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Nov 14 2011

Religious People Cheat

Jesse Bering has an article up at Slate this morning on whether nonbelievers should marry believers. His argument in favor?

On the one hand, I’d no doubt be irritated by my very religious wife’s supernatural beliefs. On the other hand, the very fact that she believes strongly in some divinely imposed morality should influence her behavior behind my back. She may well be suffering a very bad case of the dreaded God delusion, but perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing for her atheist husband. After all, my faithful, imaginary wife would then be operating under the assumption that cheating on me would not only hurt her family if the affair ever came to light, but would result in eternal damnation or perhaps an unhappy plague of this-worldly misfortunes even if it didn’t. Never mind if she’s crazy. I’m a pragmatist, so what she believes to be true is all that matters.

[Evo psych argument for why this should be important elided.]

Now, now, Dawkinsian atheists, I know what you’re thinking: You certainly don’t have to believe in God to be faithful to your spouse; marriages are built on mutual trust; religious people cheat, too; and so on. Of course you’re right about these things, but we’re still in the emotionless realm of the hypothetical, remember, and all else being equal, if you’re simply trying to minimize the chances of landing an adulterous partner, you might as well stack the deck in your favor by marrying the woman who “knows” that God would get really mad at her if she misappropriated her genitalia. This isn’t just my being a contrarian, either. There really is evidence from controlled experiments showing that religious thinking and church attendance leads to moral behavior.

For the record, he does recognize this as a bit of cold calculus, done for the purposes of writing the article. That’s not my problem with it. My problem is that the research he cites (the “controlled experiments” link) doesn’t say what he seems to think it says about cheating.

This is not research on belief. It’s research on priming, in which an idea is called to mind in a study participant and the effects on behavior are studied. We can tell it’s not research on belief, because doing something like recalling the Ten Commandments works in atheists too, as does the use of secular exhortations to good behavior. When a participant is primed to be thinking about good behavior, they tend to exhibit good behavior–usually.

Then, Darley and Batson varied the subject of the talk that the students were supposed to deliver. Some were told to say something about the existence of God. Others were told to discuss the Trinity. Still others were told to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Finally, as the students were given directions to the other building, a few of them were told by the experiment that they were late, and “that they had better get moving”.

So which students helped the man in need? You’d assume that the students who had just prepared a lecture on the Good Samaritan parable would be more likely to stop and help. Or that the students who entered the church to help others might be more likely to actually help others. But you’d be wrong. As Darley and Batson wrote, “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”

According to the data, the only variable that mattered was whether or not the students were in a rush. While only 10 percent of those who were told to hurry offered help, 63 percent of those who had a few minutes to spare offered aid.

Even priming doesn’t always have the desired effect, because our behavior isn’t determined that simply. Nor is complex behavior, like cheating on a spouse, generally decided on the spur of the moment, when priming would be the most powerful. When researchers correct for priming, as one of those cited by Bering did in a study released earlier this year:

In line with many previous studies, it found no difference between the ethical behavior of believers and nonbelievers. But those who believed in a loving, compassionate God were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive God.

That’s cheating on a math test, but cross-group studies in the general population show that the overall lack of difference in moral/ethical behavior stands across several areas. In order to reasonably believe that the effects of the studies Bering cites could have any effect on your spouse’s marital fidelity, you would have to create a world in which those religious cues for good behavior were ever prevalent.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for respect and open communication to keep my marriage properly sorted.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    Digital archeologists of the future will be endlessly puzzled over how the above comments appeared here (with their original post apparently having vanished into cybervacuum fluctuations). At least, they’re still associated with the right blogger.

    Does Bering really believe that the possibility of adultery is the crucial consideration in picking a marriage partner? If so, he’s probably wooing the ugliest, nastiest object of his orientation to be found…

  2. 2
    DuWayne

    I’ve done this before – though not with such a massive stretch. I’m writing a paper, in a huge hurry and realize that I need a citation to back an assertion – I do some quick searching, find something that sounds like it backs me and run with it. But when I have done so, I have at least made sure that it really does fit – that it really is just a bit of a stretch to read into what was written, what I want it to say. I also make sure that the research the paper is discussing actually supports my assertion – because ultimately that is what counts. You can defend the use of a citation that discusses research that supports your assertions, even if the researchers were either not focused on that particular point, or in some cases ignored it because it was inconvenient to them in another context.

