Being Altruistic With and Without God: A UBC Psychology Study

Does a belief in God make you a more altruistic person? Can one be altruistic in the absence of such a belief? A recent study profiled in the New York Times by UBC Psychologist Ara Norenzayan and graduate student Azim F. Shariff suggests that belief in God can make one act more altruistically, but won’t necessarily, and indeed, one can also act altruistically without such theistic inclinations. 

“In a pair of studies published in Psychological Science, Norenzayan and his student Azim F. Shariff had participants play the so-called “dictator game,” a common way of measuring generosity toward strangers. The game is simple: you’re offered 10 $1 coins and told to take as many as you want and leave the rest for the player in the other room (who is, unbeknown to you, a research confederate). The fair split, of course, is 50-50, but most anonymous “dictators” play selfishly, leaving little or nothing for the other player.

In the control group of Norenzayan’s study, the vast majority of participants kept everything or nearly everything — whether or not they said they were religious. “Religious leaders always complain that people don’t internalize religion, and they’re right,” Norenzayan observes.

But is there a way to induce generosity? In the experimental condition, the researchers prompted thoughts of God using a well-established “priming” technique: participants, who again included both theists and atheists, first had to unscramble sentences containing words such as God, divine and sacred. That way, going into the dictator game, players had God on their minds without being consciously aware of it. Sure enough, the “God prime” worked like a charm, leading to fairer splits. Without the God prime, only 12 percent of the participants split the money evenly, but when primed with the religious words, 52 percent did….In a second study, the researchers had participants unscramble sentences containing words like civic, contract and police — meant to evoke secular moral institutions. This prime also increased generosity. And unlike the religious prime, it did so consistently for both believers and nonbelievers.”

Obviously, as in any Psychological study assessing such complicated multivariate matters as altruism, we need to be cautious in how confident we are in extrapolating the findings from the lab to the real world, but these are indeed interesting findings that will surely motivate more research, particularly that which attempts to bring the study closer and closer to the real world.

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