Why are Women more Social than Men?


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.

Cognitive Differences

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.

Personality Differences

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.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full c


  • Baron Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.
  • Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219–247.
  • Johnson, D. D. P., & Bering, J. M. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.
  • McCullough, M. E., Enders, C. K., Brion, S. L., & Jain, A. R. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Development in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Investigation of Religion and Rational Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(1), 78–89.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69–93. doi:10.1037/a0014213
  • Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. PLoS ONE, 1–8.
  • Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25.
  • Schjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A. W., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 199–207.
  • Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168–182.
  • Stark, R. (2002). Physiology and faith: Addressing the “universal” gender difference in religious commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 495–507.
  • Wink, P., Ciciolla, L., Dillon, M., & Tracy, A. (2007). Religiousness, Spiritual Seeking, and Personality: Findings from a Longitudinal Study. Journal of personality, 75(5), 1051–1070.

Getting into Graduate School

The following post was written by contributors, who blogs at A Theory of Mind. Erika  is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. The guidelines here are quite US-specific, however they are of use to anyone who is considering applying to further their education, and even to those who have already made this decision.

Erika’s work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, and can be freely distributed provided you acknowledge the source.

Getting into Graduate School

If you applying the graduate school, the first thing you should know about is what exactly goes into an application. Generally speaking, a graduate school application (in the US) consists of the following elements:

1. The application form—General questions (address, etc.) as well as possibly some department-specific questions.

2. A statement of purpose—aka SOP. A 500-1500 word essay describing your background, research interests (for research-based programs), career goals, and fit with the department to which you’re applying. It should be customized to each department.

3. Letters of recommendation—aka LOR. Typically 3, sometimes 2; some schools take more or fewer. You want as many of these to come from professors (as opposed to work supervisors) as possible, preferably ones with whom you have research experience or other outside-the-classroom relationships. Generally speaking, if you have 2 very good ones, the third one can be somewhat weaker.

4. Transcripts—from all post-secondary institutions. Some departments care about your overall GPA; others care more about your final 60 credits. If your transcripts look at all like mine [I got a 1.7 GPA (just about failing for anyone not familiar with the US point system) for my first year, had loads of Fs and course withdrawals, and finally withdrew from school entirely before getting my act together], you may consider putting a paragraph of explanation in your SOP, but be sure not to (a) explain weak performance with reference to a psychological or learning disability (prejudices against these are sadly present in graduate school, even in fields like education and psychology) or (b) appear to be whining or blaming poor performance on anyone other than yourself. Instead, focus on explaining why it could never happen again.

5. GRE score reports—(for US-based institutions) the importance of the GRE differs depending on the program, of course, as does the relative weighting of the subsections. If you don’t like your score, you can retake it, but you can only take the test once during a calendar month, so make sure you take the test at the latest in the month before you absolutely need it, in case you decide to retake. The scores are good for five years. Start studying now, and take as many practice tests as possible.

6. Curriculum vitae—aka CV or vita. Your academic resume. I recommend downloading some faculty CVs from the departments you are applying to. This will give you a sense of what these look like and what goes into them.

Some applications will ask for the following:

7. Writing sample—Generally, you should choose something you’ve turned in for a grade or publication. Preferably, it will be related to the field you are applying to. And, of course, take the time to thoroughly revise it.

8. Personal statement—aka PS. For some applications, this is the same as an SOP; however, others will ask for an SOP and a PS. In this case, the PS is generally used in deciding university-wide fellowship recipients, and it should be more personal than the SOP, focusing on challenges you’ve faced in education and/or membership in groups underrepresented in graduate education.

Generally speaking, the key to graduate admissions is fit—which means roughly that your interests are aligned with those of the department. So start browsing department websites. Get a feel for what the faculty are studying and decide if your interests match those of one or more faculty members. For large departments (such as psych and bio), the faculty are often further partitioned into divisions, and your application may be reviewed solely by the division to which you are applying, in which case you will want to focus on that division. Make a long-ish list of schools and faculty you are interested in, and then make an appointment with one of your professors to discuss that list. People in your field may know what departments tend to have good placement (getting people into jobs they want), have advisors whose students never graduate, etc. You want to know as much of this as possible.

