A team of developmental psychologists led by Prof. Jean Decety examined the perceptions and behavior of children in six countries.  The study assessed the children's tendency to share stickers they had been given  - a measure of altruism - and their inclination to judge others for bad behavior as well as punish bad behavior.

Children from religious families were less likely to share with others than children from non-religious families.  A religious upbringing also was associated with stronger recognition of anti-social behavior and with more punitive tendencies for anti-social behavior.

The results were at odds with the perceptions of religious parents, who were more likely than non-religious parents to report that their children had a high degree of empathy and sensitivity to the plight of others.

"Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others.  In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous," said Decety, the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the College.

The study included 1,170 children between the ages of 5 and 12 from six countries - Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States.

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We try to aim at some kind of opinion or question being raised when a new topic is created, because it flows better, eliciting responses.

If you are short on time, I'm perfectly sure we can accommodate a "what do you think?", rather than a voluminous opinion, forums have these guidelines simply to enable discourse.

As to "all data is interesting....catches the fancy of the popular press" I find myself in complete agreement. Now if you do get time to post your thoughts, and they don't make me groan by reference to your deity, I might even find myself in agreement with you then! No promises, mind you :)

Hi Dr. Bob. Your thoughts are similar to my own... and you're about the popular press, they tend to sensationalise (and thus overstate) any science they report. It will be interesting to see if this study is ever repeated and what the results are then.

I think this is a very interesting and well conducted study that throws a lot of light on the subject of morality.  

Dr Decety attributes the reduced altruism in religious children to "moral licensing", which is where people who have a high opinion of their own moral standing feel, perhaps, that they have somehow earned the right take it easy and lower their standards of actual behaviour.  Certainly the study appears to show that religious parents have an unrealistic, inflated sense of their own children's levels of altruism.  

However, the link between the two is unclear.  Moral licensing may well be one of the causes of this result, as it tends to have this effect in people generally.  But I think it is part of a larger and more complex picture.  

This unrealistic view by parents may partly reflect the wishful thinking and rose-tinted spectacles common to most parents when thinking of their little darlings of whom they have such high wishes and expectations.  

I believe that the result is mainly due to two factors: the universal norm of reciprocity, and the belief by Christians and Muslims that one of the core functions of their God is to dispense justice in the world.  

For our purposes, we can look at two kinds of reciprocity: direct reciprocity, a tit-for-tat, equal exchange between two parties; and attitudinal reciprocity, where we care for the people we rely on in life.  Direct reciprocity can either be a one-off encounter, such as a run-in with the legal justice system, or a longer-lasting relationship of repeated exchanges, such as in a cooperative relationship between two people.  

Direct reciprocity in a long-lasting working relationship is a powerful, self-policing strategy for ensuring cooperation between two parties on a long term basis, if it is combined with a high degree of forgiveness on both sides.  Without forgiveness, the situation can end up in a downward spiral of mutual recrimination.  Without the threat of punishment or withdrawal, one side can exploit the other.  

Attitudinal reciprocity arises where there is interdependence between two people: each depends on the other to achieve a common goal.  From this, we can see that it makes perfect self-interested sense for each partner to help the other in achieving that common goal.  When the common goal is surviving or getting through life, it is common to arrive at "unconditional love" - one side would do just about anything for the other, and forgive just about anything, since that other is so fundamentally beneficial for them just by virtue of existing.  

This attitudinal reciprocity would have been part of the fabric of life for our early human ancestors, as this quote from the Guardian illustrates: 

"... friends in the stone age depended on one another for their very survival. Humans lived in close-knit communities, and friends were people with whom you went hunting mammoths. You survived long journeys and difficult winters together. You took care of one another when one of you fell sick, and shared your last morsels of food in times of want. Such friends knew each other more intimately than many present-day couples."

These are the primal conditions, back in the days of Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, as humans grew ever more cooperative and so ever more interdependent, and more and more valuable to each other - that we believe gave birth to the strong present day human instincts of altruism.  Actually, because of the cooperative context of switching perspectives and needing to offer help, it was the Golden Rule.  This early altruism would necessarily have been much stronger and more unconditional than we are used to today.  It's said that in attitudinal reciprocity, there is no need for punishment because there is no direct exchange involved - the service is given willingly because of an ongoing, long-standing situation of mutual benefit and mutual goals, which is different from the me-you credit-debit of direct reciprocity.  

That was in our early days of living in small tight-knit groups.  This situation did not last forever: groups grew larger, the challenges of coordinating the members of the group, on a large scale, needed different solutions.  This is where religion came in.  The reason the monotheistic religions have been so successful is their role in governing and policing prosocial norms of cooperation and trust on a large scale.  

The idea of God as a judgmental, vengeful eye in the sky, threatening hellfire and damnation for sinners, was a very effective way of policing society, especially in the absence of an effective police force.  It is not surprising that this has stuck with us to the present day, even though the state has taken over that function in the modern secular West.  

Have a quick look at these two articles:  

Is God's Love Unconditional? 

Is Unconditional Love a Biblical Concept? 

The important point is that instead of unconditional love, the universal instinct of the Golden Rule, these two see love, altruism, in the everyday, businesslike terms of direct reciprocity, which is what you would expect from morality in a large society where people are not so closely interdependent and don't know each other so well.  

As a contrast, there is also this prevalent strand of thought within Christianity and Islam: unconditional love.  

