This tests _____________

So thinking about this athletic ability/strategic intelligence test I’ve been pondering what other tests would show.

A test for atheists and theists, for instance. A test in which the subjects would be told “this tests your generosity” – or warmth or empathy or compassion or altruism or kindness. I wonder if the theists would be primed to do better while the atheists would be primed to do worse.

That would be my guess, at least. I bet I have that stereotype. Do I also consciously believe it? Yes, maybe. I at least believe it’s possible.

I don’t think theists have a better metaethics than atheists; I think the reverse. But I think they might have a better motivation…depending on what kind of god they believe in. The god that a lot of people believe in is really quite nasty, and I don’t think that god motivates much extra kindness or generosity. Nevertheless “God” is supposed to be super-good, and people who both believe that and have a sane idea of what “good” means might well be motivated to try to live up to a god of that kind. That could be enough of an extra prod that they would actually be on average a few points more generous.

What if there were a test in which subjects were told it was testing their rationality? That one is more enigmatic to me, because I don’t know which stereotype believers would buy into – ours or theirs.

Or a test in which they were told it was testing for innate scientific ability? I bet that one would skew the other way – believers doing worse, atheists doing better. I’m just guessing. Social psychology is interesting though, no question.


  1. Ben says

    I would disagree, but I would be interested to see the results. I think an atheist might have more to prove.

  2. says

    That’s rather insidious. While I’m sure it would be easier to test to see if someone’s an atheist by asking them something more direct, with a simple test of empathy or honesty in absence of reward, it seems to me it would show more altruism amongst the people who don’t necessarily think there’s some eternal reward for it.

    I’m not sure, though. I guess statistically, the people who might think that happenstance (e.g. finding a wallet with money in it) is God rewarding them, not an opportunity to do “the right thing”, might balance out with those atheists with less grounded and socially acceptable morality. And I’m guessing they’d balance out because your religious views don’t determine your morality. Would love to see studies like this.

  3. says

    I don’t know how it would turn out, but I wanna see the results!

    Social psychology can be interesting, even to the layperson. I’m fascinated by the way people “work”, so to speak.

  4. Jon Jermey says

    How do you ethically test and measure ‘good’ behaviour? It would be a scientific nightmare. That’s why research into moral psychology is usually done by asking people how they would react in imaginary situations — which is fine until the researchers start to extrapolate from it to real situations.

    Can anyone really predict how they would react in any given moral crisis? I certainly can’t.

  5. stacy says

    How do you ethically test and measure ‘good’ behaviour? It would be a scientific nightmare. That’s why research into moral psychology is usually done by asking people how they would react in imaginary situations — which is fine until the researchers start to extrapolate from it to real situations.

    Well, there was this famous test:

  6. says

    I think an atheist might have more to prove.

    Quite, and what the research shows is that that makes people do worse, not better. It’s counter-intuitive, at least if your intuition is that having more to prove sharpens up your game (which I think would have been my intuition).

    Remember, the priming statement isn’t actually about the test. It’s a falsehood. The test actually measures something else, but priming statements (that are falsehoods) can skew performance anyway. It’s very creepy.

  7. madderthanhatters says

    Actually, I think there already have been some social psych tests done on morality in Christians vs. Atheists, and the results were something like Christians showed more generosity to charities (even non-religious ones), or something like that. I can’t recall the exact article but I’ll try to hunt it down.

    I would, however, like to point out that such tests do not really take into account the nuances for such behavior – anecdotally, I’ve noticed that my Christian friends tend to keep track of their generosities much more stringently, and expect social rewards (and presumably, post-mortem rewards in heaven); they also tend to use their instances of generosity as a platform to preach their Christianity (I once had a christian friend lend me $2.50 for a drink, after which I shamefacedly apologized for her having to cover for me, to which she replied “I’m Christian, I believe in god and goodness and this is what I do”, which was a huge surprise and contrast to all my atheist friends, who usually shrug and tell me to chill.)

    And also, the problems of operationalizing “morality” also comes to mind.

    On another note, I think a study by the University of British Colombia found that Christians and atheists do just as well on morality tests if they are provided with certain cues/primers; Christians did better when reminded that god was always watching, and atheists did better when reminded that people judge them socially by their behavior.

    Cites, cites, I must hunt them down. Excuse me…

  8. says

    madder, yes, I’m sure there was some recent study that found believers give more to charity than non-believers. I hope you find the one about cues and priming; I’ve been reading about that lately – well that’s what the post is about, isn’t it – and I’m v. interested.

  9. madderthanhatters says

    Sorry Ophelia, it seems I may have unintentionally mislead you. I did find a paper regarding the topic somewhat by a UBC prof that was published during the time-frame when I could have reasonably read the paper I described above, but reading the abstract I may have remembered the parameters of the study incorrectly.


    Shariff, A.F. & Norenzayan, A. (2007). God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science, 18, 803-809.

    The abstract does mention that self-reported religiosity did not appear to affect the results to a significant degree.

    The lab actually belongs to Prof. Norenzayan, and it seems he’s been quite productive in the past five years; there’s tons of research regarding religion, morality, and atheism published by him, you can find it here:

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