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Belief in God reduces altruistic punishment

Lady JusticePunishment is hard work. It expends time and resources, and, for most people at least, isn’t particularly pleasant to carry out. If only an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly just being could punish all wrong-doers, without mere mortals getting entangled in such a messy business! Research by psychologist Kristin Laurin (University of Waterloo) and colleagues suggests that this may be people’s thought process. That is, belief in God can lower people’s motiviation to engage in altruistic punishment and to support punishment by the government.

However, this may strike some people as odd. Previous research has indicated that religious beliefs positively correlate with increased punishment, including altruistic punishment. The researchers carefully designed a series of five experiments in order to separate belief in God from general religious belief. They predicted the former would correlate with less desire to invest in punishment, while the latter would have the opposite effect.

The first study measured its participants’ (20 undergraduate students) belief in God and their religiosity. It then had the participants imagine themselves playing the 3PPG game. The 3PPG game involves three players: the first has a certain amount of money that must be shared with the second player (who has no money), but how much money exactly is shared is entirely up to the first player. The second player has no say in the matter. After the first player decides how much to share, the third player can spend money to take away money from the first player as a way of punishing the first player for not sharing fairly. The punishment the third player enacts is altruistic because it requires sacrifice (in this case, money) on behalf of the player in order to punish. For the purposes of this study, the participants always played the role of the third, punishing player. As expected, participants with a strong belief in an intervening God reported less punishment while those with strong religiosity reported more punishment.

The second study moved the 3PPG game beyond the participants’ heads and had them actually play the game. The researchers rigged the setup so that every participant (55 undergraduates) would play the role of punisher. Each participant received $10. Additionally, the researchers had some of the participants answer the God belief and religiosity portion of the survey before playing the 3PPG game (like in the first study), and others after the game. Presumably, these beliefs would be more prevalent in people’s minds if they were reminded of them right before playing a game rather than not being forced to think of them until after the game.

Interestingly enough, this difference made a difference. When participants answered the God and religiosity questions before playing the game, the results mirrored that of the first study: strong God beliefs correlated with reduced punishing behavior and strong religiosity correlated with increased punishing behavior. By contrast, when participants answered these questions after the game, neither belief produced any significant correlation. In short, in order to have a behavioral effect, these beliefs must be salient.

The third study shifted away from the 3PPG game and moved to a hypothetical scenario involving white collar crime. It also featured Americans who participated online (72 in all) in exchange for money instead of undergraduate participants. As before, participants filled out surveys about their religiosity and belief in God, and then played the role of punisher. In this case, they faced an executive who stole from his corporation. Essentially, this character was a free-loader. The participants stated on a 7-point scale how much of their tax dollars (again, altruistic punishment) they would want the government to spend on (a) catching and (b) punishing this white collar criminal. As predicted, when God beliefs were salient, participants volunteered fewer tax dollars, and when religiosity was salient, they volunteered more (no statistically significant correlation appeared for either God beliefs or religiosity when neither was salient).

Finally, the fourth and fifth studies tried to answer the question, “Why exactly does belief in God correlate with reduced altruistic punishment?” The researchers offer three hypotheses: (1) compared to God, humans are less responsible for punishing the unjust, (2) because of God, human punishment is simply inappropriate, and (3) because of God, humans have no free will and thus can’t be held responsible for their actions (by other humans at least). The fourth study tested for correlation and the fifth causation between the three hypotheses and reduced altruistic punishment. Both studies, like the third study, took place online (and had 25 and 76 participants respectively). The fourth study turned the above three hypotheses into a survey, and, after also completing a survey regarding God beliefs, a correlation could be found between God beliefs and the three hypotheses. As it turned out, belief in God postively correlated with the first hypothesis (humans are less responsible for punishing the unjust than God), negatively correlatd with the second (human punishment is inappropriate), and had no significiant correlation with the third (humans have no free will and thus are not responsible for their actions). The fifth study found similar results. It had the participants play the 3PPG game in an attempt to see if their endorsement of one or more of the three hypotheses would predict their gameplay. In this case, only the first hypothesis had significant predictive power, suggesting that the reason why God beliefs reduce altruistic behavior is because people believe they are less responsible for punishing the unjust.

In other words, the belief that God is in control can reduce motivation to exert human control. As such, humans need to spend too many resources punishing others. Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, and so while God may be the perfect punisher, humans keep devising ways to deserve punishment.

For more, see “Outsourcing punishment to God: beliefs in divine control reduce earthly punishment” in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.


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