Far from bolstering generosity, a religious upbringing diminishes it

Nov 6, 2015

AN ARGUMENT often advanced for the encouragement of religion is that, to paraphrase St Matthew’s report of Jesus’s words, it leads people to love their neighbours as themselves. That would be a powerful point were it true. But is it? This was the question Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, asked in a study just published in Current Biology.

Dr Decety is not the first to wonder, in a scientific way, about the connection between religion and altruism. He is, though, one of the first to do it without recourse to that standard but peculiar laboratory animal beloved of psychologists, the undergraduate student. Instead, he collaborated with researchers in Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey, as well as with fellow Americans, to look at children aged between five and 12 and their families.

Altogether, Dr Decety and his colleagues recruited 1,170 families for their project, and focused on one child per family. Five hundred and ten of their volunteer families described themselves as Muslim, 280 as Christian, 29 as Jewish, 18 as Buddhist and 5 as Hindu. A further 323 said they were non-religious, 3 were agnostic and 2 ticked the box marked “other”.

Follow-up questions to the faithful among the sample then asked how often they engaged in religious activities, and also about spirituality in the home. That let Dr Decety calculate how religious each family was. He found that about half the children in religious households came from highly observant homes; the spiritual lives of the other half were more relaxed. He then arranged for the children to play a version of what is known to psychologists as the dictator game—an activity they use to measure altruism.

In truth, the dictator game is not much of a game, since only one of the participants actually plays it. In Dr Decety’s version, each child was presented with a collection of 30 attractive stickers and told that he or she could keep ten of them. Once a child had made his selection, the experimenter told him that there was not time to play the game with all the children at the school, but that he could, if he wished, give away some of his ten stickers to a random schoolmate who would not otherwise be able to take part. The child was then given a few minutes to decide whether he wanted to give up some of his stickers—and, if so, how many. The researchers used the number of stickers surrendered as a measure of altruism.

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33 comments on “Far from bolstering generosity, a religious upbringing diminishes it

  • I find this outcome utterly unsurprising. I would expect normal societal pressures to even up the outcomes in mixed societies, however.

    It may be that those who feel special or especially selected feel especially entitled.

    It may be that the atheist outgroup feels a greater need to buy their way into affections?

    It may be that a sufficient number of atheists choose to identify as such as an active moral position of greater clarity than the religious one and raise children to think more often what is moral , it not being a done and dusted thing. (My position.)

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  • Might it be that the children are not fooled by this invisible being, that they realise that behaving in front of their parents is essential but, because they have got away with things away from their parents, without being punished, means their parents are not to be trusted. Maybe they are not as stupid as their parents think? Whereas, atheists are honest and trusting.

    I find this with information about drugs as well. If we tell children that things are going to happen that don’t and they then try the drug and it does nothing like they have been told then harder drugs are tried.

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  • @OP link – The upshot was that the children of non-believers were significantly more generous than those of believers. They gave away an average of 4.1 stickers. Children from a religious background gave away 3.3. And a further analysis of the two largest religious groups (Jews, Buddhists and Hindus were excluded because of their small numbers in the sample), showed no statistical difference between them. Muslim children gave away 3.2 stickers on average, while Christian children gave away 3.3. Moreover, a regression analysis on these groups of children showed that their generosity was inversely correlated with their households’ religiosity.

    These findings are, however, in marked contrast to parents’ assessments of their own children’s sensitivity to injustice. When asked, religious parents reported their children to be more sensitive than non-believing parents did.

    Faith-thinking self-perceptions of the smug god-delusions’ “superior morality” showing up?

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  • It may be that those who feel special or especially selected feel especially entitled.

    I’ve long suspected as much Phil.

    That photo reminds me of how, as children, our daughters used to fight like hell.

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  • Exasperated, I really tore my two off a strip for fighting….yet again. In complete solidarity they stopped quite bemused.

    “But Dad, its our job!”

