Phone: 612-624-5551
unews@umn.edu
24-hr number: 612-293-0831

Advanced Search

Feature

Laura Koenig

Laura Koenig studied surveys of identical and fraternal twins and began to see patterns emerge about what influences people's religiousness.

Religious faith may be genetic

By Chris Coughlan-Smith

Published on July 15, 2005

In the nature-versus-nurture debate--whether our genes or our environment dominate in making us who we are--research out of the Minnesota Center for Twin and Adoption Research at the University of Minnesota has played a central role for more than 25 years. Starting with landmark studies of twins reared apart, Minnesota researchers have discovered remarkable levels of genetic influence on psychological traits and social attitudes. The newest University study on twins finds that degree of religious faith appears to be tied to genetics. Further, it concludes that the genetic influence grows in adulthood. Behavioral psychology Ph.D. student Laura Koenig (M.A. '04) reviewed lengthy surveys from the early 1990s in the center's database. Though the surveys dealt with parenting behavior of twins, Koenig discovered that some included nine questions that dealt directly with religious faith, including about church attendance, prayer, religious reading, and more open-ended questions. Respondents who were asked the religiousness questions (more than 250 sets of male twins born from 1961 to 1964) were also asked to answer the same questions for when they were children.

Koenig has a natural interest in the topic: Her identical twin, Anne, is in graduate school for social psychology at Northwestern, and the girls were raised in a strongly religious family.

At her computer in a cramped, windowless lab she shares with other Ph.D. students in Elliot Hall, Koenig sifted through the responses and saw patterns begin to emerge: Upbringing played a large part in determining respondents' degree of faith early in life. But as respondents became adults, genetics became a dominant factor, either strengthening or reducing the role of religion in their lives. Koenig drew her conclusions based on the fact that identical twins, who share all their inherited genes, have similar degrees of faith in adulthood, while fraternal twins, who share half their inherited genes, tend to deviate in religiousness as they become adults. Koenig's analysis was published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality. Understanding which traits and attitudes are influenced by genetics can help psychologists, parents, teachers, and individuals learn how to work with genetic predispositions, Koenig asserts. Plus, she says, simply understanding why people do certain things is an important step in understanding human interaction as more than "a mass of confusing and chaotic behaviors." Koenig has a natural interest in the topic: Her identical twin, Anne, is in graduate school for social psychology at Northwestern, and the girls were raised in a strongly religious family. "The findings didn't cause me to question my faith at all," Laura Koenig says. "It makes sense that parental influence would decrease as you move through adolescence and start finding your own way."

From Minnesota magazine, July-August 2005.