Field of Science

Calvinists can wait, but Catholics live for the moment

OK, here's the deal. I'll give you £5 right now - but if you can wait till next week, I'll give you £6. Which offer would you take?

It's the sort of dilemma that mirrors a host of real life problems, and how people react to questions like this reflects their approaches to these challenges. It's called temporal discounting.

Researchers in Rome, Bologna and Leiden ran these kinds of tests on 40 Dutch Calvinists and 49 Italian Catholics. Ninety Atheists from both countries formed the control group.

What they found is shown in the graphic on the right.

Atheists, on the left, showed pretty much the same rate of temporal discounting whether they were Italian or Dutch.

The Dutch Calvinists, however, showed low temporal discounting, while the Italian Catholics showed high temporal discounting.

That means that the Calvinists were more likely than the Catholics to say that they were prepared to wait for a larger reward. The Catholics were more likely to take the money and run.

Now, they did find that Italians as a group tended towards high temporal discounting, but that this didn't explain the difference between the two religious groups (because the atheists from the two countries were so similar).

The authors reckon this is probably something to do with the differences in religious teachings. They point out that both Catholic and Protestant teaching encourage asceticism, but Protestantism only teaches against immediate enjoyment and consumption - not against long-term accumulation.

More interesting to consider is the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Calvinists believe that our fate is already decided, and therefore our actions are not so much the cause of our afterlife fate, but rather should be taken as evidence of God's pre-planned fate for us.

Because there is no hope of 'forgiveness' in this way of thinking, Calvinists are going to be strongly motivated not to slip up even once. They write:

The protestant view of predestination gives a strong reason to behave virtuously not only in general but also in the specific context of intertemporal decision making: insofar as the short-term option is conceived as a form of impulsive self-indulgence, whereas the long-term alternative is seen as indicative of moral fibre and self control, Calvinists will have a much stronger incentive to opt for the latter than Catholics, thus showing lower time discount rates

Now, I don't know enough about Calvinism to judge whether it is likely. And I wonder if it is, in practice, any different from the concepts of forgiving versus unforgiving gods (and an unforgiving God is, of course, also a feature of many Catholic and Protestant sects).

But certainly food for thought!
Paglieri, F., Borghi, A., Colzato, L., Hommel, B., & Scorolli, C. (2013). Heaven can wait. How religion modulates temporal discounting Psychological Research DOI: 10.1007/s00426-012-0473-5

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


  1. It's logical: usually the Church (like the Mafia) takes the money and runs away.
    Atheists and Calvinists have no Church.

    Didn't you know it?



  2. Thanx Tom. You inspired a post out of me on this where I ponder if the theology seeped into nominal Christians, or the mood of the land seeped into their theology. Hopefully a few readers follow my link to you.

  3. This study justifies the hypothesis of Max Weber that Calvinism helped the early development of capitalism, Calvinism was strong in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland and the U.S. Ingleterra

  4. I am half Catholic and half Protestant (like Northern Ireland) and I have witnessed this phenomenon first hand. It is spot on.

    Anton Anderssen

  5. I'd take the money now. Who knows where you'll be next week? And who knows whether you should be trusted?

    I mean, seriously.


  6. I'm 100% positive that with further study it will be discovered that it is only tinker (DNA) toys.

    & now for some godless & satanless comedy


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