Religion and altruism

A recent experiment at the University of British Columbia looked at what happens when you prime people with concepts related to either religion or civic responsibility and then have them take part in a game where they have the power to keep or share some money that they are given. Priming involves presenting subjects with a stimulus–in this case, words–that subconsciously influences the direction of their thoughts. The people who were primed with words having to do with religion or with the responsibilities related to our legal system were more generous than those in a control group who were not similarly primed. The effect of the religious priming was the same for those who said they believed in God and those who did not.

The article about this from EurekAlert seems to be saying that thoughts of religion make people behave more generously, but it’s worth noting that evidently thinking about the legal system has the same effect (the prime words for the “civic responsibility” experiment were civic, jury, court, police, and contract). I can understand the need to test the connection between religion and behavior in a lab setting where you can measure and control the variables, but on the other hand this seems so artificial that it’s hard to know what to make of it. It would be interesting to see if people who were primed with the appropriate words would be more generous in a real-life situation requiring donations of their own money or of time, for example. (Isn’t this sort of priming something that people who are trying to raise money for a good cause often try to do? How well does it work for them?) And I wonder about things like whether people drive any more thoughtfully and cooperatively when they are leaving church than they do when leaving the grocery store or their jobs.

The article also mentions a lack of hard data about the relationship between religious belief and moral behavior. Does anyone know of any studies that look at whether the religiously observant behave any better as measured by crime statistics or other measures? I think there was a rather controversial study in 2005 that looked for relationships between various social indicators and rates of religious observance and concluded that people behave better in more secular parts of the US, but I don’t know anything about the quality of that work, and anyway I think it was a statistical analysis of populations, not of individuals.


  1. Mary,
    There was a similar study involving wannabe priests, on their way to delivering a lecture on helping others, and in two conditions: either pressed for time or with no time pressures. On their way they met a poor man, that needed help, but those who were pressed for time ignored him (despite the fact that they were going to give a sermon on helping others and were thus primed) ; on the other hand those who had no time pressures, did stop by and offer help. thus, the actual altruistic behavior would be affected by other factors like time and resource availability. Yet , I believe priming with religious/ civiv responsibility would affect generosity.

  2. Thanks! It makes sense that it would be context-dependent, but only part of the context is the priming with respect to altruistic values.

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