Field of Science

Defacing Bible is 'disgusting', says Pope

An exhibition at Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow is proving to be just a bit more controversial than the organizers had hoped for. One of the exhibits featured a bible, and a pen, and an encouragement homosexuals to write uplifting messages in the margins. Tragically, it seems that some homosexuals don't feel too warmly to the Bible and some of the comments were unkind, even going so far as to call the book "the biggest lie in human history".

All this has upset the Pope, according to the Telegraph:

The adviser to the head of the Catholic Church said the project was "disgusting and offensive".

It's an interesting choice of words, that. Offensive I can understand, but disgusting?

As luck would have it I've just been reading a new study on 'disgust'. The authors tackled a long standing problem on how to classify different types of disgust. The classical model, based on a study done by Jon Haidt, breaks disgust into three domains - core disgust, animal reminder disgust, and interpersonal disgust.

The problem with this is that it's hard to figure out what the functional value of these three domains is. What's the survival value - why would they evolve?

So the new paper proposes a revised model, based around three domains that are linked directly to evolutionary benefit. Now, the interesting bit is how they developed the model.

Basically what they did was to a group of 14 people to write down 15 different things that some people might think were disgusting. They whittled this down to 58 unique items, and asked a larger group of undergrads to rate them on how disgusting each was. Then they used a statistical technique (factor analysis) to see how the groups bunched up.

As they expected, they found that there are basically three types of disgust:

  • Pathogen disgust (things like "Standing next to someone who has strong body odour"), which helps to keep you free of infection.
  • Sexual disgust (e.g. "Having sex with a much older person"), which safeguards against bad reproductive decisions, and is much more powerful for women than for men.
  • Moral disgust (e.g. "Forging a signature"), which helps to stop you doing antisocial things, which could lead to you becoming ostracised.
So where does the Pope's disgust for the Glasgow exhibition fit into this list? You might think that it fits under 'moral disgust', but in fact all the examples in that category are about social interactions - lying, cheating, and stealing. They don't seem really to cover it.

Perhaps it's sexual disgust. The offending people were homosexuals, after all, and a lot of the scribblings that caused the ruction were sexual ("I am Bi, Female & Proud. I want no god who is disappointed in this”). What's more, another of the exhibits featured video of a woman tearing out pages of the bible and stuffing them into her underwear!

But my gut feeling says something different. I think that a lot of religious people experience 'sacred disgust'. They feel that certain objects and places have special, magical properties, and they react with disgust when these objects are violated in much the same way as they would when a person is violated.

If that's true, then the Pope's disgust is a form of moral disgust, but it's moral disgust transferred to objects, rather than people.

The problem with this idea is that the three domains of disgust (pathogen, sexual, moral) are supposed to have evolved because they provide a clear survival benefit. But what would be the survival benefit of moral disgust linked to objects?

Tybur, J., Lieberman, D., & Griskevicius, V. (2009). Microbes, mating, and morality: Individual differences in three functional domains of disgust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97 (1), 103-122 DOI: 10.1037/a0015474

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How not to cure headaches

Here's a rather painful case reported in the Singapore Medical Journal - a 45-year old woman brought into hospital unconscious. The doctor explains:

The relatives revealed that she had been suffering from a headache (more on the right side) for the last ten years, with off and on exacerbation. They took the patient to a Tantrik, who hammered the nail into her head to get rid of the bad omen.

Now, a Tantrik is a Hindu spiritualist, something like this fellow on the left. But, as far as I can tell, the 'nail in the head' option is not standard tantrik practice.

What it does have a lot of similarities to is trephination, which is not only one of the oldest known forms of surgery, but also one that was taken quite seriously into the modern era (until people started demanding evidence that it actually worked). I guess it just seems intuitively reasonable - if you have a headache, you need to make a hole in your skull.

There was a happy ending to this story. They successfully removed removed the nail, and the lady concerned recovered consciousness and seemed to be doing well.

They don't report whether her headaches stopped.

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Religious parents, atheist children, and family strife

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, has been looking into how family harmony is affected when children adopt religious beliefs different from their parents'. You might know the name already - he wrote a book a couple of years back: Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.

