Mar 24 2013

Science makes you good! (Sometimes.)

You’ve probably heard this explanation for the virtue of religion: that even if god doesn’t exist, belief in god (or some other monitoring authority) makes people behave more morally. There have been many experiments that have actually shown that people are nicer or more generous when exposed to religious concepts, such as this one by Norenzayan and Shariff.

In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with nonspiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one’s reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them.

One explanation is that simply alerting people to the possibility of surveillance makes them more careful. God is just the most popular boogeyman.

But here’s an interesting twist on the Norenzayan and Shariff study, with very similar protocols. Ma-Kellams and Blascovich also had subjects do a word scramble before sharing a money reward, and also had them make moral judgments after reading a story about date rape, and assessed their opinion on a certain controversial subject.

The twist: the word scramble contained science terms (“logical,” “hypothesis,” “laboratory,” “scientists,” “theory”), and the controversial subject was science.

I think you can guess where this is going. Thinking about science makes you more moral!

Across the four studies presented here, we demonstrated the morally normative effects of thinking about science. Priming lay notions of science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms (Studies 1, 2), report greater prosocial intentions (Study 3), and exhibit more morally normative behavior (Study 4). The moralizing effects of science were observed both by using naturalistic measures of exposure to science (e.g., field of study) as well as laboratory manipulations of thought-accessibility, and emerged across a broad array of domains, including interpersonal violations (Study 1), academic dishonesty (Studies 2), prosocial behaviors (Study 3), and economic exploitation (Study 4).

It is important to note that the primes used across all studies activated broad, general, lay notions of science rather than specific scientific findings. The key words used the science primes (logical, hypothesis, laboratory, scientists, and theory) were likely associated with semantic notions of rationality, impartiality and progress–notions that are a part of the broader moral view of science as a way of building a mutually beneficial society in which rational tools are used to improve the human condition.

Another important caveat is that it’s a typical psychology study, using a small pool of undergraduates at the University of California Santa Barbara, so they’re actually tapping into very narrow cultural norms. A group of students who were familiar with the Tuskegee syphilis study, to name just one exception, might respond to priming with science words very differently, while people from a less science-dependent culture might find the exercise meaningless.

But still, I don’t think those keywords would prompt concerns about being monitored and compelling people to police their behavior more carefully — they might instead switch people into slightly different modes of thought, where, as the authors suggest, different values are emphasized more. And maybe that’s what culture is actually doing: it’s reinforcing desirable associations in people’s minds to subtly shape their behavior. Clearly, though, we don’t need religion to do that. As a vehicle for positive values, anything can work: religion, football, stamp collecting, Pokemon, comedy, technology, television, or science (similarly, I think it’s also obvious that those media can also be vehicles for destructive values).

If you’re going to make anything an agent of virtue, though, it would help if it had the advantage of being fundamentally true in the first place…which is where religion falls down hard. If one of the values we want to enhance is honesty, for instance, you can’t do it with a medium that is a tissue of lies.


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  1. 1

    Personally I regard this as further evidence that science is taking the role of religion in the popular psyche, with scientists as the new priestly caste. Complete with white robes and impenetrable jargon.

    Of course, the interaction and mutual inspiration between the Academia and the religious intellectual establishment(s) goes back a long way.

  2. 2

    Wouldn’t there also be the possibility surveillance priming from using science terms during a scientific study where you’re being observed?

  3. 3

    “Complete with white robes and impenetrable jargon.”

    I really need to complain to the science pope’s office, they forgot to give me my white robe!

  4. 4

    An admission: I suspect I behave better when I’m being watched, not because of a bogeyman, but because I want to set an example and enforce a positive peer pressure. Prosocial reasons. If there are people around the park, I’ll pick up that plastic wrapper and take it to the garbage. It’s a way to communicate my disapproval of someone else’s littering and also a way to indicate to others that we can do better. It might not be worth my time if nobody were to see.

  5. 5
    Bronze Dog

    One thing I have to say about framing moral decisions as being about avoiding the wrath of a great overseer is that I think it teaches the lesson that morality is about being selfish while not getting caught. It reminds me of when I was first driving: The demands from fellow teenagers that I speed up or ignore stop signs were usually followed in the same breath with the assertion that there weren’t any cops around. I was more interested in driving safely, following the signs makes my car’s movement more predictable, and being predictable means other cars can anticipate my actions and make accurate safety assessments of their driving choices.

