Study: Religious Belief Acts as a Cue for Open-mindedness when Choosing Romantic Partners

Some time ago I wrote about Geoffrey Miller’s brilliant thesis that we adorn ourselves with consumer products, ideologies and religious beliefs that allow us to best display our personality traits as detailed in the Big Five model. This means we try show off our degree of Open-mindedness, Consciousness, Extraversion, Emotional Stability and Agreeableness by our choice of conversation topics, body and home decorations and attendances at religious and secular groups (among many other strange things we do). He further argues that these displays are unique to the human species and are a huge part of what made us evolve our intelligence, sense of humour and other physical and mental characteristics that make us different from our closest animal relatives. These came about through sexual selection, which is usually overlooked or denied as a significant factor in human evolution.

A new study from the University of Otago, New Zealand provides strong confirmatory evidence for Miller’s theory.

Previous studies have implicated a relation between the Big Five trait of Open-mindedness and religion: ‘Open, mature religiosity and spirituality were associated with high openness to experience… Religious fundamentalism was associated with lower openness to experience’. It has been better established that Open-mindedness is correlated with liberalism, for example De Neve, 2013. Liberalism also correlates with religiosity/atheism

‘Liberals… would be likely to engage in more flexible thinking, working through alternate possibilities before committing to a choice. Even after committing, if alternate contradicting data comes along, they would be more likely to consider it. Sound familiar? This is how science works, and why there might be so many correlations between scientific beliefs (and lesser belief in religion) and tendency to be liberal. Is this a hard and fast rule? Of course not. But you can see the group differences overall… we see more religious folks that identify as conservatives, and more skeptics, agnostics, and atheists that are liberal. Religious people are more unshakable in their belief of a higher power, and non-religious people are more open to alternate explanations, i.e., don’t rely on faith alone.’ – Chris Mooney, Your Brain on Politics: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Liberals and Conservatives

The University of Otago study shows that people experimentally given choices between potential romantic partners who they were told attended religious services more or less frequently with non-religious participants perceiving potential partners as less desirable, and also less open to new experience, as their religious behaviour increased.

In follow-up, participants again judged potential partners with varying attendance at religious services with the addition that some “disclosed that they were open to new experiences (with statements such as “I don’t pretend my ethical perspective is the only one”). Non-religious participants preferred non-religious partners, and also those who were open to new experiences, while religious participants showed the opposite preferences. What’s more, the same-religiosity bias was reduced when a partner revealed he or she was open to experience.”

This seems to vindicate Miller ideas; people take religiosity as a visible proxy for invisible personality traits. Religious and non-religious “participants evaluate the same ‘open’ behaviours differently. That is, there was agreement that non-religious individuals are relatively open-minded, but not on whether being open-minded is a good thing.”

I would be prepared to put good money (once I get a job, see post-script) that more and more studies will validate Miller’s theory, although I am happy to be proven wrong by better science, what do readers think?


– The Spiritual Materialist

P.S. Apologies for the lack of updates recently, I’m trying to finish my PhD write-up and look for future employment.


3 thoughts on “Study: Religious Belief Acts as a Cue for Open-mindedness when Choosing Romantic Partners

  1. This makes perfect sense to me! I think I’d make a distinction between religious people and spiritual people, though. Those in the former camp tend to be more conservative, close-minded, dogmatic, “this is the way it needs to be done and thought about” type of mentality. Those who define themselves as spiritual and not religious tend to be more open-minded, ready to explore new ideas, faiths and experiences. I consider myself in the latter. I believe that religion is a sure-fire way to kill a man’s spirituality.


    • Indeed Joseph, I set up my blog to discuss the idea that spirituality is possible without the beliefs of religion, as is my conviction.
      Expressing that in terms of the Big Five model, people who are low on Open-minded tend to be conformist, they are more likely to be conservative in other behaviours and when it comes to religion they are less likely to hold opinions and beliefs that they perceive to contradict with their scripture or organisation. People who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ (myself included) tend to be liberal and open-minded, we are attracted to ideas that go against what we perceive as the popular or conventional, and according to Miller’s theory we like to show off about it (see my previous post, the first link in the text at the top of the page).


  2. Pingback: Religion, Politics & Personality: It’s All about Sex! Part 2 | The Spiritual Materialist

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