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But at least, we can agree that religious people believe they are more moral. When asked, they are more likely to say that they they will do the right thing (regardless of whether or not they actually do). It's straightforward self-affirmation bias.
Or so I thought, until I saw the recent research from Olga Stavrova University of Cologne, Germany) and Pascal Siegers (GESIS Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences, Germany).
They did a total of four studies, digging into different social survey datasets, basically showing that that whether religious people said they were more ethical depends on whether or not they live in a ‘religious’ country.
For example, the more religious people there are in a country, the less likely it is that religious people will say that they go to religious services or are a charity member. When religion is common, religious people are relatively less likely to condemn liberal morals, or to disapprove of lying in one’s own interest.
OK, so what this is basically saying is that, in countries where most people are religious, your average religious person is pretty normal. In countries where it’s easy to opt out of religion, those people who stick with it tend to really be into it.
They show how people respond to various questions on unethical behaviour – the further you go to the right on each graph, the more religious are the responders.
In general, the trend is that more religious people are less likely to say they do bad things – the graphs slope downwards to the right.
The different lines indicated different kinds of countries. The thick lines are countries with lots of religious people, the thin lines are countries with few religious people.
Two things jump out at you.
First is that, in countries with few religious people (thin lines), even the most religious are more likely to justify lying and admit traffic offences than the least religious people in highly religious countries (top two graphs).
Second is that, in highly religious countries (thick lines), everyone - religious and non-religious – is more likely to say that they would buy stolen goods and commit insurance fraud.
This second observation helps to explain another fact - that religious countries tend to be more corrupt. The data in those graphs have been corrected for socio-economic factors (wealth, education, etc). So they suggest that religious countries tend to have a more corrupt culture – everyone, regardless of how religious they are, is more likely to see corrupt behaviour as acceptable.
In the less religious countries, highly religious people are much less likely to condone corruption. And less religious countries are less corrupt. Is it the guiding light of the highly religious that is reducing corruption? I doubt it. Remember, in these countries there are hardly any highly religious people, so their it’s the behaviour of the non-religious that dominates the average.
More likely, it seems that people are not being entirely honest in their answers. Which brings us to the top two graphs.
What’s interesting about these is that, in the least religious countries, even the highly-religious are more likely to endorse lying and traffic offences than most people in more religious countries.
It seems that the cultural norms in less religious countries allow people to freely confess that they commit traffic offences and occasionally lie. But does that mean that they’re really doing it more?
And does it mean that the religious really tell fewer lies and commit fewer traffic offences? Well, other research has shown that the highly religious tell fewer ‘white’ lies. So maybe they do!
Stavrova O, & Siegers P (2014). Religious prosociality and morality across cultures: how social enforcement of religion shapes the effects of personal religiosity on prosocial and moral attitudes and behaviors. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 40 (3), 315-33 PMID: 24218518
This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
Locals believe that spirits and ancestors enforce this moral code, and that transgressors will be punished by misfortune, business failure, and severe illnesses or accidents. But does this actually have any effect on behaviour?
Myriam Hadnes and Heiner Schumacher, at the University of Frankfurt, recruited a bunch of 'micro-entrepreneurs' from the villages around Ouagadougou and asked them to play an economic transaction game, to see how generous and trusting they were towards others.
The game has two players - both anonymous, both given 1000 West African Francs (worth just over 2 dollars - about a day's pay at minimum wage levels). Player A could either keep his money (in which case both went home with their 1,000 Fcfa) or give it all to Player B.
If Player A chose to send the money, then it was doubled so that Player B now had 3000 Fcfa. Player B could then send back as much as he or she wanted. After that, they went home.
Before playing the game, the players were interviewed about their businesses. For half the participants, the interviewers asked about jealousy and traditional rules about conduct, and deliberately steered the conversation towards supernatural topics. For the other half, they focussed on practical issues of business - and deliberately avoided anything related to supernatural topics.
