikides at Southampton University in the United Kingdom has just compiled the results into a mega-study.
The results confirm that religion is strongly correlated with socially desirable responding (the tendency to give answers about yourself that you think will make you look good). There are two kinds of socially desirable responding: self-deception (subconscious) and image manipulation (consciously talking yourself up). Overall, image manipulation, but not self-deception, was correlated with religion.
Sedikides was able to look at the two fundamental aspects of religion (well, as it is understood in the Western world, at least)—extrinsic and intrinsic religion. Extrinsic religion is basically the externalized expression of religion, whereas intrinsic religion is the internalized beliefs.
Now, you might think that extrinsic religion would be closely linked to image manipulation, but you’d be wrong. In fact, both self-deception and image manipulation were linked to higher intrinsic religiosity, while extrinsic religion was actually linked to less of both kinds of self-enhancement.
A fascinating result, but it becomes even more interesting when you break it down at the national level. As you can see from the graph below, the strongest effect of religion on self-enhancement is in the United States. In Canada and the United Kingdom, the link between intrinsic religion and self-enhancement is smaller. Bizarrely, in the United Kingdom, self-enhancement is linked to more extrinsic religion (unlike the United States and Canada, where self-enhancers are actually less likely to claim extrinsic religiosity).
Sedikides_2009_self-enhancement
Sedikides speculates that this comes down to the different role of religion in the United States compared with Canada and, especially, the United Kingdom.
In the United States, most people are religious, and it’s common for people to frown upon those who are only religious for what could be seen as superficial reasons. Self-enhancers respond by saying they are intrinsic believers, but they are not extrinsically religious. (Compare this with the study last year that showed people in the United States believe the religious to be healthier, happier, and more normal than they actually are)
In the United Kingdom, religion is a minority pursuit and subject to ridicule. Self-enhancers respond by saying they don’t really take the beliefs too seriously, but they are in it for the community and social side.
Sedikides also looked at the difference between secular universities in the United States and Christian ones, and found something similar. Self-enhancers at Christian universities report high intrinsic religion and low extrinsic religion. This effect is muted at secular universities (especially for extrinsic religion).
Now, if you’ve read this far, you are probably wondering why there is all this talk of cause and effect given that all the data are correlational? Well, Sedikides has an answer. He points out that it’s well known that people use a wide variety of means to satisfy their self-enhancement motives, so you would expect them to use religion as well. What’s more, self-enhancement is a very basic psychological structure, whereas religion is primarily a cultural adaptation.

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