    You cannot defend this so well. I accept that there is a significant difference between academic writing and blogging, but it’s still ridiculous – not to mention embarrassing.

    Priming has absolutely nothing to do with general behavior patterns. Quite the opposite in fact, priming research is focused on how various cues can influence those general behavior patterns. Such research has been useful in the development of behavior modification tools. In essence, the point of priming is to modify general behavior patterns to achieve a desired alteration to those patterns.

    The other problem I have with this though, is that that study doesn’t explicitly address non-believers as a category. In the first experiment we’re ignored completely and when not ignored, we’re lumped in with “low-believers.” The problem with this is that those who assert a god-belief, but who are not particularly religious are unlikely to be particularly introspective – thus making them less inclined to social awareness. Note that god priming actually reduces their social awareness – this is likely because when they think about god, they are focusing on what they see as an abstraction which actually triggers some introspection.

    Fascinating as that study is, it has absolutely nothing – not even a little bit to do with the frequency of infidelity in believers, versus non-believers. What studies I have seen that look at factors related to infidelity in believers and non-believers would indicate that non-believers might actually be less inclined to infidelity. In part, that is likely due to non-believers being less inclined to moralize extramarital relations that are accepted by both marriage partners. In other words, the behaviors might actually occur at consistent rates – it is how those behaviors are perceived that might make the difference between believers and non-believers.

    But even that is just a fuckton of speculation based on rather scant evidence. There just isn’t enough empirical evidence to really make solid, evidence based assertions. What there is is suggestive, but not nearly generalizable enough. That sort of research is a hell of a lot more complicated than priming research and less likely to yield particularly practical results. That isn’t to say it is useless, just that priming research is cheaper and produces clinically relevant results – so it is a hell of a lot easier to get funding.

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    Pierce, I think those comments will end up back where they belong when the post is recovered, so it will be your comment that confuses people. :)

    In this case, I think the relevant part of Bering’s orientation is evolutionary psychologist. Sadly, this seems to have adverse effects in some people, particularly when it comes to viewing scientific literature as a whole. In fact, they might make a very interesting study population. Bering is actually not as bad as many.

    DuWayne, all that. Yes. I’d also caution that atheist/nonbeliever identification is higher among more education populations, which is going to exert its own skew on general population studies. The most I’m comfortable saying at this point is that these studies don’t show any positive effect from religion.

  4. 4
    Pierce R. Butler

    Stephanie Zvan @ # 6: … I think those comments will end up back where they belong when the post is recovered…

    Wow, what an optimist, twice over! (Well, no surprise: you did marry an IT guy…)

    … the relevant part of Bering’s orientation is evolutionary psychologist. Sadly, this seems to have adverse effects in some people…

    I thought the evo-psych people had recognized that non-monogamous species have found ways to get by too. Wouldn’t he do better looking for a mate smart enough to use contraception and aware that he’d want a DNA test “for health reasons” on offspring?

  5. 5
    Ulgaa

    The comments for that article are something to read. My personal favorite was the claim that spouses who appeared to be religious and cheated were just atheists in disguise, just to get the benefits of being religious.

  6. 6
    Art

    There is also the felt impunity of the ‘saved’ to the ‘wages of sin’ caused by the knowledge that no matter what they do they can always repent and avoid the punishment. Many of the more roguish Christians have a history of come-to-Jesus moments timed to coincide with their being caught and potentially facing harsh condemnation, and jail time.

  7. 7
    Gordon

    It seems like he hasn’t considered that when the believer wife cheats she will be fine with getting forgiveness from Jesus rather than her husband. She has a “Get out of jail free” card to soothe her conscience that is just not available to a non-believer wife.

  8. 8
    Matt G

    Believing in god allows you to rationalize your behavior. “God understands,” god wants me to be happy,” “god will forgive me,” etc. If god exists, everything is permitted….

  1. 9
    Religious People Cheat | Almost Diamonds

    [...] This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here. [...]

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