Religious Fundamentalism and Value Conflict

Daryl van Tongeren and I recently published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In this paper we find that people who are both high and low in religious fundamentalism are both prejudiced toward groups with dissimilar values. Our abstract…

Abstract: Research linking religion to prejudice suggests that highly religious individuals, and religious fundamentalists specifically, may be especially susceptible to expressing prejudice toward dissimilar others, whereas people who are less religious and fundamentalist do not show the same effect. The selective prejudice hypothesis predicts that this pattern of results occurs because the cognitive and motivational styles or particular values associated with fundamentalism exacerbate prejudice. In three studies, using four data sets (N = 5806), we test this selective prejudice hypothesis against the religious values conflict hypothesis, which predicts that both people with high and low levels of fundamentalism will be prejudiced toward those with dissimilar beliefs to protect the validity and vitality of people’s belief systems. Consistent with the religious values conflict hypothesis, we found that people both high and low in fundamentalism were prejudice toward dissimilar others (Study 1) and these differences were primarily due to differences in the content of religious belief rather than the style of belief (Study 2). In Study 3, we expanded these findings to additional measures of prejudice, found that multiple measures of threat were potential mediators, and explored the possibility of an integrative perspective. In total, these results suggest that people with both relatively high and low levels of fundamentalism are susceptible to prejudice and in some cases the size of this religious intergroup bias may be higher among people with high levels of fundamentalism.

Brandt, M. J., & Van Tongeren, D. R. (in press). People both high and low on religious fundamentalism are prejudiced towards dissimilar groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. [PDF]

This project with Daryl is part of my larger project looking and individual differences and prejudice. My collaborators and I (and some other people too) have shown that both liberals and conservatives (PDF) and people both high and low in openness to experience (PDF) express prejudice towards dissimilar others. This seems to be a pretty robust phenomenon and so it only made sense to continue to push it and see where it could go.

The psychology of religion and the association between religion and prejudice is something I’ve been interested since, at least, my first first-authored publication (PDF). In that paper, I found that the association between religious fundamentalism and prejudice was partially mediated by the need for closure. We thought that this meant that fundamentalists would be especially likely to be intolerant because of the epistemic closure that comes with fundamentalist beliefs. Typically people who desire closure and structure are more perturbed by and likely to show prejudice to people from outside groups.

This new paper shows that in 2010 I was wrong. The model that I (and some other people too) was generally working with in 2010 predicts that because of various personality traits, motivations, and values associated with religious fundamentalism, fundamentalists will tend to express more prejudice and non-fundamentalists won’t really express prejudice. There is some nuance to this, but that is the gist. I call this the selective prejudice model.

Now I’m working with a different model, the worldview conflict model (or the value conflict or the ideology conflict model). In this most recent paper we called it the religious value conflict model. The model predicts that everyone will express prejudice, just that the target’s of prejudice will shift depending on who is the group that is perceived to have different values. To give you a better sense of what these two models predict, we created the figure below.

Figure 1 from Brandt and van Tongeren (in press, JPSP)
Figure 1 from Brandt and van Tongeren (in press, JPSP)

To test these two models we conducted three studies with four samples. In all of the studies we measured religious fundamentalism (or in Study 2 an alternative measure that let us pull apart belief content and belief style, for more on that, read the paper) and we measured prejudice towards a bunch of different groups. We always focused on the groups perceived as being the most similar and dissimilar to fundamentalists. Below are the key results from all of the studies. I think they all look like the religious value conflict model, with the exception of the humanness measure used in Study 3 (bottom row, most left plot).

Key results from Brandt and van Tongeren (in press, JPSP)

So, if we end up being more right than  wrong in the current paper, these results suggest that prejudice by fundamentalists is not due to the cognitive, motivational, personality, or value differences of fundamentalists compared to non-fundamentalists. This is important because it suggests that these constructs are not having the effects we’d – including me – thought. For example, a variety of people find that fundamentalists tend to score higher on measures of the need for closure and we know from other research that the need for closure tends to predict prejudice and other negative outgroup attitudes. Nonetheless, in our study we are finding that people who are low in fundamentalism and likely low on the need for closure are also expressing prejudice. It seems strange – at least to me – that these cognitive and motivational styles aren’t playing out in how people express prejudice. One possible resolution is that the motivations, personality traits etc are predicting what groups are threatening to people low or high in fundamentalism. Another possibility is that the motivations, personality traits etc are predicting who develops more, compared to less fundamentalist beliefs. Both of these possibilities suggest that the motivations and personality traits are not causes of prejudice, but rather redirect prejudice towards different sorts of groups. These possibilities could use some testing.

In short: Value dissimilarity explains a lot of the variance in prejudice by fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists alike. We don’t really know what’s going on with things like personality, motivational style, and so on.



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