Hallowed be thy bane
November 9, 2015 10:36 AM   Subscribe

The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World A new study published in Cell shows that "Parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies."

"Here, we assessed altruism and third-party evaluation of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm in 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), the religiousness of their household, and parent-reported child empathy and sensitivity to justice. Across all countries, parents in religious house- holds reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents.

PDF link to study here.
posted by MisantropicPainforest (40 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Across all countries, parents in religious house- holds reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents.

To clarify, the headline of the article is:

Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds
posted by Melismata at 10:44 AM on November 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


Can someone better at reading studies confirm that they attempted to lower the inherent bias of measuring multiple countries with dominant religions, and that religion was the major factor affecting outcome, not nationality?
posted by JauntyFedora at 10:48 AM on November 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Previously. (Deleted.)
posted by Sys Rq at 10:48 AM on November 9, 2015


I saw this study the other day. I wonder if they'd get the same result if they had a more robust correction for socioeconomic status, since atheists and agnostics on average have more money, and the more you have as a kid the easier it is to feel free and relaxed about losing it.

What they used as their sole indicator of socioeconomic status was "the level of education of the mother." That's not a bad thing to have in the analysis, but it's hardly a complete picture of how wealthy and well-educated a family is. I could imagine that a fuller examination of socioeconomic status would reduce the effect they noted.

I suspect that the same is true of studies showing how little crime comes from little atheists.
posted by clawsoon at 10:49 AM on November 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


I know this is gratifying to a lot of people, but I think it's not very good work, to be honest. There's so much that goes on in a family's home life that's unmeasured here: you can't use declared religiosity as a proxy for things like how much time parents spend with children, how they actually interact with them, and much more. So it's entirely possible that they're measuring something other than religiosity per se, but we can't tell because they didn't specify their model very carefully.
posted by clockzero at 10:49 AM on November 9, 2015 [15 favorites]


parent-reported

¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by prize bull octorok at 10:58 AM on November 9, 2015 [13 favorites]


They also believe that interper-sonal harm is more ‘‘mean’’ and deserving of harsher punishment than non-religious children. Thus, children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions, while being less altruistic toward another child from the same social environment, at least when generosity is spontaneously directed to an ambiguous beneficiary.

I would be interested to know more about this push/bump video that was used to assess attitudes toward interpersonal harm. I'm not entirely sure that "kids see physically injuring others as Not That Bad And Totally On Accident" is an unambiguous good.

It would also be interesting to do some conversations with the kids if you could do multiples of the studies with the stickers. What did the kids think was going on?

Remembering childhood is sort of a lost cause, but I'm going to try to cast my mind back to my own youth growing up in a left-leaning religious family. I do remember situations where I was unsure of the rightness of what was going on, but hesitated to rock the boat because Authority!!! I could easily see myself thinking "hm, no stickers for some kids; stickers for me. Well, that sounds messed up, but the Adult says that's how it's supposed to be". Which isn't a failure of altruism so much as the success of authoritarianism.

I think I was a pretty judgey kid, actually, and since I did spend a lot of time thinking about religion and morality (at least, I remember really worrying about that stuff), I assume there was some connection.

My family was left-wing religious, so we were a lot less on the "you don't believe right, you're going to hell" end of things and a lot more on the "there is only one behavior in a given situation that is moral and you DO want to be moral, don't you?" end. Very often I'd say that our chosen behaviors were pretty decent (definitely prioritized sharing, for instance; my dad was the first anti-death-penalty adult I ever met; etc) but judgey, definitely.

As a non-religious adult, I'd say that the most lasting after-effect isn't judgment, per se (despite my metafilter persona, I'm very go-along-to-get-along in the flesh) but a lasting sense of discombobulation when faced with the fact that there's no intrinsic moral order to the universe.
posted by Frowner at 11:07 AM on November 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


man though you can probably imagine how badly I want studies that seem to confirm the hierarchical-control-makes-mean-people hypothesis to be sound, though. If I want it to be sound hard enough, doesn't that make it automatically true?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:07 AM on November 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


This issue was raised in the previously-deleted post: When there are two participants -- perpetrator and victim -- the role of empathy becomes tricky to untangle, since punitive people could either have less sympathy with perpetrators or more sympathy with victims, or something in between.