They found that, in the group that avoided supernatural topics, 69% of 'Player A' participants handed their 1,000 Fcfa to Player B. In the group that did discuss the traditional beliefs, that figure rose to 87%. That suggests that these players were more trusting that Player B would play fair.
That suggests that, in both groups, the A players' trust was well placed - but that this was particularly so in the group primed with tradition. That difference was statistically significant, even after adjusting for other differences between the groups.
The authors point out that this is unlikely to be simply due to increased trust (because they found that the A players didn't actually expect more in return, and also that doesn't explain why the B players were more generous). Nor was it because they were less risk-averse (again, that can't explain the B-players response).
Instead, they say that:
... our results suggest another factor as the driving force of both the A- and B-players’ behavior.
In the postexperimental questionnaire, one-third of all participants explicitly cited illness, accidents, or death as direct consequence of dishonest behavior. In the interviews of the treatment group, participants shared their experiences with supernatural forces intervening into worldly life to punish those who did not respect the ancestors’ will. Almost half of the participants stated having witnessed a case of supernatural punishment aftermisbehavior.
Also, we learned that participants trust witch doctors to influence their business success, and fear the neighbors’ and competitors’ envy if they are successful without caring for their kith and kin.
In line with these observations, we argue that A- and B-players’ behavior was driven by the combination of prevailing sharing norms and the belief in supernatural punishment whenever these norms are violated.
Because of the design of this study, we can't tease out whether this was a direct effect of supernatural fears or not. The interviews of the A players covered both social norms and supernatural topics (they couldn't use the more usual priming technique of asking the participants to do a word game, because most were illiterate), so either or both could be affecting the result.
But as the first evidence that reminders of traditional moral beliefs, coupled with supernatural threats, can result in behaviour that's significantly more pro-social!
Hadnes, M., & Schumacher, H. (2012). The Gods Are Watching: An Experimental Study of Religion and Traditional Belief in Burkina Faso Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 51 (4), 689-704 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2012.01676.x
This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
Laura Saslow (University of California at San Francisco) and colleagues wanted to know whether compassion influenced the prosocial tendencies (altruism, generosity, trust etc) of the religious and non religious. So they ran three different studies - different groups of people, and different tests.
In the first, they found that across the USA (looking at data from the 2004 General Survey), religious people were slightly more likely to say that they did prosocial things like giving food or money to a homeless person, returning money after getting too much change, allowing a stranger to go ahead in line, volunteering time for a charity, etc. They were also more likely to say that they were compassionate (for example, that they often have tender, concerned feelings for less fortunate people, or that when they see someone being taken advantage of, they feel kind of protective towards them).
Now, that's not too surprising - it's been known for a long time that religious people report being more prosocial (although whether they are is another matter!). However the interesting finding is that the difference between compassionate and non-compassionate people was much bigger for the less religious than for the more religious.
In a second study, they asked American adults to watch one of two videos. The first was about child poverty, the second was just a clip of two guys talking. Then they were asked various apparently non-related things - like how much salary should be spent on charity, or how much they would donate in the Dictator Game.
Once again, the more religious participants said that they were somewhat more prosocial, but they were not not affected by the video. The result was that less religious who had watched the video reported being more prosocial than the more religious (regardless of whether they had watched the video).
In the final study, they brought a group of students to the lab and asked them how compassionate they were feeling right now. Then they got them to go through a battery of games designed to test prosocial behaviour - basically these are all variants of the "Prisoners Dilemma", in which the subjects have to give money, or bet money in the hope that their anonymous co-players will reciprocate.
The authors think these results suggest that the less religious are bound to others by emotional connection. They go on to say that:
The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.That seems likely. In fact, I think there's probably an additional factor here - because these studies took place in the USA, where religion is the social norm.
It could be that religious people assume that the recipients of their generosity are co-religionists - in most US communities, that's a pretty strong likelihood. Therefore pro-social behaviour is less about pure altruism and more about group norms of back scratching and favours being returned - reciprocal altruism.
Atheists, on the other hand, may feel like outsiders, and so be less inclined to be pro-social - unless they are in a compassionate frame of mind for some reason.
