University Researcher Says Pious Religious Students Are More Likely to Cheat Financially

A new academic study appears to show that people who say religion is really important to them are also more likely to lie if it benefits them financially. The same is true for business majors and for children of divorced parents. As for the religious being more dishonest,

…[t]he lead researcher [Associate Professor of Economics Jason Childs, at Canada's University of Regina] hypothesizes that this “really strange effect” is the result of the faithful feeling less kinship with the secular, and ultimately less concern about screwing them over for a few bucks.

The study will be published in the December issue of the journal Economics Letters. How was it conducted? The research team randomly split four hundred people into pairs, and asked each pair to conduct a simple money transaction.

The “sender” in each coupling was given two payments: either $5 and $7 (“small return” group) or $5 and $15 (“large return” group). Senders were told to send a message to their partner – a “receiver” in another room – informing them about which of the two amounts was higher, and the receiver would then choose which one to take (generally, the larger one).

Lying, however, would mean the sender wound up with the bigger payoff.

Sex, age, grade-point average, student debt, socioeconomic status and even the size of the return had no real impact on the decision to lie. But area of study, the marital status of the sender’s parents, and importance placed on religion all made a difference, with the latter being the most surprising to researchers.

There are at least four factors here that should make us take these results with a grain of salt.

  1. The experiment’s sample size of four hundred people is really a sample size of only two hundred individuals who were given the opportunity to lie for financial gain. Statistically, a pretty small group.
  2. Among that number of individuals, those who attach great importance to religion form an apparent minority; the Vancouver Sun describes the student population at the University of Regina as “predominantly secular.” This reduces the sample size (of the religious contingent) even more.
  3. You have to read the Vancouver Sun article pretty carefully to understand that the four hundred subjects were indeed all University of Regina students. That fact makes them not particularly representative of the population at large.
  4. The subjects knew that the messages they sent would be seen by the researchers, in addition to the intended recipient. That might have caused them to be more honest than if the transaction had been strictly between sender and receiver (an example of the Hawthorne effect in action).

When I spoke to Professor Childs on the phone yesterday, he generously allowed for these reservations (“A grain of salt?” he echoed. “Maybe a shaker!”). He stressed that these are “early results” and that “replication is needed.”

He also had two caveats of his own.

Regarding point #2, Childs pointed out that the religiosity of the subjects is not a binary matter. The students, he explained, had been asked to rate the importance of religion in their lives on a scale of one to seven. The research team found that for each point that the subject moved up the scale of religious intensity, his or her propensity to lie became 4% more pronounced.

As for the Hawthorne effect somewhat polluting the results, Childs conceded the point, but said that the students knew they’d be completely anonymous to the researchers, with each participant only identifiable by a randomly assigned number.

That out of the way, how does Childs explain the study’s link between dishonesty and religiosity?

He doesn’t like the word “tribalism,” he told me, but senses that that phenomenon — identifying strongly with a group of similar people, to the detriment of outsiders — might be in play here.

“My suspicion is that they feel like the receiver isn’t part of their group [Terry notes: Again, most UoR students are non-believers], and that creates a feeling of otherness. That otherness leads to feelings of detachment that can increase the willingness to lie.”

In a way, the experiment also tested whether people’s conscience is enough to keep them from cheating. Although the subjects were assured anonymity, and no external negative consequences could be attached to their duplicity, if any, almost half the study’s (“predominantly secular”) participants chose to send truthful messages to their random partners.

“That, to me, was pretty remarkable,” Childs said. “People are dishonest far less often than we think.”

At least, it seems, the irreligious and less religious are.

But let’s not beat our collective chest just yet. If Childs is right that tribalism facilitates deceiving “others,” researchers may well find that non-believers are the more financially dishonest group in the North American population at large. That’s because, given that the majority of people are religious, nones may assume that the most likely victims of their dishonesty will be people of faith.

Next year, Childs will do a follow-up study; we’ll cover that too.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • John F

    An alternative explanation is that “Religion is very important to me” is already a lie that is generally financially advantageous, so the people who are prone to lie for financial gain have no particular reason to identify as secular.

  • Levon Mkrtchyan

    Thank you for the thoughtful coverage! I really appreciate the analysis of the results, in particular the attempt to find explanations other than “religious people are all liars”. This is the kind of post that makes me keep following this blog.

  • suzeb1964

    Two words come to mind with this study:
    Faith Healing
    ’nuff said.

  • Houndentenor

    One of the benefits of abandoning superstition is that I have a much more difficult time rationalizing my actions. The logical twisting I used to continue believing things for which there was no evidence also allowed me to justify selfish actions. I’m not saying that I’m not still capable of that, but it happens a lot less often.

    BTW, when I was in high school a grad student who attended my church did a survey to see if students who identified as Christian cheated on tests (or other similar situations) more or less or the same as their peers. She was dispirited to find there was no significant difference. Oops.

  • TnkAgn

    An anecdote:
    Back when I was a staffer for an Alaska State Legislator, It was my job to help constituents who were having trouble qualifying for Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), which could be as much as $1900 in some years. Now, PFD’s require at least 180 days of residency in the State of AK, and also required two witness to that residency requirement. As I became more and more familiar with the dividend process, I found that those most likely to “bear false witness” vis. Lie to allow another person to collect a PFD check that they did not deserve, were fellow church members. And so it goes…

  • C Peterson

    The commandment is against stealing, not cheating. So that makes it okay.

