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Effects of Religious versus Moral Identity Priming on the Evaluation of Ingroup and Outgroup Targets.

Historically and scientifically, the relationship between religion and morality, and whether one necessitates the other, has often been disputed, seemingly because the constructs themselves lack empirical evidence to understand them singularly (McKay & Whitehouse, 2015). To further juxtapose this continued controversy, it is believed by more than half of Americans that morality can only exist in the context of believing in God (Pew Center Research, 2007), while for atheists and agnostics, living a moral life is not necessitated by religion since their morals are based on principles other than religion (Hauser & Singer, 2005, 2006). Therefore, the objective of the current study was to expand the current understanding of morality and religion by examining the differences in the consequences of these identities on the stereotyping of outgroup targets. Additionally, this research aimed to provide experimental evidence to further understand the constructs of religion and morality, which have been the subject of much debate in the field of psychology (McKay & Whitehouse, 2015).

The connection and amount of overlap that exists between religion and morality has continued to be an ill-defined topic, both in academia and in practice (Black, 1994; Bowers, 1984; Mooney, 2001).The links between religion and morality have been conceptualized in three different ways (Morgan, 1983). The first view perceived them as being "married" to each other (Geertz, 1973; McCready & Greeley, 1976), such that religion provided the foundation and credos to live a virtuous and moral life. According to Bull (1969), moral attitudes consist of "a golden thread of humanitarianism inspired by loving care, motivated by religion" (p. 94). The second perspective viewed morality "separated" from religion (Greeley, 1972), such that the values of modern society were built upon secular, rather than religious, traditions. Consequently, the regulation of social control and peace in society would be handled by legal institutions and not religious ones (Greeley, 1972; Thompson & Sharma, 1998; Wilson, 1985). This perspective would then emphasize a separation between church and state, with the practice of religious doctrine being reserved for choice at the individual level. The third link between religion and morality was that they were "divorced" (Bull, 1969). In support of this view, Kohlberg (1981) believed that religiosity and moral reasoning were two entirely different systems for humans. Kohlberg asserted that morals developed from maturation and life experiences and as such, moral beliefs were based on the rationales of justice. To further bolster Kohlberg's assertions, Gert (2008) stated that "morality is often distinguished from etiquette, law, and religion, all of which are, or involve, codes of conduct put forward by a society" (p. 2). Further, religious beliefs were based on what was set forth by religious authorities, while the adoption of moral beliefs was not dependent on any authority figures or even culture (Kohlberg, 1981; Nucci & Turiel, 1978; Turiel, 2002). Thus, it has been asserted that secular morality is taught in the classroom, rather than morality based on religion, because they are universally accepted beliefs (Skitka, Bauman, & Lytle, 2009). There has been empirical evidence to support the "divorced" view of morality and religion, such that the effects of each of these beliefs may be independent of the other (Skitka, Bauman, & Lytle, 2009). However, more research is needed to fully understand the link between religion and morality, especially since there are contradictions about the relationship between these constructs in the existing literature (McKay & Whitehouse, 2015).

Does a society need religion to provide a foundation for values and a system to judge morality and maintain order? Philosophical debates have been focused on this question and it has been argued that there are millions of people who do not believe in religion, but are still able to hold moral attitudes and behave in a moral way (Pecorino, 2001). Evidence from the lives of atheists and agnostics demonstrate that morality is possible outside of the confines of religion. Additionally, the major world religions do not share a universal set of moral codes, but the followers of those religions, along with atheists and agnostics, can all lead a virtuous and moral life (Pecorino, 2001). Hauser and Singer (2005, 2006) further supported this by demonstrating that both believers and skeptics of religion responded to moral dilemmas in a similar way, such that there was more than 90% agreement on each dilemma among them. While this study has provided empirical evidence supporting the assertion that morality does not need to be rooted in a deity or the divine, philosophy and science have yet to end their debate and reach a parsimonious understanding of the relationship between morality and religion. Therefore, the field of psychology must continue to conduct studies to further explicate and differentiate the constructs of religious and moral identity.

