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The Golden Rule isn't so "golden" for religious outgroups

The Golden Rule, found in many of the world’s religious teachings, is often thought to be a unifying principle among humanity’s wisdom traditions. We may differ in creed and dogma, but at the core of all our spiritual striving is a humble message of compassion and concern. Or at least that’s how the argument goes. In reality, as a recent U.S.-Canadian joint study suggests, the Golden Rule might not be so simple after all…especially when it comes from a source we don’t trust.

A significant body of research has shown that people often process moral messages differently when those messages are perceived as originating from an outgroup. In other words, when you encounter criticism about your behavior from a member of your own social group, you’re much more likely to pay attention to it than if someone from another group criticizes you. Familiar with this literature, a team of researchers led by Oth Vilaythong (York University in Toronto) decided to see whether this pattern would repeat itself in religious contexts. Specifically, they wanted to find out whether different versions of the Golden Rule, one attributed to Jesus and one to the Buddha, would have varying effects on Buddhists and Christians.

To accomplish this, they recruited more than 1,000 Christian and Buddhist international volunteers through Project Implicit, a website run by Harvard University. The goal of the study was to investigate whether priming with the Golden Rule would affect participants’ attitudes towards gay people and homosexuality, including whether they thought being gay was a choice or could be corrected using therapy.

The researchers broke the participants into three groups, all of which were first asked to complete a series of sentences. At the end of the first test, one group was given a sentence that restated the Golden Rule in a way attributed to the Buddha, while another was given a Christian-attributed version of the Golden Rule and a third group was given no Golden Rule priming. All participants were then measured for their attitudes toward homosexuality.

As expected, Christians were significantly more negatively disposed to homosexuality than Buddhists overall. This was true for both explicit measures of prejudice, in which participants were asked directly about their attitudes towards gays, and implicit measures, which required participants to match up words like “good” and “bad” with words or images referring to homosexuality or heterosexuality.

But what was surprising was the fact that priming with the Golden Rule did not appear to reduce Christian participants’ negative attitudes towards gays in any significant way. Christians who had been primed with a version of the Golden Rule attributed to Jesus were no more likely to show positive attitudes toward homosexuality than the Christian control group. Neither were they any less likely to think that homosexuality was a choice. What’s more, Christian volunteers who were primed with the Buddhist version of the Golden Rule were actually more prejudiced toward gays, and more likely to think that being gay was a personal choice, than any other group in the study.

Generally, Buddhists were less prejudiced than Christians, and Buddhist volunteers who were primed with Christian or Buddhist versions of the Golden Rule showed no change in their attitudes toward homosexuality. Interestingly, Buddhists from predominately Christian countries reported the most positive attitudes toward homosexuality. The researchers suggested this effect may have been the result of these participants’ status as a minority group, which predisposed them to identify with other marginal outsiders.

What to make of the fact that Christians primed with the Buddhist version of Golden Rule were more prejudiced toward gays than any other group? Vilaythong and colleagues hypothesized that participants saw this version as originating in an outgroup source, which led them to respond suspiciously to its content – even, it seems, to the point of completely rejecting it. In the authors’ own words: “The effectiveness of tolerance messages may depend on who the messenger is.”

This research adds to a growing body of evidence that hints at a dual nature within religion: on one hand, religious teachings help people to make meaning of their lives and separate right from wrong; on the other, religious doctrines and symbols can also function as tribal identifiers, affecting everything from who we consider worthy of empathy to whether we accept advice from an outsider. So while it might be nice to think that all religions have the Golden Rule in common, in practice it’s important to remember that things are never quite that simple – in the lab or in real life.

The article, " "Do Unto Others": Effects of Priming the Golden Rule on Buddhists' and Christians' Attitudes Toward Gay People," was published in the September 2010 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. See the abstract here.

Requests for full copies of the paper can also be submitted to Project Implicit here.

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