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.