Science on Religion

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The roles of religion and ethnicity in cooperation

Ethnic CooperationWhen people think of tight-knit groups, religious and ethnic groups often come to mind. One might think of a stereotypical Italian family where family members tell inside jokes recognizable only by other Italians. Likewise, religion also can lead to tight-knit groups, which, unfortunately, can sometimes devolve into cults. Of course, what exists in the popular imagination may not exist in reality. Researchers Swee-Hoon Chuah (RMIT University, Australia) and colleagues want to know how religion and ethnicity impact cooperation. They found that religious and ethnic similarity increase cooperation among strangers.

The problem with trying to differentiate between religion and ethnicity is that the two are often entangled. One's ethnic group often indicates one's religion and vice versa. For this reason, the researchers believe that all too often these two roles, religion and ethnicity, are not adequately distinguished. In an effort to correct this, they have designed an experiment whose explicit task is to separate religion from ethnicity. Specifically, their experiment answers the following questions: “Do religious and ethnic group membership and religious values have independent effects on cooperation? Are there joint effects between them? What is the direction of any effects?”

To execute their experiment, the researchers recruited 96 undergraduate students from a Malaysian university. The experiment had two phases: an economic game and a survey. In the economic game, participants played through a ten-round session of the Prisoner's Dilemma for eight sessions. In this game, players would earn nothing if both defected, a moderate amount of money if both cooperated, and a maximum amount if one cooperated in the other defected (the player who defected in this case earned nothing). This amount of money would actually be given to the participants at the end of the experiment, giving them incentive to perform well. During each round, participants faced a computer screen which would display the ethnicity and religion of the opposing player. In order to have a control, participants did not see this information during the sixth round of play.

After the game, each participant filled out a survey that measured their demographics, religiosity, and fundamentalism. The researchers took religiosity as a four dimensional construct: (1) to what extent a person conforms his or her own beliefs to those of his or her religion, (2) the degree to which this person participates or religious activities, (3) the extent to which he or she has had religious experiences, and (4) the extent to which religion impacts his or her day-to-day activities.

After crunching the numbers, the researchers found five significant results. First, people cooperate more when they share an ethnic or religious identity. Second, and perhaps surprisingly, relative to the baseline constructed from the sixth round (the round when no one knew the ethnicity or religion of the other player), knowing that one had a different ethnic or religious identity did not decrease cooperation. In other words, the researchers found no evidence for prejudice based on ethnicity or religion. Those who competed with players of a different ethnicity and religion played effectively as if did not know the other players' ethnicity or religion. Third, sharing both ethnicity and religion resulted in no greater cooperation than simply sharing one or the other. Fourth, religiosity and fundamentalism in and of themselves had no independent effect on cooperation; instead, and fifthly, shared religious values amplify ethnic and religious identity. That is, those who scored high on religiosity and fundamentalism did not inherently cooperate more but rather cooperated more only with those with whom they shared a religious or ethnic identity.

The authors conclude that, “Both ethnic and religious effects constitute ingroup cooperation rather than increased intergroup conflict. Our finding supports the view, for religious groups at least, that group identification is not necessarily associated with outgroup rejection.” So, while strongly ethnic or religious people might be tight-knit with each other, they do not necessarily exclude others from their family. They just value the family a little more.

For more, see “Religion, ethnicity and cooperation: An experimental study” in the Journal of Economic Psychology.


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