Here are a few other studies about sympathy and punishment to complicate the picture a bit:

High JWS [Just World scale] subjects, compared to low, generally showed less sympathy with the perpetrator but more sympathy with the victim.

It should be noted that physical aggressiveness and anger [toward perpetrators] were positively related to target likeability. [In addition,] Males liked the targets of aggression more than females.

Results revealed that the relative preference for punishing [versus victim restitution] only occurred among participants who did not experience emotional proximity to the victim.

We find that people are more punitive toward identified wrongdoers than toward equivalent, but unidentified, wrong-doers, even when identifying the wrong-doer conveys no meaningful information about him or her.

When counterfactual alternatives to an outcome were readily available, subjects: (i) punished the perpetrators more severely; (ii) considered the incident to be more serious; and (iii) felt greater sympathy toward the victims.


The parent-reported bit is only about parental views of their children, btw, as reported in Figure 4; the rest of the study is based on experimental results when children played the dictator game -- though of course religiousity is heavily confounded, and the meaning of the dictator game has been shown to be extremely culturally dependent.
posted by chortly at 11:10 AM on November 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Can someone better at reading studies confirm that they attempted to lower the inherent bias of measuring multiple countries with dominant religions, and that religion was the major factor affecting outcome, not nationality?


It was controlled for in the model-- they used linear regression modeling, which allows you to tease out, e.g., the different effects of religion and country of origin. Country did have a significant effect, which was slightly smaller than what they found for religion (betas were 0.1 and -0.132, if that means anything to you).

Also note that the effect size was really, really, small: they were measuring how many stickers the children shared (out of 10). The effects were on the order of ~1 stickers (not religious sharing 4 stickers; religious sharing 3).
posted by damayanti at 11:10 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Basically all this boils down to "humans are not very effective in doing what we think we're doing, but we have great capacity for hurting each other and being unfair without even understanding what we're doing". Which is what depresses me about the whole show - what's the point of even having humans when it seems like it takes serious contemplation to get through, like, ordering a sandwich without being unfair or perpetuating microaggressions.

Better to be a mole in the ground, I guess.
posted by Frowner at 11:14 AM on November 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


Substantially large wings of both religions are punishment-based, meting out the ultimate punishment (no, not death, but barring from mythical eternal life). That these wings would pull the "religious" group's mean toward the punitive (in spite of the majority's more forgiving attitudes) is unsurprising, so it does surprise me that so much focus is on finding flaws in the research design and analysis to explain away this unsurprising finding.

That said, I haven't yet read the original paper.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:20 AM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


There's also a correlation/causality confusion; could it be that people who are inherently less inclined to altruism and generosity (though both inheritable personality traits and culture) are more likely to be religious and to cultivate religion in their children?

I wouldn't be at all surprised if individuals who were already less inclined to be generous and altruistic, who grew up with that expectation, and who believe other people are generally that way, would feel it was important to teach their children that an omniscient being was always watching them and was ready to punish them.

In other words, the religion isn't necessarily causing the attitudes, but is perhaps fostered by them.
posted by amtho at 11:32 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's also a correlation/causality confusion; could it be that people who are inherently less inclined to altruism and generosity (though both inheritable personality traits and culture) are more likely to be religious and to cultivate religion in their children?

I don't think the researchers make any claims about causation here, but I do think you're right that these findings raise more questions than they answer. There are many possible explanations for the observation that children from religious homes tend to be less empathetic and altruistic than others. Figuring out why that's the case is a really juicy research question.
posted by clockzero at 11:40 AM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


There's also a correlation/causality confusion

They aren't causally inferring anything.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:43 AM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


...positively correlated with their punitive tendencies

Can justice be served without judgement?
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:47 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


It does remind me of this study from a couple of years ago, which found that you shouldn't trust the religious, business majors, or the children of divorced parents.
posted by clawsoon at 11:47 AM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


parent-reported

¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Seriously, if there's one thing I've learned from news interviews of the murderer's mother, it's that parents are always objective evaluators of their children.
posted by resurrexit at 11:48 AM on November 9, 2015


The parents think they and their children are more empathetic than others. That argues against them being less inclined to be generous and altruistic.
posted by irisclara at 11:48 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Basically all this boils down to "humans are not very effective in doing what we think we're doing, but we have great capacity for hurting each other and being unfair without even understanding what we're doing". Which is what depresses me about the whole show - what's the point of even having humans when it seems like it takes serious contemplation to get through, like, ordering a sandwich without being unfair or perpetuating microaggressions.