In his latest paper, he (along with grad student Charles Stokes) has analysed data from the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. What he was looking at was differences between the child's rating of the importance of religion and their parent's rating. He also looked at how often they went to church, compared with their parents.

Then he fed this into a model, along with a bunch of other demographic factors, to see how they related to the child's report of parent-child relations.

What he found was very specific. Family harmony is hurt if the child is less religious than their parent, but not if the child is more religious than their parent. What's more, church attendance doesn't factor - it doesn't really affect family harmony if the child doesn't go to church, what matters is whether they think their religion is important.

As Regnerus puts it:

Our findings strongly suggest that those parents who care about religion appear to be frustrated with their children who do not, creating an environment with both opportunities for conflict and for inscribing 'normal' conflict with religious meaning. And the greater the magnitude of the discord, the more intense is the negative sentiment from child to parent.

The worst problems occurred in families where parent and child differed by at least 2 points on a 5-point scale (so, for example the parent reports religion as 'very important' while the child reports it as 'fairly unimportant'). Eleven percent of American children fall into the category.

It's important not to get this out of proportion, however. Religious differences are one of many factors in the model, and all of them combined only explain about 10-15% of the variation in family strife. So most family strife is due to something else!

So what about in the reverse direction? It seems that children who are much more religious than their parents don't face the same barriers.

Regnerus doesn't really speculate on why this might be - except to suggest that religious teens may make more effort to live in harmony/be obedient to their parents.

I reckon that it's more likely to be due to differences between atheist parents and religious parents. For a start, most people are religious in the USA, but there are few atheists. So maybe atheist parents are less freaked out by their kids taking up religion because it doesn't seem so weird.

Then too, atheists are different to the religious. They are more likely to be college educated, and to have more liberal, freethinking views. Religion, especially in the USA, is more attractive to those who tend to see the world in terms of polar opposites, rather than shades of grey.

So here's a question to the readers of this blog. How would you feel if your kids (OK, you may have to use your imagination here) became fervently religious? Do you try to shield them from religion?

Would you send them to an atheist summer camp? Would you be more likely to if they failed to 'see the light'?

Stokes, C., & Regnerus, M. (2009). When faith divides family: Religious discord and adolescent reports of parent–child relations. Social Science Research, 38 (1), 155-167 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2008.05.002

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Prayer frequency in different countries - the data

This is just a quick follow-up to my previous post, on prayer frequency in different nations as estimated with model using income inequality, GDP, urbanisation, religious diversity and goverment regulation of religion.

There's a graph which shows how the model performs versus reality. All the blue blobs are different countries, but not all are labelled.

A few people have asked what the values were for individual countries that weren't labelled. Well, here they are!

The numbers are on a 7-point scale, where 1 is pray every day and 7 is never. High numbers = less prayer!

Country Actual prayer frequency
Predicted prayer frequency

Australia 4.78

Austria 4.06

Bangladesh 1.76

Belgium 4.76

Bulgaria 5.13

Canada 3.42

Chile 2.98

Czech Republic 5.71

Denmark 5.43

Estonia 5.58

Finland 4.10

France 5.51

Germany 5.11

Greece 3.39

Hungary 4.48

India 2.55

Iran 2.48

Ireland 2.69

Israel 4.72

Italy 3.18

Japan 4.82

Korea, South 3.56

Kyrgyzstan 3.05

Latvia 4.55

Lithuania 4.29

Luxembourg 4.68

Macedonia 3.70

Mexico 2.38

Moldova 2.80

Morocco 2.43

Netherlands 4.86

New Zealand 4.54

Norway 5.20

Peru 2.06

Philippines 1.55

Poland 2.30

Portugal 3.25

Romania 2.43

Russia 5.19

Singapore 3.46

Slovakia 3.57

Slovenia 4.92

South Africa 2.13

Spain 4.30

Sweden 5.69

Switzerland 3.80

Tanzania 1.56

Turkey 1.78

Uganda 1.74

Ukraine 4.33

United Kingdom 5.03

United States 2.30

Venezuela 2.18

Viet Nam 5.70

Zimbabwe 2.04

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Religion and mental health

If you're interested in the link between religion and mental health, there's a new open access review in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. It's by Harold Koenig, who's one of the world's leading experts on religion and mental health.

