Scientists just blew a possible hole in ‘holier than thou’ attitudes

Are you more likely to behave morally if religious beliefs inform your thinking? Logically speaking, you might expect some correlation. A jerk with a religion is still a jerk, but you’d probably think religious doctrine would push people into doing the “right” thing, even if it goes against their instincts. A new study casts doubt on this, however, showing that children from religious households are actually less generous than their nonreligious playmates.

Some caveats: first, the study involved children aged between five and 12 – speaking as someone raised in a Catholic home, I can confirm that these things don’t always stick into adulthood (unless you’re talking to elderly relatives). Second, the full breakdown of kids in the mix was 510 Muslims, 280 Christians and 323 “Nonreligious”, so plenty of major faiths were unrepresented in the study (they did have other religions in the mix, but not large enough samples to analyse). Finally, although it was a global study, only six countries were represented: the USA, Canada, South Africa, China, Jordan and Turkey.

So, how do you test generosity? First you have to find a currency that the participants understand and want to have: stickers was the obvious choice for 5- to 12-year-olds. Presented with a pile of stickers, children were allowed to pick their ten favourites. They were then told there wasn’t enough time to hand out all the stickers, so were asked to put some back to allow other children to have some (described as in their same school and ethnic group – they thought of everything). The average number of stickers returned for redistribution was used as the yardstick for generosity.sticker_collecting

Here’s how the findings stacked up. The Muslim children were the least generous, donating an average of 3.2 stickers per child, very slightly fewer than the Christian kids, who put back 3.3. The nonreligious children offered up 4.1: not a huge difference, but a statistically significant one. Religion isn’t the only factor at play of course. The researchers found that age, socioeconomic status and country affected generosity too, but not enough to cancel out the religious difference. Curiously, the older the children got, the less likely the religious kids would be to share their stickers.

“The religious children tended to treat the incident as more severe, and called for harsher punishments.”

The study also touched on judgement, with the children shown short videos in which one child acts out against another child – a quick shove, for example. When asked to judge the incident, and the suggested severity of a punishment, the religious children tended to treat the incident as more severe, and called for harsher punishments.

Ironically, you may be tempted to judge at this point. Indeed, another study released just yesterday from the University of Waterloo has found that we have a temptation to judge morality in a way that’s wholly removed from practicality. This research found that participants imposed impossible moral standards on those who couldn’t possibly live up to them. “In one experiment, participants considered a case where two swimmers are drowning,” explains Wesley Buckwalter, from the University’s philosophy department.

“Because the drowning swimmers are so far apart, the lifeguard on duty can save one or the other but not both of them. Despite acknowledging that the lifeguard is literally unable to save both swimmers, the overwhelming majority of participants judged that the lifeguard was still obligated to do so.”

In short, to quote The Simpsons:

Assuming the results of the religious research play out in repeat studies, what might be driving this comparative stinginess? Study author Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, posits that it may be to do with “moral licensing” – in short, people who believe themselves to be good sometimes give themselves more leeway to do bad.

“In other words, if little Timmy isn’t sharing, it could just be a phase. Timmy might turn into a great philanthropist – regardless of how spiritual he ends up.”

On the other hand, the research doesn’t seem to back up results found in previous studies on adult populations. Azim Shariff, a psychologist from the University of Oregon, who told Science Mag: “It doesn’t fit in easily with what’s been out there so far. So I’ve got to do some thinkingother people have got to do some thinkingwith how it does fit.” One possibility, he speculates, is that attitudes to morality could differ depending on developmental ages: in other words, if little Timmy isn’t sharing, it could just be a phase. Timmy might turn into a great philanthropist – regardless of how spiritual he ends up.

It’s not just religion that can impact your ethical choices: prescription drugs might also tinker with your moral code.

Images: US Department of Education and Daniel Davis used under Creative Commons

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