Humans, like all other primates, are obsessed by their peer group of colleagues and acquaintances. And that’s for good reason because, for primates, being excluded from the group can be lethal.
So what do you do if you find yourself being ostracised? Well, for humans at least, one option is to turn to religion. Religion, after all, provides a ready-made community for those who conform to the group ideology – and even for those who don’t, religion offers a virtual world of supernatural buddies.
A series of studies by Nilüfer Aydin (University of Munich in Germany) and colleagues has tested this idea, and given some sense of it’s power. Here’s what they found.
First they found that migrant Turks living in Germany feel more excluded than Turks living in Turkey, even when matched for age and wealth. They were also more religious and, what’s more, the more excluded they felt the more religious they were.
In the second study they took a group of Christians and asked some of them to write about a time when they had felt excluded. Sure enough, they later reported being more religious than those Christians who had been asked to write about a time when they had felt accepted.
In another, similar study they found that Christians who wrote about being excluded were more likely to approve of a whole bunch of religious behaviour, like talking to God and meeting other religious people. A fourth study found that these effects seem to be linked to social discomfort, rather than any effect on self esteem.
The final study was rather more subtle.
One group of Christians were asked to write about being excluded at work, while another group was asked to write about being accepted. Some were then asked to write about religion (they were ‘primed’ with religion). Then, it what was apparently an unrelated task, they were asked to help out with another study.
They were told that, in this mythical study was, people were to be subjected to the ice-water test. In this test, participants are asked to plunge their hand into freezing water – anything longer than about 30 seconds of this causes extreme pain. The Christians were told that this time needed to be set by an independent party, and were asked how long it should be.
The graph shows the results. Those Christians who wrote about being included suggested a non-pain inducing time of 30s. But those Christians who wrote about being excluded seemed to be venting their frustrations on the anonymous stranger by recommending an agonizing time of 70s for the ice-water test.
If, however, they had previously been primed with religious thoughts, this aggressive drive disappeared. Religion, for these Christians, might be working as an effective buffer to reduce the stress caused by social exclusion.
Now none of these studies is perfect. In the first, it simply be could be that more religious Turks feel excluded in Germany (although that wouldn’t explain why Turks in Germany are more religious in general). And studies 2 to 4 were pretty artificial set ups. And the other studies didn’t actually ostracise people, only got them to write about it – which is the weakest kind of experimental set up.
As for study four, an alternative explanation might be that the religious prime didn’t make people less stressed, but rather made them behave better even in the face of stress. Other studies have shown that priming people with religious (an non-religious) concepts can make them change their behaviour to conform to social expectations.
But for me the bigger question is whether you can get these effects simply from religious beliefs, or whether (as I suspect) it’s the thought that participation in religion that relieves the stress of feeling excluded.
That’s critical because traditional society has religion at it’s core. It may be that people turn to religion when ostracised simply because that’s the easiest way to get re-accepted by the group
But many societies are giving up religion, but without necessarily finding a replacement for the social cohesion that religion has been central to in the past. What will fulfil this function in the future?
Aydin, N., Fischer, P., & Frey, D. (2010). Turning to God in the Face of Ostracism: Effects of Social Exclusion on Religiousness Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (6), 742-753 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210367491