Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The God Effect

Here I pass on another bit, by Marina Krakovsky, in the NY Times Magazine's Dec. 9 "Ideas" issue. She summarizes work by Canadian psychologists Shariff and Norenzayan published in Psychological Science:

Some anthropologists argue that the idea of God first arose in larger societies, for the purpose of curbing selfishness and promoting cooperation. Outside a tightly knit group, the reasoning goes, nobody can keep an eye on everyone’s behavior, so these cultures invented a supernatural agent who could. But does thinking of an omniscient God actually promote altruism? The University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan wanted to find out.

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.

When news of these findings made headlines, some atheists were appalled by the implication that altruism depends heavily on religion. Apparently, they hadn’t heard the whole story. 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. Until he conducts further research, Norenzayan can only speculate about the significance: “We need that common denominator that works for everyone.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

A bit low count of people that are researched on: ~40 ppl in total. But i guess large error margins are acceptable in this case.

William Bunker said...

why should we be generous to these people? can we not spend the $10 in a way that will benefit us both? this is about control and power, not about desiring to provide a good environment for others.

sepelester said...

The word "God" is associated with virtue to an atheist, not with someone watching you. I believe "virtue" would have the exact same effect.

Anonymous said...

Its funny. The only unfair thing to do would be to take it all. However, the logical thing to do it take as much as possible, there is no reason not to do as such.

Paul B. said...

There are some things people leave aside -intentionally I believe- when discussing these issues, and is just not "fair" to play like that, for it just confuses people more than anything else. One of those things, and quite possibly the most important is the FACT that religion IS NOT the same as GOD -nor I see a definitive reason WHY it Should be-. God as some might choose to call it, is first and foremost a self evident first principle to anything we know exists, and this is that "exists" period, even when we CAN explain it, and not only when we cannot explain the existence or behavior of something. We choose to "change" words like GOD for others more acceptable within some circles -scientists might prefer terms like "nature" or "laws of phyisics", or EVEN the very word "NEED" or "evolution" that entail concepts so profound that are impossible to even BE without apealing to, again, "GOD". If there is no "God" why would ANYTHING, EVER, "NEED" to be in a certain way; even evolution in which I DO BELIEVE, why would it be that we or anything would be "set" to "evolve"?????, why a "need" bearing deep beneath every single little thing that is. I repeat, the "word" GOD has been manipulated so badly over the centuries BY RELIGIONS, POLITICS, SOCIETY, POPES, FAIRYTALES and POWER, that it is almost embarrasing to use it on a logic, scientific presentation, but IT´S CONCEPT is there, it will always be, because GOD IS, EXISTS, and is just plain "silly" to deny that.

Tom said...

Paul:
While I have to say you stated your case quite eloquently, I take issue with a few of your statements.

We choose to "change" words like GOD for others more acceptable within some circles -scientists might prefer terms like "nature" or "laws of phyisics", or EVEN the very word "NEED" or "evolution" that entail concepts so profound that are impossible to even BE without apealing to, again, "GOD".
God is not nature or the laws of physics. God is an illogical concept of a man or woman up in the sky looking at us. If god is nature or the laws of physics, why can't we just call it the laws of physics? If god is not conscious, if it's something we already have a name for, why not just use that name and forgo all the baggage implied by the word "god"?

If there is no "God" why would ANYTHING, EVER, "NEED" to be in a certain way; even evolution in which I DO BELIEVE, why would it be that we or anything would be "set" to "evolve"?????
Things aren't "set" to evolve. Mutation and the laws of probability make evolution necessary. If a population has genetic variation and a way to die out, evolution will occur. You're making the mistake of personifying evolution--giving it intentions, as in "evolution wanted this to happen". In reality, evolution is something that happens automatically. It doesn't need a god.
...and is just plain "silly" to deny that.
I couldn't resist joking about the irony quotes:
Yes, it is just plain "silly".

Anonymous said...

40 people will still give you a statistically significant sample.

Anonymous said...

Too many trolls.

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