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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)