One of the most widely applied approaches to studying identity in social psychology is guided by the framework of social identity theory, which asserts that one's self-concept is comprised of both individual and social identities (Tajfel & Turner, 1979, 1986). A perceived positive social identity can cause one's self-esteem to increase because the group membership is leading to a sense of belonging. This can then lead to ingroup favoritism because the ingroup is thought to be highly distinguished in comparison to others. Therefore, through the process of self-categorization when one's social identity is salient, unfavorable traits are attributed to members of the outgroup in attempts to maintain one's self-esteem and the status of the ingroup as superior (Smith & Tyler, 1997; Tajfel & Turner, 1979, 1986; Turner, 1975).

Race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class have all been extensively examined according to social identity theory and the requisite effects of self-categorization (Tajfel &Turner, 1979, 1986). However, this fundamental theory of identity and the consequences associated with it have yet to be thoroughly applied to religious and moral identities. First, it is important to define moral and religious identities. Preliminary studies have defined moral identity as a conceptualization of one's morality that is based on moral traits (Aquino & Reed, 2002; Reed & Aquino, 2003). As such, the content that comprises one's moral identity can vary from person to person (Aquino & Reed, 2002). Religious identity shares similar features with other well studied identities, such as being created in the context of the social world (Vryan, Adler, & Adler, 2003), being maintained by situational factors (Strauss, 1959), and causing stratifications amongst the various groups in the social world (Anthias, 2001). Consequently, individual and social identities have been established for both religious (Van Camp, Sloan, & Barden, 2009) and moral identities (Aquino & Reed, 2002), but the consequences of the dimensions of each of these identities is still an understudied topic in identity research. For example, it has been found that priming moral identity has led to increased inclusiveness to the ingroup, thereby decreasing negativity towards members of the outgroup (Reed & Aquino, 2003), but how does this compare to the consequences that the individual and social components of religious identity have on the evaluation of outgroup members?

The present study sought to establish that religious and moral identities are distinct by exploring the effects of the individual and social components of these identities on the stereotyping of religious outgroup targets. Will those with the social dimension salient of moral identity stereotype religious outgroup targets less than someone with the social dimension salient of religious identity? It is expected that priming the social dimension of religious identity will result in more negative outgroup evaluations, while priming moral identity should reduce outgroup denigration. We expected no difference in the evaluation of the outgroup target when the individual dimensions of moral and religious identities are salient.



Sixty-eight Christian female participants were retained in the final sample. Of these participants, 44% were Christian non-specific, 31% were Baptist, 96% were between the ages of 18 and 22, and 87% self-identified as being African-American. (1)


Individual vs. social identity dimension manipulation. To manipulate whether participants think of their identity in individual or social terms, they were to read a short paragraph written from a personal or collective perspective. Participants were also asked to circle either all of the individual or collective pronouns in order to strengthen the effect of the manipulation (Brewer & Gardner, 1996).

Religious vs. moral identity type manipulation. Previous research has demonstrated that stimulus cues, such as traits, can induce salience of an identity in an individual (Forehand, Deshpande, & Reed, 2002). Consequently, Aquino and Reed (2002) identified eight traits that are typical of a moral person, through an inductive procedure that established content validity. The traits included were caring, compassionate, fair, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest, and kind. Exposing a participant to these traits would hopefully induce spreading activation of other traits closely associated with one's moral self-concept. Therefore, a salient moral identity might be achieved by asking participants to read these traits and think about how a person they know who embodies these traits would behave. This method was then adapted to manipulate religious identity, and the traits identified included pious, divine, sacred, angelic, devout, holy, righteous, and pure.

Ingroup vs. outgroup status of the candidate. All participants were then asked to read the same generic job application with information regarding the targets' work experience, academic record and training, all suggesting that the candidate was well suited for an administrative assistant position. The candidate in both conditions was a Black female and considered to be a member of the racial and gender ingroup for all participants. To manipulate the targets' religious group and thus, status as an ingroup or outgroup member, the following were varied: her photo (to be pictured with a hijab or without a hijab), hobbies (involved in the local mosque and Muslim youth center or local church and Christian youth center), and religion (Muslim or Christian). This technique to assess prejudice toward religious outgroups has been successfully adapted from Fein and Spencer (1997) and by Van Camp (2010).

