Monday, January 18, 2010

Religiosity as a mating strategy

A new study out of Arizona State University has some interesting findings on people's self described religiosity as a mating strategy:

To probe the relationship between sex and God more explicitly, Kenrick and colleague Yexin Jessica Li presented hundreds of students at their university with dating profiles of highly attractive men or women, then probed them about their religious beliefs. A control group of 1500 students merely filled out the religion survey.

Men and women who looked at attractive members of the same sex reported stronger religious feelings than those who checked out prospective mates or just filled in the survey. They were more likely to say "I believe in God" and "We'd be better off if religion played a bigger role in people's lives."

"It's an interesting and surprising phenomenon," says Kenrick, who speculates that people ramp up their belief in a system that tends to enforce monogamy when they're confronted with fierce sexual competition.
This correlation is interesting, but I think you have to be careful on how to interpret the results. It's not saying that being religious makes someone a better mate or more faithful. Rather, these people think that others will view high religiosity more favorably. Religious people generally see religiosity as a "good" trait, so they may exaggerate their beliefs when in a competitive environment.

For some anecdotal evidence, I know I did this when I was trying to woo a Lutheran in high school. I was still agnostic then, but I would ramp it up to vague philosophical deist around him. I wasn't purposefully trying to deceive him; it was subconscious. But it worked - we ended up dating for nine months.

If you had a bunch of nonbelievers competing for a mate, we may have the exact opposite effect - we'd exaggerate our skeptical thinking because we see that as a "good" trait to have. We may be extra careful about saying something superstitious or making emotional arguments. Or if I was wooing a vegetarian, I probably wouldn't order a steak for dinner and wear a fur coat. It's human nature to modify your behavior in order to make others happy or find a mate, and this study illustrates that religious belief is no different - a behavior subconsciously used to suit your needs in social situations, not necessarily something you believe in for its truth.


  1. You're right, this is something that happens across the board. I know if I am talking to my vegan friends I don't bring up my father who hunts and I obviously don't talk about the time I shot an elk. The same goes for being around my religious coworkers who now seem to equate Genesis with Avatar. Though If I'm around a stranger that I don't need/want to impress I really couldn't care less.

  2. Great observation! I think we all tend to adjust our level of communication with those around us, not just with people we're trying to mate with. It might be related to empathy that is the socially cohesive factor.

  3. Could not have said it better myself!

  4. Well, when we're with people we want to impress we try to fit in. That's just how it is. But I have felt, over the past year or two, very little need to pretend to be religious when I speak to the religious. A lot of the time, I just discuss what I am offhand.

    When it comes to a girl, I don't think I could ever pretend to be religious. I can pretend to like certain movies, but…religious? Eh.

  5. Interesting. Perhaps you do have a point with regard to the "exaggerating one's emphasis on sceptical thinking"... I've definitely done that one.

    Looking at it now, while I wasn't conscious of it at the time, I think that doing so would probably have the effect of scaring off a lot of undesirables. I'm not unhappy with that.

    Perhaps the religiosity thing is similar in some ways.

  6. I like reading your blog, so it was exciting to see that the second study cited in that article, on anxiety, was by my PhD advisor. We have some interesting work in our lab on the various motivational needs that can be served by religion (e.g., needs for control, meaning, and to reduce uncertainty).

  7. I imagine the results might be quite different in the UK, where being a god botherer is a distinct turn off for many.

  8. Normal people never make sense to me. They modify their behaviors just to woo someone that isn't a match.

    In my opinion, it is better to do the opposite - getting rid of the mismatched candidates before getting into a relationship. This way, the cost is minimized. Dating costs money, time, and energy. A cost-effective screening process is important to a person's life.