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Compassion, caring, and charity: Religious or not?

VolunteerReligious people in the United States often assume that they’re more moral than their irreligious counterparts, simply by virtue of the fact that they adhere to a faith tradition. And, in fact, plenty of research has shown that religious people do tend to give more to charity and to volunteer more. But the story is more complicated than this – new research from the Universities of California at San Francisco and Berkeley shows that the religious may be less motivated by compassion and more by habit. A look at the philosophy of American thinker William James may give us a hint as to why.



Talking with a friend about the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake, UC-San Francisco postdoctoral psychologist Laura R. Saslow learned something interesting. Her friend, who was not religious, had only donated money to the relief effort after seeing a heartrending video of the wreckage. Saslow compared this with the seemingly automatic charitable giving of many religious Americans, and wondered whether the religious and nonreligious might be inspired by different motivations to give. Specifically, it seemed that her atheist friend only was motivated to give charitably because he felt compassion for the devastated Haitians.


With a research team, Saslow designed a series of experiments to determine whether nonreligious people were more motivated by compassion than their religious fellows. In the first experiment, the researchers used data from the 2004 U.S. General Social Survey to measure the effects of compassion on charitable giving and prosocial behavior. Compassion was measured by items such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” Prosocial behavior was indicated by how often people reported helping out their neighbors, donating to charity, or offering assistance to a stranger. Religiosity was measured by how strong respondents said their religious identity was.


As Saslow and her colleagues expected, higher levels of everyday compassion (known technically as “trait” compassion) were associated with more prosocial behavior. But this effect was much stronger for the nonreligious than the religious respondents. Religious respondents who didn’t report being very compassionate still reported fairly high levels of prosocial behavior, while there was a marked difference between compassionate and non-compassionate irreligious respondents – the compassionate were far more prosocial than their less-empathic nonreligious peers.


In a second study, a group of participants were primed either with a sad video of starving children (to induce compassionate sentiments) or with a neutral video of two men talking. They were then asked how much money out of $10 they would be willing to give a hypothetical stranger, and to indicate what percentage of their income they thought people ought to donate to charity. Again, religious people reported about the same (fairly high) levels of prosocial expectations regardless of whether they’d been primed to feel compassionate or not: in both the compassionate and neutral priming conditions, religious people said they’d be willing to give about four out of 10 dollars to a stranger.


Meanwhile, the irreligious volunteers seemed to be strongly swayed by the compassion priming condition. Nonreligious participants who watched the neutral video said they’d be willing to donate only about 50 cents to a stranger, while those who saw the sad video said they’d give ten times as much – five full dollars, even more than the religious participants.


The final study differed from the first two in that it included real money, so the researchers could see how respondents would behave when there was something tangible at stake. Participants arrived at the laboratory and were immediately asked how compassionate they were feeling right then. Subsequently, they took part in a battery of generosity games in which they were able to either share money with others or keep it all to themselves.


The results were replicated once more, with religious volunteers showing about the same levels of generosity and prosociality regardless of how compassionate they were feeling, and the irreligious participants varying widely in their generosity depending on their state (as opposed to trait) compassion. The religious participants hovered right around the mean of generosity for the entire sample, while the irreligious skyrocketed from about a third of a standard deviation below the mean in the non-compassionate state to nearly a fifth of a standard deviation above the mean when feeling compassionate.


The results of these studies suggest that religious people’s prosociality and generosity may be more stable across emotional conditions and less influenced by external factors, while nonreligious people may depend on feelings of empathy or compassion for others. Unfortunately, reports on this research in the popular media have mostly misinterpreted the results, claiming that Saslow and her colleagues have proved that religious people are “less compassionate” or "less inclined to help others" than their irreligious counterparts. These assertions, while probably good for getting readers’ attention, are obviously false – in fact, in the General Social Survey, religiosity was highly correlated with reported compassion. Instead, Saslow and her colleagues have shown that religious and irreligious people may depend on different motivations to act prosocially.


How this research is interpreted depends greatly on what perspective one takes. One possible interpretation is that religious people are insincere, acting prosocially out of sheer habit and social expectation – not because they actually feel compassion or empathy for others. This explanation, however, does not take into account the fact that religious people were just as likely as or more likely to feel compassion for others than the nonreligious.


A more plausible interpretation is that religious communities and practices leverage rituals and repeated behaviors to ingrain certain prosocial behaviors in the habits of their members, thereby “outsourcing” ethical decision-making to a community-supported structure. In other words, religious communities create habits. The American philosopher and psychologist William James wrote prolifically on this topic, encouraging people to see the inculcation of ethical habits as a moral decision in itself:


So far as we are thus mere bundles of habit, we are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves. And since this, under any circumstances, is what we always tend to become, it follows first of all that the teacher's prime concern should be to ingrain into the pupil that assortment of habits that shall be most useful to him throughout life. Education is for behavior, and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists.… the great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.


Under James’s model, one function of religious communities is to enforce the adoption of prosocial habits until those habits are practically automatic – one doesn’t need to think deliberately to make a moral decision, one simply does what one has been psychologically and even physiologically trained to do. Generosity is not, then, an instantaneous choice, but an ingrained action.


While religion has many flaws – the most important of which being the tendency for religious practitioners to mostly be prosocial only within their ingroup – James’s kind of “habit training” may nonetheless be a useful mechanism for managing social life. The fact is that in the studies published by Saslow and her colleagues, the irreligious were consistently less prosocial than the religious respondents unless they were actively feeling compassionate. But, while compassion is a laudable emotion, depending on it for generous behavior may not be ideal. EMTs, for instance, cannot afford to feel excessive compassion for accident victims at the scene of a car crash. They need to simply do their jobs – what they've been trained to do. And for the Haitian residents who lost homes, family members, and livelihoods in the 2010 earthquake, it doesn’t matter whether one sees a heartrending video or donates simply out of an ingrained religious response. What's important is that people are willing to help, regardless of their motivations. In other words, automatic morality may not be such a bad thing. And depending on transient emotions for moral actions might be less adaptive than it would at first appear.

Click here for an abstract of Saslow et al.'s research paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

And see here for a different, more editorial take on the same research by the author of the current review.

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