We love you, Frowner, don't be sad
posted by clockzero at 11:59 AM on November 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


1. I seems odd to me that this is published in Current Biology (not Cell as described in the lead). I don't know anything about this journal or this field of study but I wouldn't immediately make any connection between these ideas - religious belief and altruism - and biology. In fact, a quick skim of the article doesn't appear to show any significant connection to biology. To me, this appears to be social science.

2. It's interesting to note that the work was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. My very hazy understanding of that organization is that it often funds research that is along these lines but it does so with the hope that there are positive or beneficial links between religion and science. So good on everyone involved with following through to publish information that may be opposed to the ideological beliefs of the funding organization; I interpret that as a sign of integrity for everyone involved (including the funder).
posted by ElKevbo at 12:30 PM on November 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


They aren't causally inferring anything.

Yes, I did see that in the article I read. However, the media coverage doesn't address this, and I'm fairly sure that most people reading the media coverage aren't taking a moment to consider this. Most people here in this thread probably are, but I wish that every popular-press story about it would at least make a reference to the idea that correlation != causality. It's important, and easy to forget, and easy to not know in the first place if you weren't lucky enough to do well in science in public school.

Also, some kind of mention of this might make religious people feel less threatened by science. Slightly. Or not. But it's at least worth a _try_ to send a message that "science isn't about hating religion, and it's not as simple as it sometimes seems".
posted by amtho at 12:45 PM on November 9, 2015


You mean religion is just another form of tribalism, i.e. hating non-members? How about that.

But it's at least worth a _try_ to send a message that "science isn't about hating religion, and it's not as simple as it sometimes seems".

It depends on whether you define religion as a "shared set of beliefs and cultures" or "belief in a god and our creation stories" because if it's the latter, science is pretty much 100% anti-religion so far.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:18 PM on November 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


> science is pretty much 100% anti-religion so far.

i dunno man as i see it science is a bunch of institutional practices at least nominally devoted to in some way devising explanations for physical phenomena and predictions related to same, collected together with practices meant to transmit/propagate/preserve records of observations of phenomena coupled with physical explanations and predictions related to those phenomena plus techniques for performing those phenomenal observations, while religion on the other hand is a bunch of institutional practices primarily devoted to community formation, generally involving rituals devoted to the communal affirmation of specific metaphysical claims related to noumenal things-in-themselves rather than merely phenomenal things-as-they-appear-to-us, rituals that thereby both propagate and preserve those metaphysical claims, with these institutions often also performing ritual material redistribution of goods in some way — downward toward the poorer members of the community, say, or upward to a charismatic leader who promises rewards for those who give to him.

these two projects don't seem necessarily opposed, at least not to me. your mileage may vary.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:37 PM on November 9, 2015 [7 favorites]


I guess what I'm trying to say is that:
  • on the one hand, science doesn't have tools for addressing metaphysical claims because science deals with phenomena rather than noumena,
  • and on the other hand, treating claims from religious stories about the physical world according to modern/scientific standards of truth leaves those stories looking "false" — but this doesn't mean anything, because the stories weren't built for that, and tools for assessing truth in modern/scientific terms weren't designed to take religious stories as valid input.
For my part I think the tendency to treat religious texts as making truth claims about the world is a particularly modern form of illiteracy based on a misunderstanding of literary genre. Going off looking for the historical Noah's Ark is a little bit like scouring London for Diagon Alley. Likewise, someone making an attempt at a brick-by-brick proof of the nonexistence of Diagon Alley in London would have to be genre-illiterate as well.

