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Be Generous, Or Else

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D:        Yaël, tell me your thoughts on divine punishment.

Y:        Why the sudden interest, Don?

D:        Well, if you must know, I'm just trying to figure out the chances of your lending me a couple bucks.

Y:        So, what does that have to do with religion?

D:        According to scientists, belief in a divine god makes people more generous.

Y:        Is that right?

D:        Researchers created an economic game where participants were given some coins, and asked to roll a die that had three sides each of two different colors. If the die landed on one color, the participant was supposed to put coins in their pot. If the die landed on the other color, the participant was supposed to put coins in a cup designated for a distant stranger who shared their religion. Next, participants either put coins in a cup designated for a stranger in their community, or a stranger in a distant community, both of whom shared their religion. They found that the participants who believed in more punishing gods were more likely to put coins in the cups designed for distant strangers.

Y:        What kinds of gods are we talking about?

D:        All kinds. The study included people from all over the world who believed in religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, and also who believed in animism or ancestor worship. It suggests that fear of divine punishment encouraged prosocial behavior like cooperation, and so was key in helping early societies expand.

Y:        Well, I guess I can be prosocial today and lend you that money.

poor box

Belief in divine punishment encourages prosocial behavior like giving to the poor. (4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons)

According to scientists, belief in a divine god makes people more generous.

Researchers created an economic game where participants were given some coins, and asked to roll a die that had three sides each of two different colors. If the die landed on one color, the participant was supposed to put coins in their pot.

If the die landed on the other color, the participant was supposed to put coins in a cup designated for a distant stranger who shared their religion. Next, participants either put coins in a cup designated for a stranger in their community, or a stranger in a distant community, both of whom shared their religion. They found that the participants who believed in more punishing gods were more likely to put coins in the cups designed for distant strangers.

The study included people from all over the world who believed in religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, and also who believed in animism and ancestor worship. It suggests that fear of divine punishment encouraged prosocial behavior like cooperation, and so was key in helping early societies expand.

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