Although I applied to 6 schools during each of my two application cycles, most people I know applied to double that number. This process gets EXPENSIVE. Application fees for US and Canadian schools range from around $50 to $100 each. Some of your undergraduate schools may charge for transcript copies. GRE score reports cost $20 each. It’s not uncommon to spend one to two thousand dollars on the applications. Then, some departments will have on-site interviews or visiting student weekends in the spring, for which some will reimburse travel expenses and other won’t. Depending on your geographic constraints in applications and in your luck in applying to wealthy departments, this could add in even more expense.

Overall, the grad school application process is capricious. Most excellent departments admit something under 10% of applicants; other departments are less selective. But admissions in any given year depend on such completely unknowable (to applicants) factors such as state budgets, the size of last year’s incoming class, the number of students who are leaving the program, the number of grants won by specific faculty members, etc. So getting in is at least as much about uncontrollable departmental factors as it is about being an excellent applicant. I recommend emailing professors you are interested in working with to inquire whether they are taking on new students in the next application cycle, as finding out ahead of time that a professor is not taking on new students will eliminate work and heartbreak spent on an opportunity that never truly existed.


Now that I am a graduate student, I advise many bright, intellectually curious undergraduates who want to go on to graduate school. Over the last few years, I’ve compiled a fairly large number of resources and points of advice that I offer these students. While some of the advice is biased by the particular field (psychology) and degree-type (PhD at a US research intensive institution) I have chosen, I think that there are some common elements that can be adapted to any field.

Here’s an outline of the advice I typically give:

  • Gain as much research experience possible. Both because it is exactly the kind of training you need and because it is the best source of letters of reference. Working in more than one lab with give you a greater diversity of skills and training, and it will also give you multiple recommendation letters.
  • Read scholarly literature in the field that interests you. This will help you narrow down your interests, make you sound more intelligent and informed when speaking with potential advisors, and help you identify potential advisors of interest.
  • Speak to a professor in your intended field about what his or her job is like and what graduate school in that field is like. Similarly, speak a graduate student in your intended field about his or her experiences. Consult with professors and grad students about the schools/advisors you are considering applying to; ask them about who has good placement and whose students never graduate.
  • Email professors you are interested in working with. Tell them you’ve read some of their papers and share some interests. Ask whether they will be taking on new students and what they look for in a graduate student. Your match to an advisor is one of the most important components of your application and of your experience in graduate school, especially for students pursuing a research-oriented degree.
  • Join professional societies and honor societies and take an active role in them. Subscribe to their listservs. This will keep you up to date on the field, provide you with opportunities for extra experience/CV lines (e.g., reviewing submissions for student competitions, competing in those competitions, departmental service, etc.), and make you look engaged. You might also find opportunities for summer research positions or post-graduation jobs advertised on the email lists.
  • Read academic/science blogs or message boards. These will help you understand and navigate academic culture and give you better insight into the variety of experiences of academics. You can find great science blogs through ResearchBlogging, Scientific American, ScienceBlogs, Scientopia, and other science blog networks. You can also learn a lot about academic life in general by reading GradHacker, The Grad Café, GradLand, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Take the GRE seriously, if you are applying in the US. Study for a long time. Take lots of practice tests. Many US-based programs have unadvertised GRE cut-off points, or combine GRE with college marks (GPA) to create a composite score with which they rank applicants.
  • Seriously consider if graduate school and an academic career is a good option for you. Graduate school is intense. The academic job market is really tough, and the pressure does not end even if you land a great job at the end. You might be a post-doc or Visiting Assistant Professor before landing a more permanent position, and even once you are on the tenure track, you still have years of fighting for tenure ahead. Download CVs of professors you respect. Look at the number of cities they have lived in during their academic careers and the frequency of their moves. Is that a life that you want? If you are not interested in an academic position, understand that your supervisors in graduate school will have had precious little experience outside of academia that they could use to advise you.
  • Apply for jobs, too. You might not get in. Many students put in two rounds of applications or take a master’s position when they really want a doctoral position.
  • You will likely be rejected; it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean you are not smart enough or capable enough to complete the program. What I’ve listed above are just the things that you can (more or less) control. There’s a lot that you cannot control, such as departmental funding, grants won by faculty members that might support students, the number of other truly awesome applicants who happen to apply in the same year to the same advisor, the number of students graduating from the program that year.