That aside, I'm not sure we can neatly prise apart "religion as a shared set of beliefs and cultures" and "religion as belief in a god and our creation stories." The creation stories are best understood as tools for building the shared institutions required for social cohesiveness, rather than as truth claims to be empirically verified, and therefore must be seen as part of their institutional implementations rather than separable from them. The standard for understanding them on their own terms must, therefore, be related to their empirical effect on the world, rather than on whether or not the world empirically "verifies" the meaning of the stories.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:54 PM on November 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


also I can't reasonably make fun of anyone else's metaphysics, since as an ontological nihilist I have embraced the absolutely most contradictory system of beliefs possible.

(but wait, you say, isn't there no reason to believe in ontological nihilism? Yes, I respond, and when you think about it that's kind of a point in its favor. I mean, if there existed a reason to believe in ontological nihilism, that would itself contradict ontological nihilism.)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:05 PM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


For my part I think the tendency to treat religious texts as making truth claims about the world is a particularly modern form of illiteracy based on a misunderstanding of literary genre. Going off looking for the historical Noah's Ark is a little bit like scouring London for Diagon Alley. Likewise, someone making an attempt at a brick-by-brick proof of the nonexistence of Diagon Alley in London would have to be genre-illiterate as well.

Non-overlapping magisteria is a ridiculously modern belief which examines religion as it exists in cultures where science has chased it out of the empirical sphere and extrapolates to all cultures. It's the product of a worldview shaped by a culture where the ability of religious authorities to make claims about reality based on their texts and beliefs rather than on empirical investigation has been eliminated so thoroughly that it's become easy to forget that there ever was such a debate. The idea that religious claims about reality which cannot be validated, or even which can be invalidated, by empirical investigation are not meant to be taken literally would be extremely surprising to many people outside those cultures, and inside as well.

It's literally that judging the past by the present thing people like get scoldy about.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:35 PM on November 9, 2015 [9 favorites]


The idea of non-overlapping magisteria is different from what I'm talking about; as I understand NOMA, the claim there is that science and religion are different types of inquiries into different kinds of truths. I'm focusing more on institutional practice and, in general, what gets done under the names of the two different institutions and through their associated practices. Basically it's a question of how to assess the success of a scientific or religious claim, and I'm arguing that in both cases the criteria for whether or not a claim is successful is more closely bound up in power of different types in different contexts that it is directly tied to any type of truth. A scientific claim is successful if it is promulgated by scientists through the scientific community, and particularly successful if it changes the practices of that community as a whole. A religious claim is successful if it is part of a successful project to institute and/or preserve a particular community formation. Although claims to correspondence with truths of different types (physical truths, metaphysical truths, historical truths) are useful for making a claim successful, they're not necessary, and treating correspondence to truth as the end-all, be-all of either scientific or religious claims isn't possible.

It's not so much that that the spheres of science and religion don't overlap, even. They overlap all the time; it's not like science does physics and religion does metaphysics. Doing science requires a set of metaphysical concepts that make examining physical phenomena make sense as an activity, and doing religion frequently involves making claims about the physical world. It's just, "debunking" or whatever the physical claims made through religion doesn't actually demolish the religious claim, because the criterion for success for a religious claim involves the ways the claim organizes people, rather than the way the claim corresponds to an objective reality. As whoever wrote Matthew put it, by their fruit you will recognize them.

I'm sorry my language is so convoluted here. the tl;dr is that NOMA as I understand it is concerned with truths, and how scientific truths and religious truths differ, and I'm trying to get at the idea that both science and religion are primarily about practices rather than truths.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:07 PM on November 9, 2015


My comment has nothing to do with whether religion and science are actually opposed to each other.

It's about people's feelings. If a study came out that linked "residents of university towns" with "laziness", and if I loved living in my university town, and already had a vague impression that people I'd never met thought I was a lazy non-contributor to society, then learning that someone designed a study that seemingly proved this association would make me even more closed to outsiders. A tiny acknowledgment that the study didn't at all show that the one caused the other wouldn't solve the problem entirely, but it would make me a little less upset.

Note: I wasn't raised in any kind of conservative religious tradition, I have no personal feelings of upsetness by the study (which I found really interesting), but I do have friends who subscribe to various faiths and I try to consider their feelings, since they are not stupid nor crazy.
posted by amtho at 4:04 PM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


So the article says "they studied Christian, Muslim, and non-religious children". I assume, then, that none of these conclusions were meant to be generalized to religion as a whole?