The dependent measure was the overall evaluation of the target. Participants were asked to answer six questions, developed for this study, about how much they liked or disliked the target of the job application. An example question, rated on a 9-point scale (1 at negative end of the scale, 9 at positive end of the scale), included "How favorable or unfavorable do you feel about Aisha?" The dimensions assessed, to provide an overall evaluation of the target, included positive-negative, good-bad, like-dislike, pleasant-unpleasant, and warm-cold.

Moderator. The target's perceived attitude towards Christians was measured as a potential moderating variable. Four questions, rated on a 9-point scale, were included to assess how the participants perceived the target's attitude towards Christians, which was the religious ingroup for all participants. Higher ratings indicate a more positive perceived attitude towards Christians.

Manipulation checks. Participants were asked to recall what type of pronouns they circled (individual or collective), identify the list of traits they were given (religious or moral identity type conditions), and the religion of the target (Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist).


The current study was a 2 (identity dimension: individual / social) x 2 (identity type: moral / religious) x 2 (target: ingroup / outgroup) between-subjects design. Upon arrival to the research laboratory, participants were randomly assigned to the individual or social identity dimension condition and to the religious or moral identity type condition. Once this priming procedure was complete, participants were then randomly presented with a job application, of either the Christian (ingroup) or Muslim (outgroup) target, and asked to form an impression of her. Participants were prompted to assess the candidate on various evaluative judgment measures. To conclude the study, participants responded to a manipulation check, trait measures and demographic information. Prior to leaving, participants were thanked for their time and debriefed.


The manipulation checks were analyzed and participants overwhelmingly identified themselves as being in the correct identity type (religious / moral) category, [chi square] (1, N = 68) = 56.97, p = .000. Participants also identified themselves as being in the correct identity dimension (individual / social) category, [chi square] (1, N = 68) = 64.11, p = .000. Participants also correctly identified the religion of the target (Christian / Muslim), [chi square] (2, N = 68) = 60.46, p = .000.

A 2 (identity dimension: individual / social) x 2 (identity type manipulation: moral / religious) x 2 (target: ingroup / outgroup) between-subjects ANOVA was performed on the overall evaluation of the target. A standard moderation analysis by Hayes and Matthes (2009) was performed to analyze the potential moderating effects of the target's perceived attitude towards Christians, trait measures, and demographics.

Analyses revealed only one significant main effect, which was for identity type (religious / moral), F(1, 60) = 7.98, p< .01, [[eta].sup.2] = .117. When primed with a moral identity (M = 8.09, SD = .19), participants rated the target significantly more likeable on the six-item evaluative index than participants in the religious identity prime condition (M = 7.31, SD = .20). This evaluative index was an average of ratings of the target on dimensions of favorable-unfavorable, positive-negative, good-bad, like-dislike, pleasant-unpleasant, and warm-cold.

This religious / moral identity type main effect on the overall evaluation of the target was moderated by the target's perceived attitude towards Christians, b = .40, t(64) = 2.62, p< .05. Those in the moral identity condition rated the target's overall evaluation consistently very positive, regardless of the target's perceived attitude towards Christians. Conversely, the evaluation of those in the religious identity condition was contingent upon the target's perceived attitude towards Christians. The more favorable the target's perceived attitude towards Christians, the more positively they were evaluated by those in the religious identity condition. Therefore, the overall evaluation of the target is conditional for those in the religious identity condition, depending on the target's perceived attitude towards Christians, while it is not conditional for those in the moral identity condition. Figure 1 illustrates this moderation effect.