The Unconditional Love of God - R. Keith Whitt  (although this unconditional love of God is different in structure from the human version, as it is a part of the biological fabric of nature.) 

From this, the point I am getting to is that it seems clear that many religious people think that love is strongly reciprocal, something that has to be earned.  From Dr Decety's article, a strong expression of reciprocity: 

"Research indicates that religiousness is directly related to increased intolerance for and punitive attitudes toward interpersonal offenses, including the probability of supporting harsh penalties [22]. For instance, within Christianity, fundamentalists tend to be more punitive and advocate for harsher corrections than non-fundamentalists ..."


"Of additional note is that the sharing of resources was with an anonymous child beneficiary from the same school and similar ethnic group."

I think this is a crucial point: the beneficiary of the game was anonymous.  They had not had a chance to earn anything.  I believe that the experiment could be extended to take account of ordinary everyday reciprocity, and then we may see different results.  

I think the graph in figure 1 looks a bit misleading, is a bit of an optical illusion.  The difference between Christians' and Muslims' altruism was relatively slight:  Christians had a sharing score of 3.33, Muslims had 3.20, and non-religious 4.09.  

An interesting finding is this:  

"... children in Muslim households judged interpersonal harm as more mean than children from Christian (p < 0.005) and non-religious (p < 0.001) households, and children from Christian households judged interpersonal harm as more mean than children from non-religious households ..."  ["mean" = "anti-social" or "horrible"]


"... significantly harsher ratings of punishment by children from Muslim households than children from non-religious households ...  There were no significant differences between children from Christian households and non-religious households."

Even though Muslims took a harsher view of interpersonal harm, requiring harsher punishment, I think it is telling that their final altruism score was virtually the same as the Christians'.  This means that although they are harsher towards sinners, they are somehow, in compensation, more forgiving and generous too.  Perhaps their norm of reciprocity is enforced more strongly.  This may reflect the war-like beginnings of Islam: in a war situation, the group has to pull together and cooperate more tightly, making it necessary to enforce norms of group morality more strongly. 

"Is God's Love Unconditional?" :  damn, you have to earn it, lol  

"You have reached the end of this Article Preview.  To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access."  I mean, whyyyyyy? 

""moral licensing", which is where people who have a high opinion of their own moral standing feel, perhaps, that they have somehow earned the right take it easy and lower their standards of actual behaviour."

Haha. Sounds like post-WWII US foreign policy.
It always seemed to me that religious people have higher opinions of themselves than of others who don't follow the same sect. A sense of secret superiority. It shows in mild, median and mega ways. From the "Jesus still loves you" patronizing, through to the "you're going to burn in hell" gloating, it's always about who has the higher moral ground.

As an atheist, I just don't care to compete with this. I have the moral sense that I have. I am good without God. I'm happy to be involved in this life and my goal is to leave the earth better off for my having been in it. It doesn't matter how tiny or massive the gesture.

The one thing I don't crave, however, is peer appreciation for my 'deed'. I can do stuff quietly with no desire for reward or recognition. It's my choice to do whatever I do to help others. I don't need praise.

If I burn in hell at some future point in your eyes, so be it. Enjoy toasting marshmallows in your imaginary future - have one on me!

You're right, that's a good point.  It's very much about "us and them" - "we're good, everyone else is bad".  This applies to socialists and conservatives too in my experience, and, embarassingly, highly politicised anarchists too.  As for The Guardian - snob central. 

Always beware of people who claim to be good people.  They never are in my experience.  Just look at Barry "I love twinky boys" Trayhorn. 

Indeed. I know of zero atheists who have a Moral Superiority complex because they are atheists. I do know some who feel very sorry for sheeple who blindly follow the rules in barbaric ancient fictional fantasy books or what their religious dominators tell them (priests, mullahs)...rather than working it out themselves. I certainly feel sorrow for them. A perfectly capable mind wasted...and so much misery. So much suffering because of it.

I think we still don't have a good explanation for why religious parents seem to have a distorted view of their children's moral standing. 

Moral licensing and "us and them" superiority probably play some kind of part.  Another common problem, related to this, is complacency.  But while moral licensing seems fundamentally honest - the person knows they are deviating from a moral code, and probably feels bad afterwards - complacency is based on, at best, the false assumption that I am morally perfect and superior, and that this can justify whatever I care to do.  Two words: Barry Trayhorn. 

If you ask me, there might be an overall statistical mismatch between what religious people see as good and just, and the non-religious. 

What I mean is that religious people are overly judgemental and conditional in their love, compassion, generosity.  But to them, this is right, presumably because it's God's way.  Of course, there are other moral principles at work within religion too. 

What they call right, the rest of us might call mean-spirited and controlling.  However, [sigh], it could be called just. 

The rest of us see open-hearted generosity as the best way to behave by default.  In contrast, if we choose to be selfish, we are forced to justify it.  If we invoke the norm of reciprocity, that's seen as ruthlessly practical. 

Before Dr Bob says "straw man", just look at the scientific experiment that's just been done.  The religious moral code is officially worse than the secular one. 

I made a mistake in what I wrote above:  what I was calling "attitidinal reciprocity" is really known as "symmetry-based reciprocity"; I got mixed up. 

But I don't think "symmetry-based reciprocity" is a good name for it, because in a sense, all reciprocity is symmetrical.  I think a better name for it would be "interdependent reciprocity", because this is accurate and unique. 

Frans de Waal – “How Animals Do Business” – Scientific American, April 2005


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