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Highly religious not as compassionate as non-believers, says study

May 1, 2012

According to a new University of California-Berkeley study, the highly religious are less motivated to show generosity than are non-believers. The findings are being published in the online issue of “Social Psychological and Personality Science.”

The results seem to conflict with a 2008 University of British Columbia study asserting that the faithful are “more helpful, honest and generous.”

The study conducted three experiments, with social scientists finding that compassion “consistently drove less religious people to be more generous. For highly religious people, however, compassion was largely unrelated to how generous they were.” Compassion, as defined in the study, is the emotion felt when people recognize another’s suffering and are thus motivated to help.

“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”

The study’s lead author, Laura Saslow, a post-doctoral student at UC-San Francisco, was inspired to conduct the study after an atheist friend noted that he only donated to Haiti’s earthquake recovery efforts because of a moving video, not out of some logical sense that help was needed.

“I was interested to find that this experience – an atheist being strongly influenced by his emotions to show generosity to strangers – was replicated in three large, systematic studies,” Saslow said.

The first experiment analyzed data from a 2004 national survey of more than 1,300 American adults. What the study’s authors found is that those who agreed with the statement, “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them,” were more inclined to random acts of kindness. In this experiment, non-believers were more motivated out of compassion to be charitable than believers.

In the second experiment, 101 American adults watched either a brief neutral video or a “heartrending one,” which showed children in poverty. The subjects were then given 10 “lab dollars” and instructed to donate the money to a stranger. What the study’s authors found is that the least religious participants appeared to be motivated by the emotional video.

“The compassion-inducing video had a big effect on their generosity,” Willer said. “But it did not significantly change the generosity of more religious participants.”

In the final experiment, over 200 college students were asked to report how compassionate they felt at that moment, and played “economic trust games.” They were given money and could either chose to share it or not. “In one round, they were told that another person playing the game had given a portion of their money to them, and that they were free to reward them by giving back some of the money, which had since doubled in amount.”

Again, non-believers or those of little faith, and given to momentary compassion, were more inclined to share winnings with strangers than fellow participants.

One can well imagine that when the faithful see the results of this study, they will call it the work of the devil.

[Image via Reuters]

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