Participants primed with religious concepts gave their partner an average of $4.22, compared with only $1.84 in the control group. But those who declared themselves religious before the study were no more generous than non-believers.
“The effect of the religious prime was both large and surprising, especially considering that during exit interviews the participants were unaware of having been religiously primed,” says Shariff.
A second study introduced a third group, primed with words associated with civic responsibility such as “jury”, contract”, and “police.” This group behaved almost identically to that primed with religious concepts.
You can read the full working paper for free. There were two groups. One consisted of 50 UBC students, and the second a somewhat larger and more diverse group from the Vancouver, BC, area. The basic finding was that “priming” subjects with religious terms seemed to elevate generosity during an un-iterated Ultimatum Game, where the ‘rational actor’ should just keep all the money. In the first sample there wasn’t even a statistically significant difference between religious & irreligious students in how they reacted to the priming. The second study was more equivocal, and the authors in the discussion suggest that part of the reason that the irreligious tended to be less responsive toward religious priming was that the greater stringency of the test for ‘atheism’ filtered the individuals to a greater degree who were defined as non-religious, and a small number of subjects might simply even lack the implicit resonances of supernatural agents. Finally, the second study also showed that subjects could be primed toward generosity by exposing them to civic terminology.
First, the authors note the problems with their small and narrow sample sizes. Though statistically significant and powerful, the effects were derived from people from the Vancouver area, or, college students at UBC. I didn’t see controlling for the fact that there is likely some correlation between ethnicity and religion in British Columbia. Specifically, a disproportionate number of secular British Columbians are likely to be Chinese origin. Second, cognition expresses and develops within a cultural context. In a society with less civic engagement and activity than Canada I would not be surprised if the effect of secular priming was trivial. Similarly, in a society that is extremely secular (Japan?) one might see far greater response to civic priming than the supernatural equivalent. Third, the authors suggest that the response of theistic and non-theistic individuals in the first group to supernatural concepts suggests an implicit association between religious concepts and altruistic behavior. I have suggested myself that the anthropomorphic bias which is a pillar of religiosity exists in many, or all, atheists. Rejection of a deity might be sincere on the explicit level, but the implicit mind might still be strongly shaped by early cultural conditioning. The secular individuals in the UBC sample were no doubt aware of the valences and power of religious beliefs and ideas, and it seems plausible that lifetime implicit associations would have been built up.
Overall, this study is good because as the researchers point out there is a lot of armchair bullshitting on this topic. I get plenty of it in the comments of my weblogs. This study shows supernatural agents can act as mediators of human action as posited by many. It also shows that secular institutions and values can trigger the same change in behavior. What does this tell us on the fundamental level? I’m not sure, after all, the typical modern human has been exposed to several thousand years of philosophical religion which has embedded within it an explicit moral/ethical dimension. Similarly, bureaucratic government and the ideologies of mass societies are “in the air,” so to speak. In some “primitive” societies gods are seem as much more amoral creatures than in “advanced” cultures; they are mischievous agents who humans must placate and deceive. Additionally, they have no well developed theories of statecraft or a conception of law enforced by political fiat. It would be interesting to do this sort of study in a primitive society, though obviously the lack of literacy would cause problems with the priming the researchers used in this case.