    I shut up after that. It was their job (mostly). They needed to fix it. They did.

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  • 7
    maria melo says:

    I find this is not a well planned research, so I don´t think it will have useful conclusions. Did it occur to researchers that when children are more or less generous they are not aknowledging they parents´s relgion only, or their parent´s lack of belief?

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  • Without going past the Economist article to the actual research paper, I can’t tell if it’s well planned research or not, but there looks to be little wrong with it as psychology/sociology experiments go. They’ve devised a scale of “devoutness” based on how much overt religious practices occur in the family, and the seem to have allowed for other factors – wealth, age – and still found a correlation, more devoutness is associated with less generosity, at least in these test subjects. It’s not the job of this experiment to say why, and hopefully the experiment is sufficiently well-defined to be repeated over many different sample populations. Then let’s discuss the results.

    I’d expect the usual biased responses, religious folk will denounce the experiment in some way as not being valid, and the anti-religious will crow “we told you so”. Against this backdrop, I commend the experimenters for having a good try at something that’s probably on dangerous ground, and attempting to approach it in a genuinely scientific manner.

    On the anecdotal front, I find the overtly, or overly, religious to be untrustworthy, and I don’t trust them. But that’s not based on a statistically significant sample. I might say I don’t trust Londoners because one of them ripped me off once, and yes I know that’s unfair and unjustified. I might say I don’t trust junkies because one of them ripped me off once (yes, he was from London), but that too is probably unfair – though I expect a lot more nods of agreement out there than for my allegation about Londoners. Maybe it’s only junkies from London that are not to be trusted.

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  • Is that measuring altruism? I don’t think so, by a long stretch.

    Perhaps some children couldn’t give a fig for the “attractive stickers” and were thus more likely to give them away? If they measure how long it took a child to choose their 10 stickers, it might tell us more: a long time might show greater interest, and greater value placed on the decision and thus the stickers, but then again it might just be an unrelated personality trait i.e. a more indecisive child.

    And wouldn’t the child’s judgement as to which are the best stickers be relevant? i.e. for a gift of a given number of stickers, the more altruistic child would give away a higher proportion of the better stickers, and a less altruistic child would give away only the least attractive stickers.

    The religiosity measurement isn’t (perhaps) quite as thin, but it’s still hard for the experiment to tell the difference between genuinely religious parents and those who attend the same number of services etc. because of peer pressure, a sense of community etc.
    It’s also naive to expect that everyone would be truthful filling in their questionnaire: some less religious types will talk their commitment to religion up because they feel they ought to attend more but never get round to it; some more religious types will talk it down because in a secular setting such as a psych experiment they might feel a little out of place or embarrassed. (Now if private investigators were used to surveil the participants, and verify the answers they gave, that might in itself give interesting results….)

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  • Ours fixed it too, because blood’s thicker than water, and now, although they’re both independent of one another, they’re mutual supportiveness is profound.

    I blew my top quite a few times and still feel bad about it, but thankfully, they’ve forgotten; I wish I could.

    Anyway, with love, support and encouragement, we are fully capable of dealing with the travails of life without any bolt on woo.

    Nature has provided us with amazing resilience, it’s just a shame that more people don’t realize as much; at least now in the UK, at long last, evolution is being taught to our children at an early age.

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  • It makes a chap proud to see siblings take care of each other.

    I cover all my shameful failures with the excuse that you have to leave something for them to fix.

    Perfect Dad’s can be a bit ickky.

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  • Christianity suppresses altruism because the Christian thinks if god wanted things to change, he would do it himself. The way things are are usually what god wants.

    Christianity teaches that belief is far more important than good deeds. In my view, belief is a form of wickedness — wilful stupidity.

    Christians tend to confine their donations to the church. These are for all practical purposes country club dues, and corruption fees. They don’t help the disadvantaged the way they would had they been given to specific charities.

    The more devout you are, the more likely you are to consider others wicked and undeserving of any aid. You have more rules for others to wilfully break.

