Monday, December 26, 2011

I’ll be watching you: Religion and kindness

Today we have another great guest post from guest blogger Olga Antonenko Young!

Does religion make us better people?  Social science says, “Maybe!”

One of the more controversial topics that social psychology takes up is that of religion. While no social scientists would venture to address whether any religious belief is true or not, they do examine the effects that these beliefs have on attitudes and behavior. Decades of researchers (and before them, centuries of philosophers) have wondered whether religion makes people better, kinder, and more generous.  On one side of the argument lie people who point out that religion is inherently about morals.  All of the world’s leading religions emphasize a core set of values, outline moral codes, and teach virtues such as charity, forgiveness, and compassion.  On the other side of the argument lie people who point to the negative effects of inter-faith strife over the history of time.

So, which is it?  Does religion make us better or worse?  The answer is complicated.  Psychological research lends credence to both sides of the argument.  However, I wish to highlight just one fascinating aspect of this research suggesting that religion may make us better people and why.

Religion may make us more generous and honest, in part, because it feels like God is watching us.  In 2004, Drs. Johnson and Kruger proposed a hypothesis that had long been brewing in the field and has come to be known as the “supernatural monitoring” hypothesis.  The hypothesis has two parts: First, god (or a god-like force) is omniscient.  There is nothing we can do that goes unnoticed by god.  God sees all and knows all.  Second, god (or a god-like force) has the power to punish us when we do something wrong.  The majority of the leading religions in the world espouse beliefs in punishment for immoral actions.  This punishment may either come in this life or after death.  Though often misunderstood and misguided, beliefs in hell and karma are two clear example of systems of punishment.

Johnson and Kruger (2004) view supernatural monitoring as an effective belief that prevents cheaters from going unpunished in society.  In order for humans to live in harmonious groups without anyone taking advantage of the system, it is vital to prevent people from cheating.  While we have a well-structured legal network to detect and punish cheaters today, this system is fairly new in human societies.  The authors propose that supernatural monitoring existed in our evolutionary histories before these legal systems and served a similar purpose.  They acknowledge that people can, and do, punish each other without an organized legal system, but emphasize that this can be risky, tedious, and inefficient.  We can’t always tell who has cheated and it takes a lot of personal resources to punish someone.

It’s an intuitive theory.  Believing in God makes us be better people because we feel like someone is watching us and may punish us if we cheat.  However, any good theory needs support and the data are starting to trickle in.  Here is one example of empirical evidence for the supernatural monitoring hypothesis. 

How much would you give?
Shariff and Norenzayan (2007) asked participants to play a simple “dictator” game.  In the game, participants were told that they were randomly selected to be a “giver.” As the giver they were awarded $10 and told that they had the option of giving some portion of this money to their partner – the “receiver.”  Participants were also assured that they would never meet the receiver and the receiver would never find out their identities.  They were entirely anonymous.  The choice to give any money at all in this game is seen as a sign of generosity.  It is entirely possible to keep all $10 and, economically speaking, this is the rational choice.  Usually, participants choose to give $1 or $2 to the receiver.  This choice can be seen as generous, but the motives behind it have certainty been challenged.  However, this particular experiment had one twist – some participants were led to think about religion before the game.

One half of participants were “primed” with a religious concept.  These participants completed a word de-scrambling task that included religious terms like “God” and “divine.”  The other half of the participants had no prime.  The researchers wanted to see what would happen when religion was on people’s minds.  The results indicated that participants who were led to think about religion were more generous.  These participants gave $4.22 on average, while participants who were not led to think about religion gave $1.84.  The difference between these two amounts was statistically significant.  Additionally, it was interesting that participants in the religious condition gave more whether they, themselves, were religious or not.

In a follow-up study, the authors repeated the game with three priming conditions.  The first was the same religious prime as mentioned before.  The second was a neutral prime, added to make sure that simply unscrambling words was not the driving force of generosity.  This prime included neutral words like “table.”  The third condition was a “secular” prime.  In this condition participants were led to think of secular legal systems by unscrambling sentences with words like “court” and “police.”  Once again, the religious prime led to more giving compared to the neutral prime.  Participants in the religious prime gave $4.56 on average, while those in the neutral prime gave $2.56.  Interestingly, the secular prime had nearly as large an effect on giving as the secular prime.  In this condition, participants gave $4.44.  This study suggests that thinking about religion is similar to thinking about our legal system.  In both conditions, it is possible that participants felt like they were being watched and judged, either by a secular or supernatural force with the power to punish them.

It is important to note that it is unclear why religion led to more giving.  It is possible that supernatural monitoring was responsible.  Participants could have felt, perhaps subconsciously, that god (or a god-like force) was watching them and they wanted to mitigate punishment and manage their reputation.  It is also possible that thinking about religion makes one think and act like religious exemplars that are generous and charitable.  While the mechanism is unclear, this study offers just one bit of possible support for the supernatural punishment hypothesis.

This study and the original theory suggest that thinking of religion makes us feel like we’re being watched and puts us on our best behavior.  Whether religious or not, most of us have the nagging suspicion that what we do will come back to haunt us.  Religion emphasizes and extends this feeling by treating misdeeds and punishment systematically. 

If character is measured by what we do when no one is watching, it is, perhaps, useful for societies to make people feel like they’re always being watched.

The articles:
Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2007). God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game Psychological Science, 18 (9), 803-809 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01983.x

Johnson, D. D., & Krüger, O. (2004). The good of wrath: Supernatural punishment and the evolution of cooperation. Political Theology, 5, 159–76. 

Olga Antonenko Young is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley. Her interests focus broadly on morality, religion, and emotion. One line of research investigates how religious and political orientations predict moral judgments about equality and justice.  A second line of research investigates how spirituality influences the experience of emotion, including general positive affect as well as concrete states such as awe and forgiveness. You can find more information about her research at

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