His conclusion: religious people are less likely to be depressed, anxious, or attempt suicide. The evidence is mostly cross-sectional – showing that depressed people are less likely to be religious, for whatever reason. But there are also a number of longitudinal studies, showing that people who are religious are less likely to become depressed in the future.

For people with psychotic delusions, the picture is more complicated. They are frequently highly religious, but the longitudinal studies suggest that psychosis comes first.

Koenig's conclusion, that religion can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, isn't terribly surprising. But what jumps out from the review is how many questions are left unanswered. For example,
  • What's the magnitude of the effect? Is it big enough to make any meaningful difference? How does it compare with other factors that influence depression?
  • Is it effective in severe depression, or just in mild depression (where placebos are also highly effective)?
  • Is it religious beliefs, or attendance, or simply the much more vague concept of 'spirituality' that is important? Koenig's review doesn't really distinguish between them, probably because, historically, studies into the effects of religion didn't tend to.
What does it all mean for the treatment of mental illness? In an accompanying paper, Marilyn Baetz and John Toews try to unpack this conundrum - and they fully admit that they don't have much to go on.

They do give some practical advice, but even that demonstrates just how confusing this field can be for the unwary. They reckon that you can treat depression by encouraging a spirit of altruism, gratitude and forgiveness.

It's sound advice, no doubt. But I think that most atheists would rankle at the idea that these fall under the heading of 'religious and spiritual' interventions!

So we really are still a very long way away from answering the key question. To boil it down, I want to know whether it's possible to treat depression by prescribing a dose of religion. And if it is, then is it more effective than other treatment options?

If it turns out that a good way to treat depression is to pack people off to their local imam, then that really will raise some interesting ethical issues!

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Religion and marital infidelity

Here's another one for the 'It's about attendance, not belief' files. It turns out that strong religious beliefs do not reduce infidelity, although regular churchgoers are more faithful. The study was published last year, but it's new to me at least (thanks to Brian Cleary for bringing it to my attention).

What the investigators (David Atkins and Deborah Kessel from Fuller Theological Seminary in California) did was to analyse data from the 1998 General Social Survey of the USA.

The survey is massive - 3,000 questions - including 37 on different aspects of religion. They grouped these into 9 categories, and analysed them together with other factors that influence infidelity - age, gender, income, and marital happiness.

Now, there are some caveats that need to be applied here. This was self-reported infidelity, something that people are likely to under-report, and attendance, which is often over-reported. And it's a cross-sectional analysis, like most of these sorts of things, so cause-and-effect are open to question.

But it seems that religious attendance is associated with less infidelity. The authors put this down to the likelihood that couples that go to church together are more likely to stay together, for a number of reasons.

However, I wonder whether regular church goers are simply more conscientious and family oriented than other religious people. That's why they go to church. For non-religious people, I suspect you would find a similar thing for those people who commit to secular activities.

There's another interesting fact that they found. It turns out that there's an interaction with marital happiness. Now, people who are not too happy with their marriage are, unsurprisingly, much more likely to have affairs. However, it's here that the effect of attendance is biggest.

People who are unhappy with their marriage and who never go to church are 23% more likely to have an affair than people who are happy and never go to church. However, people who are unhappy with their marriage and regularly go to church are only 12% more likely to have an affair than people who are happy and regular church goers,

In other words, church going seems to be effective in keeping people stuck in unhappy marriages.

One last thing. From the graph above, you can see that people who feel that they are 'near to god' seem to be more likely to have an affair. Atkins & Kessel dug into this a little deeper, and it turns out that people who are near to god but do not go to church are actually 25% more likely to have an affair - which is statistically significant.

There are several possible reasons for this. It could be that these people are disgraced, rejected from their communities, and so exclude from communal activities. Or it could be that these are people who have religious differences from their spouse, and these differences lead to less church going and more infidelity!