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  • The one thing that British Turkish Cypriots complain about, when they return from a holiday to Northern Cyprus, is how spoilt the children are over there. We have adopted many of the British customs and constraints in the UK. We get embarrassed by our children behaviour in public where as a child throwing a tantrum in the streets of Northern Cyprus is tolerated up to a point. If you want to balance this then educationally they do better in Northern Cyprus, as a whole, then our children do in the UK. This then can be further complicated by living standards with many in the UK (originally and much less now) living on housing estates. I don’t think this study is anywhere near complete but could show class difference and culture playing a huge part.

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  • 18
    maria melo says:

    The simple idea that giving away stickers is measuring altruism makes me laugh (I can imagine I would never give away any stickers, children of from my neighbourhood would exchange them instead. For more religious that my family might have been, I had never acknowledged their religion, nor even the kindness of people I knew that might not be religious). If I ´d see someone in real need, yes I ´d be altruist, but religion has nothing to do with it nor lack of religious beliefs I suppose.

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  • The study tests a claim, and uses a decent sample size. There is no particular reason to explain away a correlation which could have supported or contradicted the original idea.
    The study is interesting. Just that: interesting. I have several times pondered why certain people I do business with, from evangelical families, display an attitude of entitlement that appears to make them particularly uncharitable and willing to abuse their suppliers and employees. The study is particularly interesting in this context. It proves nothing, but sharpens my suspicion that religion appears to provide a mistaken confidence that can be both negative and out of keeping with the beliefs their creed is supposed to represent.

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  • Mods, I’m going a little off piste again; if you deem it inappropriate and take it down I’ll understand.

    Olgun, do the children in the south of the beautiful island of Cyprus behave differently from those in the north of it? And if so, why do you think that is?

    For what it’s worth, I was posted near Famagusta, love the island, and its people, and think its division was and remains a tragedy.

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  • Although my best friend is a Greek Cypriot Stafford, he is even more British than me and because I boycott South Cyprus I don’t really know how the children behave. I do know that a Greek Cypriot mother is a formidable force though and they have a strong bond with sons, which can be a good or bad thing for the daughter in law. LOL.

    The division was a tragedy that soon became a farce and why I boycott the south. The constitution exists but then again it doesn’t depending on what the various powers want and that also applies to the Turkish Cypriots. If the constitution exists then we should be a part of it and when we ask to be a part of it we are told to move on. The British bases are part of this Schrodingers cat effect and why we are under embargoes but are not! Oh! and ALL the island is in the EU but the north is suspended pending a solution. Even the bloody cat doesn’t know whether its alive or dead.

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  • That’s interesting Olgun: I’d never heard that side of the matter.

    I do remember that there seemed to be a lot of Greek prejudice against the Turkish community.

    A writer I know was on what I think was called the Makarios Committee, but my understanding was that basically the conflict was a religious one, and therefore probably irresolvable, but you’re obviosly better qualified to judge than me.

    Anyway, a sad situation.

    Probably best if we drop the subject now.

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  • A bit late on this thread, but wondering would the in-group out-group tendency in religion make it more likely that say a Christian (of a particular religion) kid is less likely to give to others they consider to be other, after all even if you have two Christian kids in a class they may be disinclined to give a sticker to a Mormon, or a Catholic and certainly not a non-religious kid. Would be interesting to see if this was a general behavior or if the generosity would increase, if they targeted a school where all students were of one faith?

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  • I was part of an investigation team into a group of serial fraudsters who constantly came up with get rich quick schemes and fleeced thousands of sheeple. When I was executing a nsearch warrant and reading documents, I noticed a pattern of numbers below the signature block of each piece of correspondence between the perpetrators. We were unable to decipher the numbers until we got a tip from an insider on the fringe of the crime. They would sign each letter, and include something like 3:18. Turns out it was a reference to a biblical passage that the recipient of the letter would have to decode. They were happy clapper fundamentalists and officer holders in the local mega church, which ironically, included many of their victims.

