Highly religious people are less motivated by compassion than are non-believers

“Love thy neighbor” is preached from many a pulpit. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.

Highly religious people are less motivated by compassion than are non-believersIn three experiments, social scientists found that compassion consistently drove less religious people to be more generous. For highly religious people, however, compassion was largely unrelated to how generous they were, according to the findings which are published in the July issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The results challenge a widespread assumption that acts of generosity and charity are largely driven by feelings of empathy and compassion, researchers said. In the study, the link between compassion and generosity was found to be stronger for those who identified as being non-religious or less religious.

“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”

Compassion is defined in the study as an emotion felt when people see the suffering of others which then motivates them to help, often at a personal risk or cost.

While the study examined the link between religion, compassion and generosity, it did not directly examine the reasons for why highly religious people are less compelled by compassion to help others. However, researchers hypothesize that deeply religious people may be more strongly guided by a sense of moral obligation than their more non-religious counterparts.

“We hypothesized that religion would change how compassion impacts generous behavior,” said study lead author Laura Saslow, who conducted the research as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley.

Saslow, who is now a postdoctoral scholar at UC San Francisco, said she was inspired to examine this question after an altruistic, nonreligious friend lamented that he had only donated to earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti after watching an emotionally stirring video of a woman being saved from the rubble, not because of a logical understanding that help was needed.

“I was interested to find that this experience – an atheist being strongly influenced by his emotions to show generosity to strangers – was replicated in three large, systematic studies,” Saslow said.

In the first experiment, researchers analyzed data from a 2004 national survey of more than 1,300 American adults. Those who agreed with such statements as “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them” were also more inclined to show generosity in random acts of kindness, such as loaning out belongings and offering a seat on a crowded bus or train, researchers found.

When they looked into how much compassion motivated participants to be charitable in such ways as giving money or food to a homeless person, non-believers and those who rated low in religiosity came out ahead: “These findings indicate that although compassion is associated with pro-sociality among both less religious and more religious individuals, this relationship is particularly robust for less religious individuals,” the study found.

In the second experiment, 101 American adults watched one of two brief videos, a neutral video or a heartrending one, which showed portraits of children afflicted by poverty. Next, they were each given 10 “lab dollars” and directed to give any amount of that money to a stranger. The least religious participants appeared to be motivated by the emotionally charged video to give more of their money to a stranger.

“The compassion-inducing video had a big effect on their generosity,” Willer said. “But it did not significantly change the generosity of more religious participants.”

In the final experiment, more than 200 college students were asked to report how compassionate they felt at that moment. They then played “economic trust games” in which they were given money to share – or not – with a stranger. In one round, they were told that another person playing the game had given a portion of their money to them, and that they were free to reward them by giving back some of the money, which had since doubled in amount.

Those who scored low on the religiosity scale, and high on momentary compassion, were more inclined to share their winnings with strangers than other participants in the study.

“Overall, this research suggests that although less religious people tend to be less trusted in the U.S., when feeling compassionate, they may actually be more inclined to help their fellow citizens than more religious people,” Willer said.

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4 thoughts on “Highly religious people are less motivated by compassion than are non-believers”

  1. This study showed a greater correlation between emation and generosity among non-religious people when compared to religious people. This does not show that non-religious are more generous, just that they are moved more by emotion in those circumstances. The article even says that it was inspired by an atheist who had not given to the tragedy in Haiti until he had seen an emotional commercial about it. Religious organizations on the other hand immediately took action and did not wait to be stirred by emotion. There is likely a reason that religious people are not as moved by emotion in this circumstance (it would actually make an interesting experiment). My guess is that it has to do with the fact that novel experiences are typically met with greater emotion than ones that have been habituated.

    Take this for example…
    A person who has never seen snow before might experience a snowfall with much greater emotion than someone who lives in the mountains of Colorado. Does that mean that they appreciate the snow any more because they have a greater emotional reaction? No. It is just novel to them. It is possible that the same holds true for the believer. They are more regularly in touch with the needs of others, so they are not as emotionally moved to act. Helping others might just be part of their normal way of living and therefor not as moved by the emotions of a single event. Faith based organizations are constantly reaching out to help, but it is typically behind the scenes and not noticed by the general public.

    This is not to say that non-relgious people are not generous. I am sure most are. It is not responsible, however, for this study to make such wide claims when there are obviously many flaws within this research. It is clear that the content validity of this study is pretty low, being that it is probably not measuring what it was seeking to measure. Also, how did they difine religious people, much less “highly” religious? I appreciate what the experimenter was attempting to prove, but I think some more work needs to be done on the experimental design.

  2. In our hypocritical society no one is more hypocritical then those “religious people”. If they see you, say, begging for you’re hungry their instinctive approach is simple. Hungry? God will provide you! If God does not provide you, you deserve to be hungry and I can’t go against Him, by, God forbid, giving you a loaf of bread.

    One does not need “science” to tell her / him those pious hypocrites as they are.

  3. “’Love thy neighbor’ is preached from many a pulpit. But new research…suggests that the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.”

    When I first read these two sentences, I was appalled, thinking that non-religious people are more likely to help strangers than religious people, but the further I read into the article, I became a bit angry. The opening sentences might suggest that religious people are LESS likely to help strangers than non-religious people. That is not necessarily true, for the article also stated that “’…for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not….The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.’”

    I am not sure about other religions, but Christianity teaches that love is an ACTION, not a FEELING. If Christians help others out of a commitment to the teachings of Christ, I would hypothesize they are likely to do so more frequently and more generously. If non-religious people help others simple because of a fleeting emotion, I believe a corollary to my hypothesis would be that they help less frequently and less generously. What if the non-religious person does not see a story on tv or directly observe a suffering individual? I would rather depend on a religious person who helps routinely, and out of conviction.

    Christians, at least the people in the congregation where I serve as pastor, give because they KNOW there are suffering people in the world and in our country. Our congregation has run a soup kitchen for 20 years. We have volunteers from both within and outside our congregation. I have yet to meet anyone who comes to our church to serve the poor who admits to being an atheist or agnostic. On the other hand, it is Christians (and even a Muslim or two) who staff our soup kitchen, and come to volunteer for the first time even before they meet a hungry person—indeed most are shocked, and greatly moved after their first experience serving at the kitchen.

    I hope those who conducted this research now study a random sampling of self-identified non-religious and religious people to try to find out which group helps with most frequently and on a deeper level. THAT study would tell us something important.

    • That long-winded rebuttal that you have provided does nothing to disprove the findings of this experiment. All you have shown is that you have a pre-conceived notion that religious people are more generous than non-religious people, even though you have not provided any evidence supporting your claim. What you have observed at your church is a woefully inadequate portion of the whole picture. Personal experience is useless when you’re trying to make a universal claim about human behavior.

      The study has shown through empirical evidence and data that non-religious people are indeed more generous. You have dismissed that data and have subsequently reinforced your preconceived notion, which is a common practice of religious people who are frantically trying to cling on to their antiquated worldviews in the wake of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

      Maybe if religious people spent less time saying how generous and compassionate they are, and actually took that time performing acts of generosity and compassion, then they would measure up to the level of the non-religious people.

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