I see lots of people framing this as "religion" doing something, when it appears to be specifically Christianity and Islam they studied, two religious from the same tradition that are a lot more like each other than they are like Buddhism or Hinduism or many other world religions.
posted by thefoxgod at 6:41 PM on November 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


So religious kids think physical harm is bad and should be punished, and that you shouldn't give your stuff away to just anybody who asks. Sounds like common sense if you don't want your kids taken advantage of by other kids, or adults. The atheist kids sound like pushovers.

Also, no one has mentioned that the study was conducted entirely on young girls and that the sample size of atheist kids was n=3.

On another note, I would think that liberals would applaud young girls who show pronounced distaste and harsh judgment for non consensual pushing/shoving, but no, they're religious, so it's "mean." Literally a room full of adults calling little girls mean because they think it's wrong to shove people
posted by mrbigmuscles at 7:39 PM on November 9, 2015


here's also a correlation/causality confusion; could it be that people who are inherently less inclined to altruism and generosity (though both inheritable personality traits and culture) are more likely to be religious and to cultivate religion in their children?

Well, certainly the parents' (or their parents' or, etc.) religion and proclivities could be self-selected, but it's hard to imagine a causal model that doesn't lead to the parents' religion being the causal pathway for the children's proclivities.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:44 PM on November 9, 2015


mrbigmuscles, I think you're misreading something. The study in the linked paper was carried out with about 1100 children, of whom about half were girls (Decety et al p3). The n=3 figure is for specifically agnostic children; there were 323 children from non-religious households in the sample (Decety et al p1) and it's this larger group of children that formed the basis for their comparison.

I don't really know what to make of the study, but at the very least I say kudos to them for doing a genuinely cross-cultural sample. It's nice to see some non-weird psychology getting major press.
posted by col_pogo at 2:22 AM on November 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


On another note, I would think that liberals would applaud young girls who show pronounced distaste and harsh judgment for non consensual pushing/shoving, but no, they're religious, so it's "mean." Literally a room full of adults calling little girls mean because they think it's wrong to shove people

What a weird way to come into the conversation and bring your agenda.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:55 AM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


There was a study done some years ago in Israel which showed that ultra-Orthodox Jews were most prone to jaywalking. And I remember some other study which suggested that those who consider themselves pious count that towards the quota of good deeds they ought to do and thus tend to be less nice to people, because they've already contributed. So, together, this suggests that having God or the gods on your side can let you off the hook for a lot.

I wonder how this correlates to stereotype threat; if, prior to the test, half the group were somehow reminded of their religious identity, that could presumably colour their behaviour. Of course, this depends on whether their theology is about doing good works in this world or not. (Calvinists, for example, may end up meaner if thus primed.)
posted by acb at 6:15 AM on November 10, 2015


According to the respected Pew Research Center, which examines attitudes toward and practices of faith, most people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person.

That's a big problem and opens the judgement door rather wide for children who are taught nonsense like that.
posted by juiceCake at 7:06 AM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]




I think that link, Pater Aletheias, is a bit too broad in its criticism. Yes, there are problems with p-values and regression testing, but this study has more specific problems.

There are many better criticisms in this thread: Small effect size (as damayanti pointed out, the effect is 3 stickers vs. 4 out of 10), inadequate SES adjustment (mother's education), sample size of atheist kids was tiny (as mrbigmuscles pointed out, there were only three of them), etc.
posted by clawsoon at 7:03 AM on November 11, 2015


I have trouble understanding why this study was conducted with children only in large cities in six different countries, and why it included China, where expression of religion is curtailed by the state. It seems to me, though I may be off-track, that it would have been a more valid and thorough study to concentrate on one country and pick different cities/towns that have large populations of different religious groups or non-religious people in order to measure Christianity vs. Judaism vs. Hinduism vs. atheism. That country could be China, but I have trouble thinking that measuring Chinese children on religious measures beside children from the US is truly comparing like to like.
posted by epj at 11:09 AM on November 11, 2015


[Couple comments removed, cool it.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:57 PM on November 26, 2015


« Older Dear men: you should totally have close friends...   |   Things That Can and Cannot Be Said Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments