Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sex and religion: natural enemies?

Loving thoughts might increase religious belief, and sexy thoughts decrease it.
An interesting research study (Förster, Epstude, & Özelsel, 2009) found that asking people to think about sex subsequently improved their performance on analytical tasks requiring attention to detail. Getting them to think about love improved their performance on creative tasks. The underlying theory is that people think about sex in concrete and specific ways involving the present moment which facilitates analytical thinking. On the other hand, people tend to think of love in a more abstract and global way that involves thoughts about the long-term future, which facilitates creativity. Previous studies have found that priming tasks that activate analytical thinking tend to weaken religious beliefs. This raises the intriguing possibility that thinking about sex could weaken religious belief, whereas thoughts about love might strengthen it. If this is true, this might shed some light on why most religions take such a negative view of sex, especially lust without love. 

Is love divine, and lust demonic? (image credit: Scot A Harvest)

This study was based on the theory that there are two main ways that people can process information: attending to broad global features of the big picture or focusing on concrete specific details, that is, “the forest or the trees.” Global, abstract processing may lead to more remote and diverse associations which are beneficial to creativity (thinking “outside the box”) whereas more narrowly focused thinking may help one remember well-earned logical rules that are relevant to analytical thinking. Furthermore, research suggests that thinking about the long-term future tends to activate global and holistic processing because people know few details about the future, and therefore tend to think about it in abstract way. On the other hand, thinking about the present moment tends to activate local and detail oriented processing as people think about the present in a more concrete manner.

The authors argued that thoughts of romantic love tends to activate a global processing style, because love usually involves a desire for a long-lasting attachment (“together forever”) whereas sexual desires are usually more concrete and specific and generally focus on immediate gratification rather than long-term planning. The authors tested this theory by two experiments. In both experiments, participants were primed either with love, sex, or a neutral topic. In the first experiment, participants were asked to either imagine going for a long walk with someone they loved and to think about how much they loved him or her; or to imagine having casual sex with someone they found attractive but did not love. A control group were asked to imagine taking a walk by themselves. The second experiment used subliminal exposure to words related to either love, sex, or neutral topics. This was followed by a task to test creative thinking, and then a task to test analytical thinking. One of the creative tasks, for example, involved solving a series of problems where the solution was not obvious and where the answer typically occurred to a person in a ‘flash of insight’ after prolonged thought. The analytical tasks involved solving logical reasoning problems. Results showed that participants who had thought about love performed better on the creativity tasks compared to those who thought about sex and the control group. Additionally, those who had thought about sex performed better on the analytical task compared to those had thought about love and the control group. Thinking about sex seemed to be actually detrimental to creativity, as this group actually performed worse on this task compared to the control group. Similarly, thinking about love was detrimental to analytical thinking, as this group also performed worse than the control group on the logic task. Perhaps this indicates that when people are thinking about sex they become too single-minded to be creative, whereas those in love are too dreamy to think logically.

The results of the second experiment also found that subliminal exposure to words related to sex induced more local processing in a perception task, whereas subliminal exposure to words related to love induced more global processing. These results suggested that the effect of sex-priming on analytical thinking was actually mediated by increased attention to local processing, whereas the effect of love-priming on creativity was mediated by increased attention to global processing.

These results led me to wonder about possible influences of thinking about love and sex respectively on religious beliefs. As explained in a previous article, activities that increase analytical thinking (even something as simple as looking at a statue of Rodin’s Thinker) can decrease religious belief, such as belief in God (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012). Since sex priming can increase analytical thinking, it seems plausible to think that sex-priming could decrease religious belief by increasing analytical thinking. Religious beliefs seem to involve a focus on global ideas such as eternity and infinity. Furthermore, religious traditions emphasise the importance of having a long-term attachment to a higher power, much as one may have a long-term attachment to a loved one. Therefore, it also seems plausible that love-priming could have the opposite effect of sex-priming and strengthen religious beliefs instead. Experimental studies would be needed to confirm that these hypothesised effects really occur. For example, people could be subliminally primed with words relating either to love or to sex and then they could be asked to rate how strongly they believe in God.

