Field of Science

Do secular see religious Jews as more trustworthy?

Here's a nice study on the attitudes of Israeli secular and religious Jews. It was done on Facebook, which means that the sample is a little more diverse than the usual studies conducted solely in undergrads (although they still were mostly in their 20s). It's not published yet, but you can find a write-up of it here.

They asked the participants to imagine themselves in an unfamiliar Israeli town. Then they split them into three groups. The first group was asked to imagine themselves in at a gig (of the type of music they like). The second was asked to imagine themselves at a fitness centre. And the third was asked to imagine themselves at a communal religious activity - a synagogue (for men) or prayer group (for women).

Then they put a couple of scenarios to the participants. First off, they were told that someone wanted to borrow their phone to phone their parents (and to assume their cellphone plan gave free calls). For how long would you lend your phone? Then they were told that, after leaving, they realized that they had left their wallet there. How likely is it to be returned?

Put plainly, the first question is a measure of altruism. The second is a measure of trust.

It turned out that people were more likely to be altruistic (lent their phone for longer) and more trusting (thought it more likely their wallet would be returned) in the religious setting compared with the other two.

What is interesting is that there was no difference between the religious and the secular on these measures. They were equally altruistic and equally trusting.

And, what's more, both secular and religious Jews were more willing to lend their phone to the religious group member, and both thought that the religious group was more likely to return the lost wallet.

Now that's not too surprising. Although this could indicate that secular Jews think that religious Jews are more likely to be decent chaps, it seems more likely to me that they simply understand that these are different social set-ups. Religious groups are much less anonymous than the other two groups. And, unlike music concerts and fitness centres, religious groups are bound by social ties.

However, although secular Jews were more trusting of the religious group, they were not as trusting of them as the religious Jews were. In other words, secular Jews were not quite so impressed by religious credentials as the religious Jews.

But all this is just attitudes and expectations. It would be fun to find out what actually would happen in real world situations. Because experiments often reveal behaviour that you would not expect (like the famous Seminary Student study and the Swiss Newspaper Study)

Time to start leaving a few wallets around Israel, to see what happens!

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I find this very depressing. The ultra-Orthodox have a stranglehold on Israeli society, are draining its social services system to the point of national bankruptcy and are increasingly responsible for acts of violence. Secular Israelis (along with liberal Jews worldwide) complain constantly about this. If this study is accurate - that is, if it was conducted properly and the results are being interpreted correctly - it would tend to explain why nothing has been done to attempt to remedy the situation.

    Tragically, it would also indicate an even lower potential for change than many of us have assumed.

  2. Thinking about it from a practical perspective, your safest bet is probably the fitness center... At least, that's assuming it's anything like US gyms. They have an ID on every single person going in and out of those places. Running a cellphone-stealing con in a gym... bad idea. You'd last about half a day.

  3. Yeah - give me a real policemen over an imaginary one any day!

  4. Tom, were you in Mexico (Iran, Afghanistan etc.) right now, you might feel differently. Stalin sided with you, but trebled the size of the force to compensate. Most communities find a balance of real and imaginary police to be most effective overall.

  5. On the other hand, few people are religious in Scandinavia and yet they seem to do OK without a big police force. The problem with the idea that god acts as a 'policeman in your head' is that the God concept is malleable. Few people do things that they believe are wrong. Rather, they convince themselves that their behaviour is justified for some reason - because of their special circumstances, for instance. Or they just have flat out denial. If they then convince themselves that God thinks the same as them (and they usually often do) then the 'policeman in the head' is no deterrent. Hence all the abusive priests etc.

    External standards and openness are far more effective.

  6. I think a balance still holds sway.
    I’m no expert on the sadistics of the situation, but judging from the local papers, California is prosecuting about as many police for rape and abuse as there are priests facing prosecution in the world, the priests make more headlines simply because their offences are less anticipated.


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