ResearchBlogging.orgAtkins, D., & Kessel, D. (2008). Religiousness and Infidelity: Attendance, but not Faith and Prayer, Predict Marital Fidelity Journal of Marriage and Family, 70 (2), 407-418 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00490.x

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Prayer reduces stress - but no more than self-motivation

Prayer can reduce stress, according to a new study by Janie Wilson, a psychologist at Georgia Southern University. Not only do people who pray feel less stressed, but it also helps to lower their blood pressure.

What Wilson did was to subject a group of over 100 undergrads (90% of them religious) to a stressful task - she videotaped them while they did a four-minute mock interview.

Before the interview, they each were given one of three different paragraphs to read. One was an encouraging prayer, one was an encouraging and motivational secular paragraph ("I can do this. Think of all the obstacles that I have overcome in my life..." etc). The third was the control group - they read about riding a bike.

The graph shows the results from systolic blood pressure. As you can see, both self talk and prayer were pretty effective. Although prayer just wins out, the difference isn't statistically meaningful. Similar results were seen from the questionnaire-based measure of stress.

So these results show that prayer is about as effective as self-motivation. For Wilson, this was a surprise. She was expecting prayer to be more effective, on the grounds that it creates the mental feeling of a wider circle of friends - a bigger and more powerful support network, if you will.

On the other hand, it does help to explain why people pray more in stressful environments. To be sure, motivational self-awareness might be just as effective, but prayer is what they know and intuitively turn to.

Belding, J., Howard, M., McGuire, A., Schwartz, A., & Wilson, J. (2009). Social Buffering by God: Prayer and Measures of Stress Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-009-9256-8

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Are American scientists getting more religious?

Razib at Gene Expression has the lowdown on a new survey comparing social, political and religious attitudes of scientists with the general public. Unsurprisingly, there's a huge gulf between the two groups. While 41% of the scientists said they didn't believe in god or in a high power, just 4% of the general public said the same.

There's one statistic that is rather unexpected, however. As you can see in this table, younger scientists are more likely to be religious than older ones. That's the reverse of what you see in the general population.

A similar thing was seen in a study published back in 2007 by Elaine Ecklund at SUNY. In a survey of of 1,500 academics, she found that those aged under 35 were 50% more likely to say that they believed in god or attended religious services compared with those aged over 45.

Ecklund thinks that this might indicate a trend towards increasing religiousness in academics. After all, adults don't often change their religious beliefs. So as the younger academics get older and the older ones retire (or die), you would expect the number of believers to increase. But I have one niggling doubt.

Ecklund also thinks (and she's probably right) that the reason academics are less religious is because academia attracts freethinkers. It's not so much that the facts you learn as a professional biologist tease you away from religion, it's more that people who aren't that wowed by religion are more likely to become biologists (see Matt Young's recent post on this over at Panda's Thumb).

So I wonder about the age effect. Could it simply be that there's a selective process at work here? Perhaps religious scientists simply don't stay in the profession after their PhD and maybe one or two post-docs.

For this to be true, however, you would expect there to be fewer older academics than younger. Stats on that are hard to come by. The NSF publishes comprehensive stats on just about everything other than the age of university-employed scientists. Ecklund doesn't break down the age demographics in her survey. The Pew Survey does (p 95), and over half of the scientists they surveyed (selected from members of the AAAS) are actually over 50!

So I'm not sure what can be concluded from the age profiles of non-religious scientists. Evidence that scientists are bucking the general secularizing trend, or an interesting insight into workplace peer pressure?

Ecklund, E., & Scheitle, C. (2007). Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics Social Problems, 54 (2), 289-307 DOI: 10.1525/sp.2007.54.2.289

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Why some countries are more religious than others

After nearly two years of blogging on other people's peer-reviewed studies, it's a refreshing change to now be blogging on one of my own! My paper, Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief?, is now out in the Journal of Religion and Society (pdf).

The paper is a statistical analysis of the causes of religiosity at a national level (in other words, the core characteristics of a country that help to explain how religious its population is). The motivation for this was triggered by a couple of conundrums.

Firstly, studies done looking at people within a single country generally conclude that religious people are more pro-social. But back in 2005, Gregory S Paul published a study which seemed to show that, at the national level, the opposite happens. The more religious a country is, the worse is its 'Societal Health'.

