Romantic Rivalries Stir Religious Feelings

Rivals on the dating scene could make one feel closer to God, according to new research that suggests one's religiousness may be more closely related to mating strategies than previously known.

In experiments with 269 college students, researchers found that both men and women apparently felt more religious when they saw attractive potential competitors.

Social psychologists had volunteers view dating profiles of either attractive men or women and told them these were fellow students participating at an online dating site. They were then asked to rate, on a 10-point scale, the extent to which they agreed with statements like, "I believe in God," "We'd be better off if religion played a bigger role in people's lives," and "Religious beliefs are important to me in my everyday decisions."

The volunteers appeared more religious when exposed to attractive members of their own sex.

"While we don't doubt there are many reasons people are religious, our current findings suggest that people do vary in religiosity depending on the perceived mating market," said researcher Yexin Jessica Li at Arizona State University in Tempe.

What's going on

The findings, detailed online Nov. 1 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggest that people may adjust their religious feelings to support their current romantic goals.

Past research had suggested that information about the local dating pool can influence one's behavior — exposure to attractive members of one's own sex can reduce one's feelings about one's own attractiveness.

"It's our belief that religious behavior is linked to several different psychological mechanisms, but one plausible function of religious sanctions on sexuality is to maintain and defend a low-promiscuity, monogamous lifestyle," said researcher Douglas Kenrick at Arizona State University. "For that lifestyle, an abundance of attractive competitors is a threat."

"Our guess at this point is that seeing attractive members of one's sex makes it less likely that you will be able to play a fast and loose mating strategy, because the competition is likely to be too tough," Li said.

As such, the researchers conjecture that people might become more religious when rivals are present since religion often involves rules that police sex. Alternatively, people might say they are more religious to be more attractive, maybe exploiting a different niche to find mates.

"We are proposing a new way to look at religion — as a strategy to advance evolutionary goals," Li said. "This opens an exciting new line of research to explore in terms of the link between evolution and religion. There are many potential ways to go from here, but we are especially interested in looking at different domains of risk-taking and decision-making."

Criticism expected

These findings dovetail with others from the researchers suggesting that people's feelings about premarital sex, abortion, and birth control — about mating and its potential consequences, in other words — "were more predictive of their church attendance than other classical religious attitudes, such as their beliefs about whether stealing or lying are right or wrong," Li said.

The scientists added that especially religious people might not change their views at all regardless of how attractive rivals might be. Moreover, they suggested responses could vary across religions, since each might have different notions regarding sex.

"We feel that perhaps most vocal criticism we will get for this research will be a moral one," said researcher Adam Cohen at Arizona State University. "Some people do not like thinking about something as personal as religiosity as a mating strategy."

Social psychologist Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who did not take part in this research, noted that one issue these findings raise is that "if religiosity is a commitment device for both sexes, what would stop impostors who are not really religious to fake religiosity to attract mates? And it would be very interesting in the future to see if increases in religiosity lead to more interest from the opposite sex. Another interesting question is whether the higher levels of religiosity lead to a shift from short-term mating strategies to long-term — that is, more interest in stable relationships."

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.