    Kind of makes sense of that crazy wingnut meme that empathy leads to fascism, since they’re probably afraid of facing disapproval from peers who are motivated by compassion and fairness, and they want to nip that enlightened morality in the bud before common decency really becomes common.

  6. 6
    Bronze Dog

    Oh, and I’m also like slatham in wanting to set examples. I do a lot of small courteous things for their own sake as well as hoping that someone is watching and will learn from it.

  7. 7

    If it is true that religious thought or awareness contributes to moral behavior as demonstrated by those studies and it is true that science thought and awareness does likewise then what is going on may not have anything to do with religion or science but something else something that they share or trigger.
    What is “moral behavior” anyway and how is it determined? Is moral behavior that behavior that is favored by the society and supports the group as a whole and fosters group solidarity or is judged to do that?
    What might be the results of a study that tried to “emphasized” the individual and competition for instance?

    uncle frogy

  8. 8

    Bronze Dog #5 wrote:

    One thing I have to say about framing moral decisions as being about avoiding the wrath of a great overseer is that I think it teaches the lesson that morality is about being selfish while not getting caught.

    Yes, this. Someone in FtB comments once wrote that “Christianity is the moral system which answers the concern that ‘it ain’t wrong if you don’t get caught.’” Oh, well then don’t worry — you DO get caught. The parent does have eyes in the back of their head. This fact not only makes it possible to say that something is wrong in the first place (the moral authority will enforce it), but it provides the incentive to do good. If you act the right way, then there’s a reward; if you don’t, then there’s a punishment. And the cops have you under surveillance.

    I don’t think it takes a lot of background in psychology to notice that this view of right and wrong — good and evil — is pretty much catering to the mental level of a 3 year old. There’s very little internalization of any moral understanding and no higher analysis of what makes an action ethical. Larger concerns for fairness, empathy, or relationships don’t come up. If religious faith is being a good toddler and believing what you’re told then religious morality is being a good toddler and doing what you’re told.

    The religious themselves have advanced beyond this, I think. Today’s pious individual usually grew up in humanist cultures (or ones influenced by humanism in a way they were not in the past.) Almost all versions of Divine Command Theory focus less on the punishment/reward aspect of obeying God and focus more on the desire to please God. Being fair and considerate pleases God. The whole “be good because you’re being watched” mantra simply hides beneath a more mature level of moral reasoning and is dragged out only when they need to wag it at actual toddlers and Bad Guys and atheists.

    Secular ethics has them beat. That’s because everything that makes sense in religious ethics automatically has to make sense on our terms.

    The virtue of religious piety in motivating one to be good is also its main vice: it bypasses the need to think. Moral disagreements tend to come down to disputes about facts rather than values. The supernatural provides new facts which re-frame a moral situation in a way that can’t be questioned on secular ground. “Being good” is therefore just as likely to be interpreted and set in stone as “slaughter the infidel” as it is to be interpreted and set in stone as “be kind to strangers.” The thought that the Islamists who flew into the World Trade Center were less likely to turn the plane around because they “knew” Allah was watching them is not a comforting one.

  9. 9
    Asher Kay

    “I don’t think it takes a lot of background in psychology to notice that this view of right and wrong — good and evil — is pretty much catering to the mental level of a 3 year old. There’s very little internalization of any moral understanding and no higher analysis of what makes an action ethical.”

    Yeah, and I think it goes even further. The rejection of theistic authority is simultaneously a taking-up of responsibility for moral theory and moral action. When you reject god, you are saying, “It’s a *human* responsibility to determine what is good and right. It’s *humans* that are on the hook for making the world a good place”.

    This is the primary reason why I’m an atheist rather than an agnostic. If it were simply an issue of god’s existence being unprovable, it wouldn’t matter whether I believed or not. It’s the moral issue that makes it important to take a stance.

    Which makes it all the more ironic to me when a theist asks me how I can be moral without god.

  10. 10
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    Alternate hypothesis: Things that prime you to stop and think about your behavior tend to improve said behavior.

  11. 11

    So being monitored by God makes people more moral, because they’re afraid of the punishment?

