It’s well known that one of the attractions of religion is that it gives you a lifelong and infinitely understanding invisible friend. So you would expect that people who are inclined to feel lonely might be more attracted to religion. But another important question is this: can you make people more religious simply by making them feel lonely?
This was the subject of a new study from a team lead by Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago. They took groups of the psychologist’s favourite guinea pig – university undergraduates – and made them feel either lonely (by making them watch Tom Hanks in Cast Away), frightened (Silence of the Lambs) or mildly amused (comedy film Major League). Then they rated them for belief in God, ghosts, miracles and angels. Sure enough, the group manipulated to feel lonely reported stronger beliefs in the supernatural.
Another part of the study involved giving some different subjects a computerized quiz. Half were then chosen at random and told that the computer had predicted that they would be lonely in later life. Once again, those people who had been made to feel lonely reported stronger beliefs in the supernatural.
“We found that inducing people to feel lonely made them more religious essentially,” Epley told LiveScience, though he notes it won’t cause any sudden conversions.
Interestingly, lonely people also were more likely to ‘anthropomorphize’ – to report that an animal or even an electronic gadget has human qualities. The researchers speculate:
Loneliness is both painful to experience and potentially deadly. “It’s actually a greater risk for morbidity or mortality than cigarette smoking is. Being lonely is a bad thing for you,” he said.
But anthropomorphizing pets or God may actually confer many of the same psychological and physical benefits that come from connections with other people. The same benefits may not apply to gadgets, which were a component of Epley’s studies.
Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A., & Cacioppo, J. (2008). Creating Social Connection Through Inferential Reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds Psychological Science, 19 (2), 114-120 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02056.x