To investigate how belief in supernatural agents might influence cooperation, Shariff and his colleague Ara Norenzayan used a word game to stealthily introduce religious concepts to their subjects.And on the reasons for this correlation:
Participants had to unscramble five-word sentences, dropping an extraneous word from each to create a grammatical four-word sentence. For example, "felt she eradicate spirit the" would become "she felt the spirit," and "dessert divine was fork the" could become "the dessert was divine." A control group unscrambled sentences made up of non-spiritual words.
After this exercise, the participants played an economic decision-making game. Each player was given $10 to share with an anonymous recipient.
Participants primed with religious concepts gave their partner an average of $4.22, compared with only $1.84 in the control group. But those who declared themselves religious before the study were no more generous than non-believers.
"The effect of the religious prime was both large and surprising, especially considering that during exit interviews the participants were unaware of having been religiously primed," says Shariff.
A second study introduced a third group, primed with words associated with civic responsibility such as "jury", contract", and "police." This group behaved almost identically to that primed with religious concepts.
But why such priming makes people more charitable is unclear. "The fact that primes to civic institutions also produced more charitable behaviour gives some clues," he says. "Perhaps religion and these civic institutions have certain functions or effects in common."The Nature story doesn't mention the number of participants in the study and followup studies will be interesting. Read the full story here.
Whether religion and civic responsibilities are equally effective spurs to cooperation remains to be seen. "We can't compare the relative strengths of religion and civics, or draw tight analogies to real-world situations," says Shariff. "What we can do is identify that both concepts have substantial effects on prosocial behaviour."