Willingness to take risks could explain a small part of the gender gap in religiousness

Research has consistently found that women tend to be more religious than men. A new study published in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion provides evidence that a small part of this difference could be to due risk preferences.

“I’ve been interested in the topic of risk, gender, and religion for about 25 years,” said study author John P. Hoffmann, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.

“My initial interest developed when I began to do research on religion with my friend and colleague Alan Miller. Alan had a clever mind and was always looking for new ways to answer old questions. As we were talking one day about what leads people to participate, or not participate, in religion, he wondered why research up until that point had shown consistently that women were more ‘religious’ than men.”

“At the time I was doing some work on risk preferences and health behaviors and we recalled that, long ago, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal had proposed that believing in God was a risk-avoidant strategy and not believing was risky. We then married the ideas that women are more religious than men, men are usually greater risk takers than women, and religious involvement may be a risk avoidant life strategy to hypothesize that risk preferences might account for at least some of the gender difference in religious beliefs and behaviors,” Hoffmann explained.

Hoffmann and Miller’s previous study, which was published in 1995, found that a person’s willingness to take risks was a significant predictor of religiosity.

The new study examined data from the 2015 Monitoring the Future study, the 2010 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, and the 2005 National Survey of Youth and Religion. All three studies — which included 22,745 adolescent participants in total — contained measures of risk preferences and religiousness, along with demographic variables.

Male participants tended to be more willing to take risks, while female participants tended to report higher levels of religiousness. Importantly, when risk-taking was used as a control variable, the gap between male and female religiousness shrunk, suggesting that a small part of the gender difference is influenced by risk preferences.

“One takeaway of these studies is that one of the reasons, but certainly not the only reason, that young men are less involved in religion than young women is because they are more likely to say they like to take risks. Thus, those interested in understanding why some people are more religious than others may wish to consider not only their core beliefs and life experiences, but also their tendency to behave in a risky manner,” Hoffman told PsyPost.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“The study was limited to samples of young people, so it’s not clear whether the results apply to older adults,” Hoffman explained.

“Most importantly, though, is that the study used data from large national surveys during which people self-reported their religious beliefs and behaviors and their risk preferences at a single point in time. Therefore, the study does not answer at least two crucial questions: (a) why are risk preferences related to religion? (b) Do risk preferences affect later religious involvement or does religious involvement affect later risk preferences?”

“We cannot say with any suitable degree of certainty whether risk preferences cause religious involvement, or whether this is why women are more ‘religious’ than men,” Hoffman said.

Religion is a complex social phenomenon, which is influenced by countless factors, and researchers are still debating the underlying causes of the gender gap in religiosity.

“The study found a modest statistical association between gender, risk preferences, and a few measures of religious belief and involvement,” Hoffman added. “But it is clear that there are many other factors that affect individual involvement in religion and that might account for any of the gender differences. Whereas this study makes a small contribution to unveiling gender differences in religion, researchers would be wise to focus on characteristics that have a more dramatic influence.”

The study, “Risk Preference Theory and Gender Differences in Religiousness: A Replication and Extension“, was published online December 20, 2018.