Secondly, although it's commonly assumed (at least by atheists) that increasing wealth and all that goes with it (science, education, communication) is gradually eroding religion, there are some glaring anomalies. The most spectacular is the USA, which is both one of the wealthiest large nations and also one of the most religious.

Could these two be connected? They would be if societal ill health is an important factor in making people more religious, and if wealthy nations are not equally effective in improving the lot of their citizens.

There were some intriguing hints already out there. As I explained in an earlier post, it was already known that nations with higher welfare spending and lower income inequality were less religious.

So I set out to test whether this idea really could compete with the conventional theories on why nations differ in their religiosity. Here's the two hypotheses that the paper tests:
  1. Are the worst societies really more religious? And if so, is income inequality a thread that ties together the markers of societal health? If it does, then income inequality can be used as a kind of overall measure of societal health in the next step of the analysis.
  2. The second step was to work out how important income inequality is as an cause of religiosity, compared with the standard theories.

I should explain here that by religiosity I mean the intensity of beliefs, as measured by how often people pray, rather than how often they go to church or anything else. Religion is a complicated, multifaceted beast. So results that hold for one measure (frequency of prayer) might not hold for another.

Worse societies are more religious

I pulled together data on frequency of prayer from over 50 countries, and found that countries where people prayed more frequently had lower life expectancy and scored lower on the Peace Index. They also had higher infant mortality, homicide rates, and levels of corruption, and had more AIDS and more abortion. That's pretty conclusive.

What's more, countries with worse societal health also had more income inequality. In fact, the relationship between income inequality and societal health was similar to that between religiosity and societal health. Income inequality can indeed serve as a 'barometer' of overall societal health, as it relates to religiosity.

The next step was to compare the importance of income inequality as a cause of religiosity with the standard theories of why some countries are less religious. These are modernization (as measured by per capita GDP and urbanization) and regulation (both governmental and social pressures on the free expression of religious beliefs, as well as religious pluralism).

The pie chart shows the relative importance of these factors in explaining country differences in religiosity. As you can see, both modernization and societal health (income inequality) are powerful, whereas regulation is less so. Overall, about 60% of the variation between countries is explained.

How does this map out? Well, using this model you can plot the predicted level of religiosity, based on just 5 key factors (income inequality, GDP, urbanization, religious pluralism, and government regulation) against the actual levels.

It does a pretty good job. Across a wide variety of national cultures, from the Far East to sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, most countries have pretty much the same level of religion as the model predicts. The USA is still a bit of an outlier, but that's a topic for another post!

The take home is this. The standard theories of religion seem to work. The more you regulate religion, the more you turn people off it. The more you modernize the country, the more people abandon religion.

But there is a key missing ingredient that helps to explain why these standard theories are incomplete. And that missing ingredient is societal health.

Nations have choices over how to look after the people at the bottom of the social pile. Those nations that choose to make this a priority, which inevitably involves shifting money and resource from the rich to the poor, lower the overall levels of stress. And when you remove the stress caused by their social situation, people tend to lose interest in religion.
Rees, TJ (2009). Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief? Journal of Religion and Society, 11

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Religious bidders more motivated by competition than charity

On the previous post, Bjørn asked:

Could it be that the non-religious don't bid much on Sundays because they just don't bid much on Sundays? What was the effect on Saturdays? Was there a Sunday control?

Now that's an interesting one. There was a control phrase used in the study, and the results from that one open up another small can of worms. Here it is:

“The competition is heating up! If you hope to win, you will have to bid again. Are you up for the challenge?”

So this one appealed to the bidders' sense of competition, rather than their sense of charity. And the graph shows what happened. A couple of comments:

First, both groups showed a small drop in the bidding on Sunday. That suggests that, on the whole, people have better things to do on a Sunday than online charity auctions. But the drop for the non-religious wasn't as big as the drop we saw in response to the appeal to charity. So it seems that an appeal to charity really might turn religious people off if you make those appeals on a Sunday.