Of course, I don’t think that my opinions are the only ones prospective graduate students should consider, so I always give them links to lots of other opinions, including the following:

General Resources:

Letters of Recommendation:

If, after all of this, you still want to apply to graduate school: great! It’s a lot of work, but it can be a very rewarding choice. If you are a professor or graduate student who has a different perspective, please chime in! The more information applicants have, the better off they will be.

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing. Lurking behind such statements is the premise that purposes are given by an agentic mind. Thus, this kind of teleological reasoning indicates an underlying belief in some being that intends objects in the natural world to serve some purpose. Similarly, in studying why adults and children both struggle to reach a scientifically-accurate understanding of evolution, Margaret Evans (2000) has found that, regardless of religious and educational background, children tend to develop towards creationist explanations for the origins of organisms up until about 10 years of age, only after which does background seem to influence these beliefs. These and a host of other biases (e.g., Jesse Bering’s simulation constraint hypothesis; see Bering & Bjorklund, 2004) seem like good candidates for precursors to religious thought in adults. The exact form that religious thought takes, of course, depends on the culture in which a person lives.

Cognitive scientists of religion are not just interested in how religious ideas originate in development but also in how such ideas work within adults’ minds. Geertz points out his own research, which suggests that at least some forms of religious thought are neurologically similar to non-religious thought. Such findings are compatible with the dominant theory in the cognitive science of religion—that religious concepts are constrained by the cognitive architecture of the human mind. Pascal Boyer (2001) has advanced the theory that humans have an innate ontology, a set of basic categories onto which all of our concepts are mapped. This ontology includes categories like human, animal, plant, and natural object, and each is associated with a set of properties. We attribute psychological, biological, and physical properties to humans, for example, whereas natural objects possess physical properties but not biological or psychological ones. Supernatural concepts are those concepts that violate the normal, intuitive properties of these categories. Thus, the concept ghost is based on the human category, but deviates from it by not possessing biological properties (i.e., ghosts do not need to eat, sleep, or perform the normal biological functions of humans). Experimental research by cognitive scientists such as Geertz and Justin Barrett has started to confirm that there are many similarities in how people reason about humans and supernatural agents. In a particularly clever set of studies, Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) found that, under cognitive load, participants seemed not to account for the counterintuitive properties of God. Instead, they reasoned that the supernatural deity would have to obey the normal laws of physics, despite explicitly believing that God need not follow such laws. For example, when asked to retell a story about God’s saving a drowning boy, participants who believed that God does not follow the normal rules of space and time inserted the detail that God finished answering a prayer somewhere else in the world before he began saving the boy, despite this detail’s not being in the original story. Like Geertz’s research, this suggests that human thinking about God and other supernatural agents is very similar to thinking about other humans.

One of the most active ongoing debates within the field involve the origins of religious thought, not just in individuals, but in humans as a species, and especially whether religious thought was selected for in the course of evolution. Many researchers, including Dominic Johnson, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan, adhere to some form of the supernatural punishment hypothesis (see, for example, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011)—the idea that the threat of punishment from morally concerned supernatural agents helped humans increase cooperation and live in larger societies—though there are several version of this hypothesis and not everyone buys into it. This debate is exploding within the field and driving much new research into when and how religious thinking inspires cooperation.

Although cognitive scientists have begun proposing answers to questions about religious thinking, the field is quite young and there is still much to be studied. As the cognitive science of religion matures, there will no doubt be creative and exciting approaches to the current debates and to questions that are only beginning to arise in the field, such as how thinking about malevolent agents differs from thinking about benevolent ones. It is an exciting time for the study of religious cognition.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Erika Salomon is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. She occasionally blogs about religious cognition at A Theory of Mind.


Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 217-233.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. London: William Heinneman.

Evans, E. M. (2000). The Emergence of Beliefs about the Origins of Species in School-Age Children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 221–254.

Kelemen, D. (1999). Function, goals and intention: children’s teleological reasoning about objects. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 461–468.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85–96. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.556990