Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Evolution of Religious Prosociality

Norenzayan and Shariff offer an interesting review article on empirical evidence for religious prosociality. Here is one clip and two figures from the article.
Agreement is emerging that selective pressures over the course of human evolution can explain the wide cross-cultural re-occurrence, historical persistence, and predictable cognitive structure of religious beliefs and behaviors. The tendency to detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template that supports the pervasive belief in supernatural agents. These agents are widely believed to transcend physical, biological, and psychological limitations. However, other important details are subject to cultural variation. Although in many societies supernatural agents are not directly concerned with human morality, in many others, morally concerned agents use their supernatural powers to observe and, in some cases, to punish and reward human social interactions. Examples include the God of Abrahamic religions and Viracocha, the Incan supreme God, but also many morally concerned deities found in traditional societies, such as the adalo, ancestral spirits of the Kwaio Solomon islanders. These beliefs are likely to spread culturally to the extent that they facilitate ingroup cooperation. This could occur by conforming to individual psychology that favors reputation-sensitive prosocial tendencies, as the by-product account holds; by competition among social groups, as the cultural group selection account would suggest; or possibly by some combination of the two. Religious behaviors and rituals, if more costly to cooperating group members than to freeloaders, may have reliably signaled the presence of devotion and, therefore, cooperative intention toward ingroup members, in turn, buffering religious groups against defection from freeloaders and reinforcing cooperative norms. Religious prosociality, thus, may have softened the limitations that kinship-based and (direct or indirect) reciprocity-based altruism place on group size. In this way, the cultural spread of religious prosociality may have facilitated the rise of stable, large, cooperative communities of genetically unrelated individuals.

Figure - Implicit activation of God concepts, relative to a neutral prime, increased offers in the one-shot, anonymous Dictator Game. Priming secular concepts indicating moral authority had a similar effect. The results showed not only a quantitative increase in generosity, but also a qualitative shift in social norms. In the control group, the modal response was selfishness, a plurality of players pocketed all $10. In the God group, the mode shifted to fairness, a plurality of players split the money evenly (N = 75). It remains to be seen, however, whether these effects
would occur if the recipient was clearly marked as an outgroup member.

Figure - Life expectancy of religious versus secular communes. An analysis of 200 religious and secular communes in 19th-century America (29), for every year of their life course, religious communes were about four times as likely to survive than their secular counterparts. This difference remained after statistically controlling for type of commune movement, year founded, and year at risk of dissolution (the last control assesses major historical trends that may independently impact commune dissolution).

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