Saslow, L., Willer, R., Feinberg, M., Piff, P., Clark, K., Keltner, D., & Saturn, S. (2012). My Brother's Keeper? Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612444137
This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
Tomasello's research focuses on the social learning skills of chimpanzees and young children. What he's shown, among other things, is that human children are instinctively nice. Not all the time, of course, or even most of the time. But they are sometimes altruistic, and that sets them apart from chimpanzees.
Lest you think he's asserting there is no such thing as the "terrible twos," Tomasello made clear the cooperative behavior he studies is "relative to nonhuman primates." In other words, kids are quite altruistic when compared to apes. They gesture to communicate that something is out of place. They empathize with those they sense have been wronged.
They have an almost reflexive desire to help, inform and share. And they do so without expectation or desire for reward, Tomasello said.
"There is very little evidence in any of these cases that children's altruism is created by parents or any other form of socialization," Tomasello said of his experiments.
Of course, that doesn't mean that all our altruistic impulses are built in. They develop as we learn and are shaped by our culture and environment. But, according to Tomasello, it's a skill that the great apes can never learn.
Put through similar experiments as the children, apes demonstrate an ability to work together and share but choose not to. While a child's initial reaction—or sense of guilt or shame—might guide his decision to share some candy with the other child who helped him get it, a chimpanzee has no problem working with another ape to get a piece of food but will keep the spoils to himself.
Tomasello also wrote a piece for the NY Times back in May: How Are Humans Unique? In it he goes into more detail about how we differ from their nearest relatives - that even as children we believe in shared goals and commitments, and have a capacity for collective thinking. But there's a downside to these skills.
Of course, humans beings are not cooperating angels; they also put their heads together to do all kinds of heinous deeds. But such deeds are not usually done to those inside “the group.” Recent evolutionary models have demonstrated what politicians have long known: the best way to get people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that “they” threaten “us.” The remarkable human capacity for cooperation thus seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the group. Such group-mindedness is a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today. The solution — more easily said than done — is to find new ways to define the group.
Who was it that said that religion is comforting to those on the inside, and terrifying to everyone else?
Rick O'Gorman, in a paper co-authored by Wilson, has taken a look at the implications of multilevel selection for evolution of human behaviour (O'Gorman 2008). The paper looks at some of the evidence for this in the interactions between 'intrinsics' (people who value intimacy, community and personal growth) and extrinsics (people who value money, beauty and popularity). In head to head competition in economic games, extrinsics tend to outcompete intrinsics because they're more likely to act selfishly to get what they want. But when you put people together in groups of different compositions, and make the groups compete, the result's more complex. Groups with high numbers of intrinsics do better than those with high numbers of extrinsics, but within a group, the extrinsics still win out.
By itself, this doesn't mean that nice guys win. Within each group, the extrinsics are more successful, so they would reproduce faster (especially if the groups are not reproductively isolated). If group-selection did drive altruism, intrinsics would need to evolve ways to detect and punish these 'free-riders' - preferably by excluding them from the group.
So the authors review the evidence to show that this is exactly what happens:
... there is an extensive body of research showing that humans are willing to punish free-riders in public-goods situations. Moreover, it appears that humans will do so, even when the act of punishing is itself costly. Such altruistic punishment is evoked in controlled lab studies, where participants are anonymous to each other and do not interact more than once with any other participant, avoiding the possibility for reputation to be developed and for signals of future intent.They go on to talk about the power of gossip as a tool to identify and share information about free riders, and the fear that people have of being gossiped about or ostracised.
They also look at the evidence for 'group-functional behaviour' - in other words, evidence that humans have evolved for optimal performance in a group. For example, there is some evidence that groups can make better decisions than the same numbers of individuals. The ground here is decidedly dodgy, though. It's clear that humans can do some tasks better in groups, but that doesn't require group-level selection. In fact, much of the optimisation for group behaviour could be learned, since all the test subjects will have been brought up in a a society dominated by interactions within groups.
