In line with the view that religiosity can be used as a mating strategy (Weeden et al., 2008
), exposure to attractive members of one’s own sex led participants to describe themselves as significantly more religious. Clearly, earlier research indicates that societal, familial and genetic influences are important determinants of chronic levels of religiosity. However, the existence of stable individual differences does not preclude the likelihood that a given characteristic will fluctuate in response to situational cues as well (Funder, 2006
; Kenrick et al., 2003
We hypothesized that women would be more religious after seeing a dating pool full of attractive female competitors. Experiment 1 suggested that this was the case, but we were surprised that men were behaving similarly – they were more religious when seeing attractive men, and less religious when seeing attractive women. It was not clear from Experiment 1 whether men and women were becoming less religious after seeing attractive profiles of the opposite-sex, more religious after seeing attractive profiles of the same-sex, or some combination of the two. In Experiment 2, the findings were replicated and an added control group suggested that, rather than becoming less religious when seeing attractive members of the opposite sex, both men and women became more religious (relative to control) when exposed to attractive, same-sex competitors.
Several caveats are important. First, the current findings do not specify exactly what mechanisms drive the increases in self-reported religiosity. For example, high ratings of religiosity could be the result of self-presentation as religious or an actual change in religiosity. These would reflect different strategies in response to sex ratios. People could, for example, be reporting more religiosity to be more attractive in a context in which there are many same-sex competitors. People might report more religiosity if they seek to exploit a different niche to find mates (e.g. a religious niche rather than a university niche).
As a second caveat, these results do not imply that religious beliefs are only determined by mating goals. Religiosity is linked to multiple psychological mechanisms (e.g., Boyer, 2003
; Kirkpatrick, 1999
). As a final, it seems likely that there are individual differences in the flexibility of religious inclinations. Individuals who have high levels of chronic religious commitment may not respond to contextual cues at all, whereas other individuals might become more committed when contextual cues threaten their beliefs. These sensitivities to situational cues might also vary across religious groups (c.f., Cohen, et al., 2005
; Cohen & Hill, 2007
). Many religions favor endogamy and one might theorize a tighter link between religion and mating motivations in such religions. Some religions have ideals of celibacy and others promote reproduction.
More generally, our results support the view that religiosity can be a flexible strategy that changes with relevant ecological inputs. It has been traditionally presumed that religious people are more sexually restricted because of direct religious training (Weeden et al., 2008
). The current data suggest alternative causal relationships. Humans are capable of exploiting many types of ecological niches, and religions may represent different niches (Storm & Wilson, in press). People may move between niches (some religious and some not) given which niche would promote the greatest reproductive success. Research with non-human animals yields abundant evidence of alternative mating strategies due to natural and sexual selection (Shuster & Wade, 2003
). For example, resource availability triggers alternative mating tactics in other animal species (Kolluru & Grether, 2005
). An emerging literature on the evolutionary dynamics of human cultural phenomena suggests that context dependent strategies also exist in humans (e.g. Norenzayan, Schaller, & Heine, 2006
), but there is little research on religiosity as a mating strategy for humans. The current study indicates that social context can influence religiosity, suggesting a fertile ground for future research.