Humans are social beings. We all belong to social groups - for example family, friends, colleagues, church choir, or even political parties.
When we commit to a group, we act in accordance to the group’s standards for behaviours, and add the group’s identity to our sense of self.
Some groups are more important to us than others, providing meaningful identities and even personal life goals. Religious or faith groups often work like that. Research has found links between religious beliefs and our attitudes towards life or even how we vote for political leaders and choose to support national policies. In general, being part of a religious group or faith is linked to higher well-being.
Life changes can make group memberships toxic
Yet sometimes group memberships can become toxic or undesirable for a person. Faith groups are no exception. For example, one participant in our study was rejected by their local church and congregation after they married their same-sex partner.
More broadly, life events such as migration or marriage, or societal events such as natural disasters or political revolutions, can introduce new environments and motivate changes to attitudes, beliefs and identities. Such changes may mean that our groups no longer ‘fit’ us.
Leaving toxic groups may preserve well-being
We conducted research with Americans who have had different experiences with religions. We asked people aged over 30 about their faith at age 20 and today, and compared people who have left their faith and become non-religious (n = 36) with those who maintained the same faith (n = 96).
Among other things, we were interested in to what extent being rejected by the faith group would affect their well-being today.
Our results show that being rejected at age 20 by people in their faith group was associated with lower well-being in the present (more than 10 years later) for people who continued with their faith. However, for those who left a faith group, the rejection did not do ongoing harm.
Such results affirm one reason why our social identities can be changed or lost. Previous research on identity loss has mostly focused on its harmful effects, such as increased depression and mortality. Here, however, we show that identity loss can sometimes be a buffer to protect our well-being from threats in a toxic group.
When groups become toxic, leaving the group can protect psychological well-being.
On a psychological level, the findings show how losing group membership can be beneficial in certain circumstances, where the benefits of abandoning a particular group membership outweigh the benefits of maintaining it. However, changes in faith have broad and far-reaching consequences. Understanding changes in religious and political affiliation is the topic of my PhD research.
- Gi Chonu
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Chonu, G. K., Louis, W. R., Haslam, S. A., (2017). When groups reject us: Testing buffering effects of identity change and multiple group memberships. Manuscript in preparation.
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