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  • David R Allen
    Nov 9, 2015 at 4:10 am

    They would sign each letter, and include something like 3:18. Turns out it was a reference to a biblical passage that the recipient of the letter would have to decode.

    There was something like this used informally by officers in the Royal Navy in radio communications, during the cold war era.
    The view was that atheist/communists would not easily recognise these.

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  • Good point Reckless; it’s not possible to know what would happen, but if the adults conducting the experiment kept out of the way, my guess is that above a certain age the children would split into faith groups.

    There again, were no faith element to be involved, I suppose character traits would come to the fore; mini alpha individuals would emerge!

    But of course, the latter would be a natural outcome, which could involve just one child, whereas, the former would most likely be a matter of sheer numbers; look anywhere in the world, and I think that’s what you’ll find in nations run along religious lines.

    It seems to me that the best way forward is to set a secular arena, in which, just like sexual proclivities, people can indulge their favourite practices, just so long as they keep them to themselves; thank you very much!

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  • Re: last paragraph

    This should answer Dan’s concern (another thread), about banning vs the First Amendment.

    The opinion “religion should be practiced by consenting adults in private” just means, I think, it should be added to the list of public decency laws. E.g., sexual proclivities, as you state. There’s no book burning here.

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  • The article is available (see link above) and I encourage people to look at it. It’s fairly obvious that the popular media couldn’t understand the analysis or experimental design, and so just skipped to the “discussion” section and ran with it. Pop psychology by press-release is always a bit suspect, and doubly so when the subject is contentious.
    A couple observations:
    1. It’s crazy-dense technical prose. This may be required to get what is essentially a sociology experiment published in a biology journal, but it does leave it with a certain “pay no attention to the statistician behind the curtain” feel. I have a stats-prof friend who looked it over, and colleague of his as well, and they agreed that the statistics are more-or-less sound, though the conclusions are weakly supported at best. The r-square value and the scatter-plot suggest that there may be an influence of religiosity on altruism of perhaps 4%, and there are probably any number of other unmeasured variables in play. Anyone who replicates this experiment would be lucky to arrive at the same conclusions.
    2. Speaking of which, like most experiments of this sort, it measures what it measures, and it takes a lot of assumptions to think that it’s actually measuring altruism and religiosity. They used three measures of religiosity: frequency of religious practice (which includes what?), household spirituality (I wouldn’t know how to answer that even for my own family), and overall religiousness (inter-rater reliability, anyone?). Altruism, a complex phenomenon with undoubted cultural variability, was measured using a convenient game: if I’m ever trapped in a burning building, I won’t be impressed if you share stickers with me.
    It’s not junk-science, but I’m not changing my opinion of my religious neighbors based on its findings, either. It’ll be interesting to see how often this article is cited by others in the future; considering that it’s social psychology published in a biology journal doesn’t bode well for this, unfortunately.

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  • I would certainly hesitate to say this is true of all Christianities. It may be true of modern American Republican-leaning, non-Dominionist, Protestantism, but this is a minority position at best. A lot of Evangelical Republicans (such as the current front-runners, excluding Trump) seem to have a strong Dominionist streak (i.e. god calls us to change the country to look more Christian). Roman Catholicism tends to have a strong social service streak, and mainline church congregations tend to support charities outside of the church, and the churches themselves tend to support community endeavors.
    I’ve no doubt the Christians you describe exist, but I’m skeptical that they’re that easy to find. I, at least, don’t know any (urban, central California).

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  • I suspect Jesus was from the Salvation Army. No fancy churches. Down in the gutters with the down and out. Drug addicts. Prostitutes. The lepers and the lame. Recycled clothes and furnishings given away. That sounds like Jesus in action. After all, he was the first socialist…. Camels and needles… Give away your wealth… Rich man entering heaven etc

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