    I think I have an new billboard for the American Atheists:
    Wanted: Yahweh, for the crimes of the indefinite detention and torturing of prisoners.

    According to documentation provided by Christians, he has been burning prisoners in lakes of fire for centuries. By the laws defined under the Geneva convention, he is now a wanted war criminal. If you see this deity, please notify your local authorities.

  12. 12

    Should have said he was wanted for crimes against humanity instead of war criminal…

  13. 13
    Dick the Damned

    Sastra, i’m pleased to see you back in action. I hope all is well with you now, or at least, getting that way soon. (I’m sure i speak for many more.)

  14. 14
    chigau (違う)

    Sastra, it’s good to see you.

  15. 15
    MG Myers


    I’m another one happy to see you back!

  16. 16
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @Bronze Dog #5

    One thing I have to say about framing moral decisions as being about avoiding the wrath of a great overseer is that I think it teaches the lesson that morality is about being selfish while not getting caught.

    ^This. An example; take two 5 year old boys, sit them at a table and put a fiver on the table in front of them. You ask them “If I were to leave the room, would you take the money?”. They both say “No”. You ask “Why not?”. One of them says “Because I’d get in trouble”. The other one merely says “Because it’s wrong”.

    I think almost everyone would agree that the second child is more moral. And yet Religion everywhere seems to pander to the first mindset by providing an authority to punish them. They make no effort to try and instill the latter mindset, they merely accept the rather shitty, selfish justification of the former and run with it. Which simply reinforces the mindset.

  17. 17

    Critias the brilliant oligarch (and killer) Plato’s uncle had this to say in his play Sisyphus.

    “There was a time when the life of men was unordered, bestial and the slave of force, when there was no reward for the virtuous and no punishment for the wicked. Then, I think, men devised retributory laws, in order that Justice might be dictator and have arrogance as its slave, and if anyone sinned, he was punished. Then, when the laws forbade them to commit open crimes of violence, and they began to do them in secret, a wise and clever man invented fear (of the gods) for mortals, that there might be some means of frightening the wicked, even if they do anything or say or think it in secret. Hence, he introduced the Divine, saying that there is a God flourishing with immortal life, hearing and seeing with his mind, and thinking of everything and caring about these things, and having divine nature, who will hear everything said among mortals, and will be able to see all that is done. And even if you plan anything evil in secret, you will not escape the gods in this; for they have surpassing intelligence. In saying these words, he introduced the pleasantest of teachings, covering up the truth with a false theory; and he said that the gods dwelt there where he could most frighten men by saying it, whence he knew that fears exist for mortals and rewards for the hard life: in the upper periphery, where they saw lightnings and heard the dread rumblings of thunder, and the starry-faced body of heaven, the beautiful embroidery of Time the skilled craftsman, whence come forth the bright mass of the sun, and the wet shower upon the earth. With such fears did he surround mankind, through which he well established the deity with his argument, and in a fitting place, and quenched lawlessness among me … Thus, I think, for the first time did someone persuade mortals to believe in a race of deities.”

  18. 18

    Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control.

    Am I missing something here? It would seem to me that the group doing more of the sharing should wind up with LESS money. If each member of the spiritual group (SG) shared half of their $10, while none of the non-spiritual group (NSG) shared any, then some of the SG’s money would wind up with the NSG’s. It seems to be the exact opposite of what they’re saying. Since the SG walked with MORE money, it can only mean that the NSG was more willing to share. Or am I reading it wrong?

  19. 19
    Old At Heart

    @Thorne, 18
    I don’t know what you’re talking about. Unless you assume “parted with the money” means they left the room with the money, and not the more conventional definition of “to part with” something… Because then funerals would be really weird, with everyone parting with the dead and whatnot.

  20. 20
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    So perhaps thinking about rules makes one good.

    I’d love to see the original experiment repeated with a) random religious platitudes from various religions, b) philosophy, c) science and logic, d) rules of a game, e) the wonders of nature, and f) poetry, g) random literary excerpt, h) random pedestrian prose.

  21. 21
    Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    Parted with = gave away, not “departed with”!

  22. 22

    @ #19 Old At Heart
    My mistake. I read that damned line at least three times and for some reason read it as “departed with the money”. Now it makes sense.

    Sorry about that. Maybe I need new glasses.

    Check that: I KNOW I need new glasses.

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