McAndrew, F.T. (2002). New Evolutionary Perspectives on Altruism: Multilevel-Selection and Costly-Signaling Theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(2), 79-82. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00173
Nowak, M.A. (2006). Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation. Science, 314(5805), 1560-1563. DOI: 10.1126/science.1133755
O'Gorman, R., Sheldon, K.M., Wilson, D.S. (2008). For the good of the group? Exploring group-level evolutionary adaptations using multilevel selection theory.. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 12(1), 17-26. DOI: 10.1037/1089-2622.214.171.124
Olson and Spelke ran three related studies in which the children were introduced to a “protagonist” doll which, at certain times, benefited from pro-social behavior from other dolls. The children were then given the opportunity to direct the protagonist doll either to share or not share a resource (for example, stickers, pennies) with other dolls.The results: the kids showed an innate predisposition to indirect reciprocity - "I help you, someone else helps me". This is a key feature of human society, since it allows the formation of co-operative groups large enough for individuals to be unknown to others that they might come across. It's key to the development of towns, for example. This new study shows that it is a product of our evolution. Olson and Spelke write:
Observations and experiments show that human adults preferentially share resources with close relations, with people who have shared with them (reciprocity), and with people who have shared with others (indirect reciprocity). These tendencies are consistent with evolutionary theory but could also reflect the shaping effects of experience or instruction in complex, cooperative, and competitive societies. Here, we report evidence for these three tendencies in 3.5-year-old children, despite their limited experience with complex cooperative networks. Three pillars of mature cooperative behavior therefore appear to have roots extending deep into human development.Indirect reciprocity works from an evolutionary perspective because it allows individuals to enhance their reputation - and those individuals with a high reputation are more likely to gain the trust and co-operation of others. The mathematician Karl Sigmund discusses his perspective on indirect reciprocity in an essay hosted on The Edge.
K OLSON, E SPELKE (2008). Foundations of cooperation in young children Cognition, 108 (1), 222-231 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.12.003
But the truth is much more interesting.
This new poll is one in a long line of research which shows that believers regularly report not only that they value these traits, but that they believe they actually live up to them. Now, there could be several reasons for this. Perhaps, religion really does instill moral values. Or maybe there's some self-selection going on, and so religion tends to attract the nice folk, and all the selfish, mean-spirited folk drift off to become atheists.
But in fact when you test religious and non-religious in carefully designed psychological tests, the differences evaporate. Something similar happens with church attendance: Christians in the US, for example, report going to church about twice as often as they actually do. So what's going on here? As Vassilis Saroglou, associate professor of psychology of religion at the Université catholique de Louvain, puts it:
"The contrast between the ideals and self-perceptions of religious people and the results of studies using other research strategies is so striking that researchers may be tempted to suspect moral hypocrisy in religious people."Saroglou has found that there is a small effect of religion on prosociality, but only towards close siblings and friends. In other words, religion appears to enhance the tribal bond - no surprises there! But Saroglou's work is, as he puts it, still derived from "paper-and-pencil measures and can consequently only provide indirect evidence of the prosocial behavior of religious people in real life."
Recent research by Ara Norenzayan, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, goes further by using a hard test of prosociality - an economic game with real money payouts (Shariff & Norenzayan 2007). As expected, religious people claimed to be more prosocial than the non-religious, but weren't in reality. But when subliminally primed with religious concepts, both the religious and non-religious were more prosocial. And the same thing happened when they were primed with secular concepts.
So there you have it. Religion increases bonding within the tribe, but not outside of it. And it's not inherent - it depends on priming. And the priming works with secular concepts just as well as it does with religious ones. But the apparent prosocial effects of religion are mostly the result of self delusion, with believers describing themselves as they would like to be, rather than as they actually are. So maybe secular nations are every bit as caring and sharing as the religious ones, and maybe the loss of religion won't really cause a descent into chaos.
But in fact, we knew that already - Denmark, with one of the lowest levels of religious belief in the world, is also the one with the highest levels of happiness and greatest equality. So don't believe the hype!
Thanks to The Atheist Jew for reporting this survey.