Laurin and colleagues wanted to see how our relationship with God changes as our other relationships change. So the researchers designed a series of studies, published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, that experimentally induced people to believe their romantic relationship was under threat and then tested their feelings of closeness to God.
In one of the studies, they recruited 187 participants who were primarily Christian and Hindu but also Muslim, nonreligious, or unaffiliated. To manipulate relationship threat, the researchers told some of the participants that everyone hides certain aspects of themselves from their partners. "Then we hit them with the idea that these 'secret selves' always end up coming out, and ruining relationships," Laurin says. "And just in case that's not enough to make them nervous that their relationship could be in danger, we force them to think more specifically about things that they themselves might be hiding from their partners."
They then asked the participants to rate their closeness to God. Another group of participants simply rated their closeness with God without first reading the threat scenario. The researchers also assessed the participants' self-esteem.
Laurin's team found that participants sought to enhance their relationship with God when under threat of romantic rejection – but only if they had high self-esteem. This fits with past work showing that people high in self-esteem seek social connection when their relationships are threatened.
It's a sobering finding, Laurin says: "We find that high self-esteem people, who already are the ones who take constructive steps to repair their relationships when they are under threat, have yet another resource they can turn to: their relationship with God," she explains. "Low self-esteem people, who are the ones who retreat and protect themselves at the expense of the relationship when the relationship is under threat, don't seem to be able to use this new resource either."
Love the experimental induction of romantic threat! Very clever.
Of course, Freud said all of this nearly 100 years ago; just because he didn't use ANOVAs doesn't make him wrong.