This week’s interview with Marta Trzebiatowska is an amazing overview of the many arguments used to explain why women are more religious than men (her upcoming book). Trzebiatowska focuses on explanations relating to gender roles and socialization: women are responsible for many of the social components of human life—birth, death, charity, and so on. But this only pushes the question one stage. We must ask, “Why are women more involved in these social activities than men?” Trzebiatowska seems to side with the explanation that women are socialized into these roles. But, because I am a psychologist, I would like to propose some answers on a different level of analysis. Specifically, there may be underlying individual differences in cognitive and personality traits between men and women that promote different patterns of both social behavior and religiosity.
In my previous piece for the Religious Studies Project, I noted that cognitive scientists of religion tend to operationalize religion as belief in supernatural agency (gods, ghosts, spirits, etc.). Many cognitive scientists of religion have argued that the tendency to see agency in the world underlies these kinds of religious beliefs. For example, Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering (2006) argue that religion requires second-order theory of mind – the ability to imagine that God knows what you are thinking. This ability to see intentions, beliefs, and attitudes in the world around us is supposed to be the basis of both religious belief (where it is applied to supernatural agents) and human social interaction (where it is applied to the natural social world). And, indeed, research by Uffe Schjoedt and his colleagues (2009) on prayer and Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) on thinking about the properties of God suggests that people think about supernatural agents in much the same way they think about humans. That is, they use the same brain regions in interacting with supernatural and human others, and they attribute the same kinds of psychological, physical, and biological properties to supernatural beings as they do to humans.
This has given rise to the hypothesis that the non-religious may (on average) see less agency, both human and supernatural, in the world. Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues (2012) tested this idea recently and found support for it. They discovered that mentalizing, the ability to see intentions in others, was a key predictor of belief in God. More importantly, differences in mentalizing were found to explain known differences in religiosity between two different groupings of people. Those with Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are much less religious than those without, but this difference shrinks when the ability to mentalize (a proposed deficit in ASDs, see Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) is controlled. Similarly, the gap in religiosity between men and women was reduced when differences in mentalizing between men and women were accounted for.
This work is in line with Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2003) somewhat controversial theory of autism as a kind of extreme maleness, characterized, in part, by a deficiency in the capacity to infer the mental states of others. Men vastly outnumber women among those with ASDs (e.g., Baron-Cohen et al., 2001), ASDs are associated with mentalizing deficiencies, and ASDs are associated with non-religion. Men, compared to women, demonstrate a smaller version of the gaps between those with ASDs and those without in mentalizing and religiosity. Although work on the relationship between sex, religion, theory of mind, and ASDs is at an early stage, what is known has caused Norenzayan and others (for a description of research from another lab, see here to conclude that there may be a relationship between mentalizing, social behavior, and religion that could explain why men are less religious than women.
Men and women differ in more ways than just mentalizing, though. Researchers have found that, across many countries, men and women have different personality profiles. Although the size of these differences varies from place to place, their direction is fairly consistent. In a study in 55 different countries, David Schmitt (2008) and his colleagues found that women across the globe tend to score higher than men on four of the five major personality traits known as the Big Five: neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Results for the fifth personality dimension, openness to experience, were mixed. Two of the Big Five personality traits are known to be associated with religion: agreeableness and conscientious (Saroglou, 2002).
Sociality and Agreeableness
People who are high in agreeableness are pleasant, empathetic, friendly, etc. In other words, they are congenial social actors. Some evidence suggests that agreeableness may be a pre-requisite for religiosity. Longitudinal research suggests that those who are highly agreeable as adolescents go on to become more religious as adults (McCullough et al., 2005). Another group found this same relationship—but only among women (Wink et al., 2007). This relationship isn’t surprising when you consider that agreeableness is associated with many of the same social traits that are often credited to the religious. Agreeable people are more prosocial and altruistic; they get along better with others; and they prefer to cooperate. Would it be surprising to find agreeable people more attracted to social domains of human life and to religion? It seems plausible that agreeableness is a candidate to explain the higher rates of both among women.
An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control
The risk aversion account that Trzebiatowska briefly discusses goes something like this (courtesy of Stark, 2002): Men take more risks than women, as seen in their greater likelihood to commit crime, especially violent crime. The possibility of going to jail for committing a crime is akin to the possibility of going to Hell for not believing in (or practicing) a religion. Therefore, men are less likely than women to take Pascal’s Wager—the bet that one ought to believe because the potential cost not believing (eternity in Hell) is infinitely great, whereas the potential cost of believing (church attendance and the like) is comparably much smaller. Like Trzebiatowska, I find this account unconvincing. However, there may be more to the idea of risk-aversion and religiosity than merely Pascal’s wager.
Risk taking, men, and non-religion have something in common: an association with lower conscientiousness and self-control. Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (2009) have written an excellent review and synthesis of the research on personality, self-control, and religion. They conclude that religion attracts and promotes self-control and self-regulation—the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors to achieve a desired outcome. Religions involve things like worship attendance and ritual practice that may not necessarily be enjoyable or provide immediate benefits but have longer-term social and spiritual rewards. The ability to suffer hard work to achieve distant goals is a key characteristic of conscientiousness. It’s not surprising, then, that conscientious people engage in less risky sexual and health behaviors and that they are more religious. If women are more conscientious than men, this might promote their ability to perform the self-regulation needed to engage in religion.
These psychological explanations for the greater religiosity among women, mentalizing, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, do not contradict the sociological ones offered by Trzebiatowska. Rather, they are complementary explanations at different levels of analysis. As a psychologist, my emphasis and interest is in the properties of individuals (or the situations of individuals) that underlie behaviors. Given that women are more agreeable and conscientious than men and that they mentalize more than men, it is not surprising that women are more involved in the social and ritual aspects of human behavior and, therefore, with religion.
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