This possibility that thinking about sex could weaken religious belief also led me to wonder if this has something to do with the fact that so many mainstream religions take such a negative view of sexuality, particularly lust without love. Religions generally teach people that dwelling on lustful sexual thoughts is “impure” and a distraction from one’s spiritual nature. Even non-procreative acts such as masturbation are proscribed as ‘sinful’ in monotheistic religions, so this is not simply a practical concern to prevent pregnancy outside of marriage. Popular images of the Devil in Christianity are actually inspired by earlier images of the ancient Greek god Pan, who was noted for his sensual lustful nature. Love on the other hand is extolled as a cardinal virtue and love of God in particular is considered to be of the utmost importance. The idea that one should “love thy neighbour as oneself” is certainly very admirable as an ideal, but realistically I doubt if there are very many people who could actually put this into practice. There may be many reasons why most religions tend to idealise love and to disavow lust. Perhaps, one of the reasons that most religions so strongly disapprove of any form of sex outside marriage is that lust without love undermines religious belief itself? There are no doubt other factors involved, but these need not be mutually exclusive.

Pan: divinity or devil?

On the other hand, there are some religious and spiritual traditions that have a more positive view of sexuality. In fact, I have read literary descriptions of the moment of orgasm as a transcendental experience in which one is momentarily elevated to a divine level of awareness. Perhaps the possible effect of sex priming on religious beliefs might depend on a person’s belief about whether sex has a transcendental, spiritual component. Additionally, the effects of priming thoughts about sex within a loving relationship have not been examined. This is potentially a fruitful area of investigation that might shed light on the relationships between sexual attitudes, religious beliefs, and the cognitive processes that underpin them.    

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Forster, J., Epstude, K., & Ozelsel, A. (2009). Why Love Has Wings and Sex Has Not: How Reminders of Love and Sex Influence Creative and Analytic Thinking Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (11), 1479-1491 DOI: 10.1177/0146167209342755

Gervais, W., & Norenzayan, A. (2012). Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief Science, 336 (6080), 493-496 DOI: 10.1126/science.1215647

This post has previously appeared on my Psychology Today blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.


  1. You discuss the possible reasons why religions oppose "lust without love": "thinking about sex could weaken religious belief, whereas thoughts about love might strengthen it."

    This asks about what's at stake in human behavior from the perspective of organized religion, i.e. how a religious institution benefits from the ideals it promotes. This is a worthy question, but one could also "back up" a bit from an evolutionary perspective and ask why religion evolved at all. The question would be flipped around: what's at stake in the behavior of organized religion from the perspective of humans? Why do people develop and sustain institutional reminders to restrict their own sexual activity?

    1. You ask an interesting question. I am aware of a number of different evolutionary theories about the origins of religions. Being such a complex phenomenon, I am sure there are multiple factors at work. One theory I found particularly interesting is that religions bind people into moral communities that promote in-group loyalty. Religious observances usually involving personal inconveniences, such as giving up enjoyable activities. This theory proposes that such observances serve as a signal of one's commitment to group loyalty and willingness to make sacrifices in collective interests. Giving up sexual pleasures could serve such a function. But this still leaves the question of why some cultures and religions are more prudish than others about sexual matters. I think this is still an open question.

  2. Interestingly, researchers also recently discovered that intense focus on erotic imagery can decrease working memory - which could impair cognitive function. In other words, it looks like balance is important. For a discussion of the new research, see "No Porn, Better Working Memory?"

    1. This sound interesting, I will have a look. The study I wrote about had participants imagine themselves having a casual sexual encounter. This probably does have different effects from focusing very intently on pornography.

    2. I've just come across an article that critiques the claim that porn decreases working memory. The study actually found that viewing pornography makes it more difficult to correctly remember what other pornography one has previously viewed, but there was no evidence for a more general effect of impairment of memory of non-erotic stimuli.