There was not a statistically significant two-way interaction on the overall evaluation index. However, there was a marginally significant two-way interaction of the religious / moral identity type manipulation by target for the question of "How much do you like or dislike Aisha?," F (1, 60) = 3.86, p = .054, [[eta].sup.2] = .060. This was primarily a difference in how the outgroup was rated based on the moral/religious identity type manipulation. Those in the moral identity condition rated the outgroup target as more likeable than those in the religious identity condition. There was no difference in the likeability rating of the ingroup target among the moral and religious identity type conditions. This pattern of effects supports the hypothesis of the study. Figure 2 illustrates this marginal two-way interaction.


The hypotheses of this study were partially supported by the results. The data did support expectations that moral identity and religious identity are, at least in part, two distinct constructs by revealing differences in evaluative judgments when morally versus religiously primed. Those in the primed moral identity condition rated the target positively even when they perceived the target attitude towards the Christian ingroup as negative, while those in the primed religious condition rated them lower. This demonstrated that even when the targets are perceived as biased against one's ingroup, those with a salient moral identity can still evaluate the targets objectively or perhaps, simply do not consider this as a relevant criterion for evaluation. However, this is not true for those with a salient religious identity, such that the overall evaluation of the target is conditional and depends on the perceived target attitude towards Christians. Those with a religious identity activated rated ingroup and outgroup targets more positively, only if they were perceived to hold a favorable attitude towards Christians. Overall, these findings are consistent with theories that moral awareness widens acceptance of others while increased religious outgroup awareness increases distance and rejection, particularly when outgroup hostility is anticipated (Reed & Aquino, 2003). Therefore, finding ways to make moral identity more salient in society could potentially lead to greater inclusion and reduce discrimination of diverse others by blurring the stratifications among various social groups.

Therefore, the findings of the current study expand the literature by providing empirical evidence for the distinctiveness of moral and religious identity as separate constructs. This also supports much of the philosophical and ethics literature, which asserts that religious and moral identities are not synonymous, but rather, are distinct constructs (Hauser & Singer, 2005, 2006; Pecorino, 2001). Further, the marginally significant difference in how the ingroup and outgroup targets were evaluated based on the type of salient identity (religious or moral) indicates that there are perhaps more differences that exist between religious and moral identities that need to be explored.

A limitation of this study is the moderate sample size. Future studies should aim to collect a larger sample size in order to increase power and the chance of finding significant effects, should they exist. Another possible limitation of this study is the strength of the identity type (religious/moral) and identity dimension (individual/social) primes. Conceivably, some of the expected effects may not have emerged because stronger manipulations of the identity types and dimensions were necessary. Future studies should seek to use stronger manipulations or even employ multiple manipulations for the same independent variable to increase its effectiveness. Furthermore, spirituality is an additional construct, besides morality, that has been confounded with religiosity (Zinnbauer & Pargament, 2005). Future studies could compare the effects of priming spiritual identity to religious and moral identities.


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(1) One hundred and eleven Howard University undergraduate students participated in return for partial course credit. Of those, 95 self-identified as Christian and were retained in the sample. Only Christian participants were included in the sample to maintain the religious ingroup and outgroup status of the target on the subsequent tasks, as Christian and Muslim, respectively. Only female participants were retained in the sample to avoid potentially confounding the religious ingroup/outgroup status manipulation with a gender outgroup member since the target was female. Additionally, analyses also confirmed this concern in that there were significant interactions of gender and the independent variables on some dependent measures. There were not enough males in the sample to draw valid conclusions for the gender differences and consequently, the final sample consisted of 68 Christian female participants. Based on a power analysis of the current sample, 52.7% power was attained at an effect size of .25 (Faul, Erdfelder, Lang, & Buchner, 2007).

Amanda ElBassiouny and Lloyd Ren Sloan

Spring Hill College and Howard University

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Amanda ElBassiouny, 4000 Dauphin St., Mobile, AL 36608

Caption: FIGURE 1 Effects of Religious vs. Moral Identity Type Prime on Overall Evaluation of the Target Based on the Target's Perceived Attitude towards Christians.

Caption: FIGURE 2 Effects of Religious/moral Identity Type Prime & Ingroup / Outgroup Status of Target on Likeability Rating of the Target
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Author:ElBassiouny, Amanda; Sloan, Lloyd Ren
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
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Date:Mar 1, 2018
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