Toward a better understanding of religion’s dark side

Religion and compliance

Surrendering oneself to a higher power or losing oneself into something larger certainly motivates selfless caring acts, yet it can also be a path to much less desirable outcomes. In another line of my research, I am interested in the study of religion as a powerful source of influence.

My interest in this topic stems from the fact that despite promoting health and the greater good (e.g. volunteering, donation), religion is also at the core of many of the most terrible acts of aggression (e.g. genocide, holy wars). With my co-authors, we have proposed that one way of understanding these seemingly contradictory results is to consider religion’s role in submission and conformity. Indeed, depending on what the religious group is valuing, conforming can lead to either good or bad outcomes. In a series of studies we have used the “priming” technique to momentarily activate in people’s mind concepts related to religion (through quick flashes of religious words) and be able to test the causal hypothesis that reminders of religion trigger submission and conformity. In Saroglou, Corneille, and Van Cappellen (2009) we showed that for participants scoring high on dispositional submissiveness, subliminal religious priming increased the accessibility of submission- related concepts (Study 1) and actual compliance to a morally problematic request for revenge made by a figure of authority (Study 2) compared to subliminal control priming (quick flashes of neutral words). In Van Cappellen, Corneille, Cols, and Saroglou (2011) we showed that participants scoring high on dispositional submissiveness, subliminal religious priming increased conformity: in a numeric estimation task, participants assimilated their estimates more to the ones of their peers. Importantly in these studies, participants were not aware of the priming (unconscious activation of religious or neutral concepts) and the measures of submission and conformity were behavioral, not self-report. These laboratory-derived results provide a direct demonstration of a basic process that may be at play in believers’ everyday life. Although in both studies compliance to a request and conformity appeared toward neutral targets – the figure of authority or the peers in the conformity task were not specifically identified as religious – an interesting possibility is that the effects found here would be magnified in a religious context. These results forecast the great power that religious leaders and institutions can have on their adherents. It is interpreted here in the context of prosocial/antisocial behaviors but could well apply to other domains. For example, religious influence could be used for the best to promote healthy lifestyles or treatment adherence.

Religion, intergroup prejudice, and antisocial behaviors

Past research has shown that religious beliefs are related to prejudice and antisocial attitudes especially toward value-threatening out-groups. In one line of research, I test whether religion-related prejudice translates into actual antisocial behaviors. Using an implicit behavioral measure of passive aggression, I found that personal religious beliefs were associated with more ingroup favoritism: in a virtual ball tossing game, throwing more often a ball to a christian than to an atheist or neutral players. The distinction between ingroup/outgroup is an important one to consider when thinking about the potential antisocial outcomes of religion. However, it is not the only one; as presented above, among dispositionally submissive individuals, religious priming can increase compliance to a morally problematic request: taking revenge against another bogus participant. This research suggests religion’s power could be used to promote antisocial behaviors toward any group, via compliance and conformity.

Relevant publications:

Van Cappellen, P. & LaBouff, J. (in press). Prejudice toward Christians and Atheists among members of nonreligious groups: Attitudes, behaviors, and mechanisms. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. PDF

Łowicki, P., Zajenkowski, M., & Van Cappellen, P. (2020). It’s the heart that matters: The relationships among cognitive mentalizing ability, emotional empathy, and religiosity. Personality and Individual Differences, 161. doi: PDF

Van Cappellen, P., Fredrickson, B. L., Saroglou, V., & Corneille, O. (2017). Religiosity and the motivation for social affiliation. Personality and Individual Differences, 113, 24-31. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2017.02.065.

Van Cappellen, P., Corneille, O., Cols, S., & Saroglou, V. (2011). Beyond mere compliance to authoritative figures: Religious priming increases conformity to informational influence among submissive people. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 97-105.

Saroglou, V., Corneille, O., & Van Cappellen, P. (2009). “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”: Religious priming activates submissive thoughts and behaviors. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19, 143-154.

Media coverage:

Read more about our research in religion and compliance featured in:

Epiphenon: Religious prompts make people more obedient. June 30, 2009

Science on Religion Research News blog: Religion and submission. September 9, 2011

And featured across the globe:

Russia: (read more here)