Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Who Needs Big Brother?

From a special section in the December 9 issue of the New York Times Magazine on intriguing ideas and research from 2007:

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 natural agent who could. But does thinking of an omniscient God 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, unknown 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 reseairch, Norenzayan can only speculate about the significance: "We need that common denominator that works for everyone."

Marina Krakovsky


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, and would at least seem to back up the idea that religion played (plays) the same role as the state in non-state societies.

John said...

Of course, it could just demonstrate that people make decisions depending on their frame of mind at the time. I'd be interested to see if the same results applied in an atheist society or what would happen if the words tested for were "God" "Hoax" "Priests" and "Lies." ;-)

Anonymous said...

There's an interested and related study which involves putting a cctv camera and even a picture of a face looking at one over the jar - they also have a similar effect!

I think that it's thus hard to generalise about god's role in the whole affair.

John said...

Hi Chekov--

I disagree. I think it's fair to say that God plays no part in the experiment at all! ;-)

I posted this piece in particular because the topic has been receiving some media interest recently as a result of the book Neuroeconomics, which is using brain scans to examine the thinking and emotional processes involved when people make "economic decisions," although I haven't read anything yet that couldn't be regarded as the bleeding obvious.

Ironically, in the same issue of the New York Times Magazine, there was an article reporting research which demonstrated that ANY theory automatically attained greater credibility if it was accompanied by pictures of brain scans.

And I have the pictures here to prove it.