Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Putting Altruism in Its Place

Interesting . . . . Simply being in a "religious" space can cause even secular people to act more altruistically. Environment and context matter much more than people like to think.

Heather Wax: Science + Religion Today

Putting Altruism in Its Place

Re: Hed
Would you treat someone you met at a synagogue
the same as someone you met at a concert?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Not according to a new study by a couple of researchers, who did the experiment like this: They asked secular and religious Israeli Jews on Facebook to imagine they were either at a place of worship, a gym, or a concert when a stranger approached and asked to borrow their cell phone. Their degree of willingness to lend their phone to the stranger—quantified by how many minutes they'd let the person talk—was taken as a measure of their altruism. Next, they were asked to imagine that they forgot their wallet there. How likely they thought it was to be returned was taken as their sense of trust.

Perhaps most interestingly, they found that "secular participants are no less altruistic toward synagogue and prayer group members than religious participants are" (though they do show lower levels of trust toward them). And both groups are significantly more altruistic and trusting of people in a religious setting than in secular places. Why might this be? Blogger Tom Rees notes that:

Although this could indicate that secular Jews think that religious Jews are more likely to be decent chaps, it seems more likely to me that they simply understand that these are different social set-ups. Religious groups are much less anonymous than the other two groups. And, unlike music concerts and fitness centers, religious groups are bound by social ties. ... But all this is just attitudes and expectations. It would be fun to find out what actually would happen in real world situations.

The study is question was conducted on Facebook (?), but I suspect we'd get the same basic results in meatspace (one hopes so anyway). The title link opens a PDF.

Bradley J. Ruffle & Richard Sosis
Department of Economics Department of Anthropology; Ben-Gurion University University of Connecticut

March 2010

We design a decision-making scenario experiment on Facebook to measure subjects’ altruism and trust toward attendees of a religious service, a fitness class and a local music performance. Secular and religious subjects alike display significantly more altruism and trust toward the synagogue attendees than participants at the other two venues. By all measures of religiosity, even the most secular subjects behave more prosocially in the religious venue than in the comparable non-religious settings. We also find that secular subjects are just as altruistic toward synagogue and prayer group members as religious subjects are. These findings support recent theories that emphasize the pivotal role of religious context in arousing high levels of prosociality among those who are religious. Finally, our results offer startlingly little evidence for the widely documented religious-secular divide in Israel.

1. Introduction
A growing body of theoretical and experimental literature associates religion and religious observance with social preferences (see Norenzayan and Shariff 2008 for a survey). In this paper, we compare respondents’ trust and altruism toward anonymous attendees of a religious service with participants at similar non-religious events. To do so, we conduct three plausible decision-making scenarios in Israel on the popular social networking site Facebook.

In a between-subject design, respondents are asked to imagine that they are traveling in an unfamiliar Israeli town and, according to the scenario, decide to attend a house of worship of their own religion (or a women’s prayer group for female subjects), a local music performance of their favorite musical genre, or a fitness class. Respondents are then informed that after the activity, someone from the prayer, music performance or fitness class approaches them asking to borrow their cell phone.

Respondents are asked to indicate for how long they would be willing to lend this person their cell phone. We interpret the degree of willingness as a measure of the respondent’s altruism toward attendees of the activity. We collect a second measure, which we interpret as the respondent’s trust in anonymous participants in the activity. Specifically, respondents are told that later in the day they realize that they left their wallet at the religious service, local music performance or fitness center. They are then asked to indicate the likelihood that their wallet will be returned to them.

We minimized the differences between the three scenarios so that they differ only by the setting and activity, either a religious activity (for males, attendance at a synagogue and for females, a women’s prayer group) or a fitness class or music performance (activities without any religious connotation). Our research is aimed at assessing how different environments influence trusting and altruistic behavior toward anonymous individuals. Do religious individuals extend prosocial behaviors outside of religious contexts? And do religious environments elicit prosocial responses from those who are secular?

We find that religious and secular respondents alike are significantly more altruistic and more trusting toward synagogue and prayer group attendees than toward fitness class and music performance attendees. Moreover and most strikingly, secular participants are no less altruistic toward synagogue and prayer group members than religious participants are; on the other hand, secular subjects do display lower levels of trust toward attendees of the religious activities than that displayed by religious subjects.

Overall, these findings offer startlingly little evidence for the ongoing and well-documented religious-secular conflict in Israel (see, e.g., Efron 2003). Religious respondents are more altruistic in the fitness center scenario than their secular counterparts and no less trusting or altruistic in either of the secular fitness or music performance settings. And even the most secular among our participants exhibit significantly higher altruism and trust toward synagogue and prayer group attendees than comparable attendees of non-religious activities.
Read the whole study.

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