  • Monala

    Another possible explanation: protectiveness of one’s money (even when, as in this case, it’s not actually yours). For many years, I attended a church where I heard regular messages about give, give, give, and about “not robbing God.” The pressure to give to church meant that not much was leftover for other purposes. It made me stingier, because any generosity I might have shown to other people could be viewed by my church as the horrible sin of “robbing God.”

  • Monala

    Curious about the impact of parents’ marital status. Which students were more likely to lie: the children of the married, or the unmarried, or the divorced?

    • Terry Firma

      Children of divorced parents. As I recall, the researchers attribute that fact to a lot of these people having grown up around strife / brokenness / aggression and other negative factors in the zero-sum game of a contentious divorce.

      • Kodie

        Or how to play their parents against each other for things.

  • Without Malice

    Just further proof that religion does not make a person more moral or even honest.

  • kielc

    The “small sample size” criticism is always bandied about when it comes to experimental design in the social-behavioral sciences. But this is why one does inferential statistics: they account for the sample size, the observed data and the expected data, and other factors entered into the analysis. The result is an estimate of the likelihood that the observed result is a fluke. If the results are considered significant, it means the chances of a fluke are less than some acceptable level (usually less than 5% in these fields). The significant result thus shows, by definition, that the sample size was large enough to consider the observed effect reliable (with, say, 95% confidence) because if the power (essentially size of effect given the number of subjects and observed variance) were not sufficient, the result would not be deemed significant. This said, the criticism about the sample not being sufficiently random becomes crucial — everything I note above assumes a random, representative sample from a sufficiently heterogeneous population.

    • smrnda

      I’d also say that, 200 of each group is better than many studies that get a lot of press.

  • Pofarmer

    This is the reason I tell my kids to keep their non beleif to themselves, there are just too many instances where beleivers feel justified in taking advantage of non believers in some way, whether financially or otherwise. From my own experience, I don’t find these results particularly surprising.

  • KMR

    This is purely subjective of course but I know a few people who are in business for themselves and they state that they have the most problems with companies who advertise as Christian companies. As a result for years I’ve tried to avoid patronizing “Christian” companies. I’m always worried about getting screwed. Plus it just seems like a cheap and tacky way to use Jesus’s name in the hope of making money and that irritates me.

    • smrnda

      Maybe part of the problem is that the “Christian” company sees itself as, properly, under the authority of a favorable deity who wants to bless them, and they see the secular legal authority as something external and morally deficient that is being imposed on them? Instead of ‘render unto Caesar’ it becomes ‘screw Caesar, he’s an ungodly pagan!’

      • KMR

        It’s as good a theory as any. I like the tribalism one, too, though.

  • SeekerLancer

    The tribalism explanation probably isn’t far off base. My girlfriend’s fundie ex-roommate said to me that the Islamic combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan were inhuman so killing them was not against the commandment when I took her to task on her pro-war position. It was probably one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever personally heard come out of a fundamentalist’s mouth.

    • Sagrav

      Didn’t the Catholic church take a similar stance during the crusades?

      • David Lesperance


  • Clayton

    Religious people more likely to cheat? Oh my who would have guessed?

  • abb3w

    I wonder if there might be an effect on a metavariable, composed of the difference between simple self-identified religiosity and some measure of (self-reported) religious practices.

  • ShoeUnited

    I wish there was something a little more concrete. While this may prove fanciful for those that enjoy musing, it lacks solid reliable data to consider any more than a passing cloud.

  • DougI

    We’ve heard theists say that if it wasn’t for their belief in god they would go out committing a whole bunch of crimes. Given the fact that they already do a bunch of illegal, unethical things while they believe it’s pretty clear they need their religion because they lack morals. With the lack of Atheists in prison one might conclude, based upon mere observation, that religion encourages immoral behavior.

  • Mike De Fleuriot

    Well, those of you at vasity now have an experiment that you could do among your stock of lab rats, and report your results back to us. It would be interesting to see what results a number of such tests will bring.

  • Intelligent Donkey

    Religion is very important to me.

    I hate it with a burning passion.

  • frank slide

    we are all trying to remove as much money as we can from each others pockets by any means necessary … that’s why we are so connected to people that we don’t or didn’t try to exploit ie high school or college friends, military, etc … I always enjoy it when someone from my past try’s to reconnect and sell me something to earn their commission … the smart ones used sell us books, now they get a blog

  • Gregory Marshall

    Reminds me of the line in “One Tin Soldier”. Go ahead and hate a neighbor, go ahead a cheat a friend, do it in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end”

  • Agni Ashwin

    Many evangelicals might have described “religion” as not important to them, since they define “religion” as that which keeps you away from Christ.

  • Kristen inDallas

    This seems problematic: “The students, he explained, had been asked to rate the importance of religion in their lives on a scale of one to seven.”

    I think a more fact-based question like “how often do you attend church”, “What best categorizes your religios or philosophical views” or a simple “do you believe in God” would have been better here. Asking people to rate the importance of anything lends itself to the ambiguity between “how important should this be” and “how important a priority have I made this in my life” Whether the question were about religion or anything else, the phrasing itself could tend to sort people – honest people being more likely to answer the second question about their actual priorities, dishonest people being more likely to answer the 1st, about the ideal.