But the other interesting thing is that whatever the day, the response from the religious is higher. Not only higher relative to the non-religious, but higher relative to their response to the charitable appeal. For the non-religious, on the other hand, the average response was about the same to the two different kinds of appeal.

In other words, if you want to get maximise the contributions from this religious group, at least, you are better off with an appeal to their competitive instincts, rather than their charitable ones!

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Christian morality: the Sunday effect

Scientific studies into the effect of religion on behaviour make heavy use of priming studies. Basically, these studies test the effects of a subliminal flash of a religious word. If behaviour changes, then that's taken as evidence that religion causes the effects.

The message that comes out of these studies tends to be that these subliminal prompts have all sorts of interesting effects, and are probably rather more important than what the test subject says they believe.

Question is, though, are these laboratory studies at all relevant to real life?

Christianity offers an interesting case study. For most Christians, there's a regular, weekly surge in the amount of religious priming they're exposed - every Sunday, at church.

So it's interesting to take a look at Christian behaviour in the real world. There's been a couple of interesting studies recently, both of them (strangely enough) out of the Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets Unit at the Harvard Business School.

First off, Ben Edelman has analysed subscriptions to porn websites. You might've heard this one earlier in the year - it was widely talked about. Among other interesting nuggets, states with a lot of people who take a conservative Christian line actually had more porn subscribers!

But when you look at church attendance, and control for a host of other factors, the differences fade. Regions with lots of regular churchgoers had no more porn subscribers than those with few churchgoers.

But there was an interesting rhythm to porn subscribing in the regions with lots of churchgoers. It went down on Sundays, and up on the other days of the week. According to Edelman:

... a 1 percent increase in the proportion of people who report regularly attending religious services is associated with a 0.10 percent reduction in the proportion of purchases that occur on Sunday. This analysis suggests that, on the whole, those who attend religious services shift their consumption of adult entertainment to other days of the week, despite on average consuming the same amount of adult entertainment as others.

The second was a rather clever study by Deepak Malhotra - (Working Paper, available here). He collaborated with a US firm that runs online charity auctions. As the auction closes, the participants get an automated email encouraging them to up their bids.

What Malhotra wanted to know was whether changing the text of that email could change how much people bid. So he changed the text of the email to include a line that appealed to the bidders sense of charity:
“We hope you will continue to support this charity by keeping the bidding alive. Every extra dollar you bid in the auction helps us accomplish our very important mission.”

And here's what happened (see figure). On weekdays, religious people and non-religious people both bid the same. But on Sundays, non-religious people bid less, but religious people bid much more.

This is a fascinating result. For a start, the non-religious people seem to have been adversely affected by the religious prime (remember, this was in the USA, where a lot of non-religious people go to church or are otherwise affected by religious primes on a Sunday).

And when you remove the prime, both religious and non-religious people are equally charitable. Which is exactly what the laboratory studies conclude.


ResearchBlogging.orgEdelman, B. (2009). Markets: Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23 (1), 209-220 DOI: 10.1257/jep.23.1.209

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Sinning saints and other quandaries

Priests and other moral figureheads sometimes go bad. That's inevitable, given that there are so many of them. Still, it makes you wonder if there's something more complex going on. Could it be that moral authority actually contributes to immorality?

Back in 2007 there was a study that suggested one way this could happen. People who are convinced of their moral correctness were found to actually be more likely to cheat - because they were more likely to feel that their cheating could be justified.

Now a new study suggests that people have a moral 'set point'. Do a good deed, and the temptation is to make up for it by doing something naughty.

Other studies have shown the moral-cleansing effect, but this new Northwestern model shows that the cleansing also has to do with restoring an ideal level of moral self-worth. In other words, when people operate above or below a certain level of moral self-worth, they instinctively push back in the opposite direction to reach an internally regulated set point of goodness.

"If people feel too moral," Sachdeva said, "they might not have sufficient incentive to engage in moral action because of the costliness of being good." Science Daily

Basically, this was a priming study. The participants were asked to write a short essay either on doing a good deed, or a bad one, or neutral. Those who wrote about doing a good deed were least generous in a variety of follow up tests, especially when the good deed they wrote about was their own.

The next step, apparently, is to see whether the results hold for other cultures.

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