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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I don't remember your context, so my point could indeed be non-applicable to it. I'll post some text from my (Kindle) textbook on cultural anthropology, just because it's still interesting. If it doesn't apply to you, I hope you don't mind the detour:

Property and Ownership. Foragers have few material possessions. When
everything one owns has to be carried from place to place on one’s back,
items are kept to a minimum. While the land and its resources are generally
considered to belong to the whole group, particular resources may belong
to a family and a tool might be personal property. For example, an Inuit
woman’s knife, or ulu, belongs to her, and among the Yurok of northern
California, families owned acorn-bearing trees. Sharing, giving, receiving,
and no one keeping track of what is given or received is the custom — a
custom that is enculturated from infancy. Most access to tools occurs by
sharing and borrowing rather than everyone having one of his or her own
(living in close proximity facilitates sharing). Items given or received as personal gifts are often passed to the first person to admire them. Thus objects
are constantly circulating within the group. Everyone always has something;
everyone is equal. Many foraging societies have changed considerably since
they began interacting more with contemporary industrialized societies.
Some have borrowed ideas such as personal ownership.
Distribution of Resources. Foraging societies are marked by the economic distribution system known as reciprocity. Reciprocity is the en -
culturated pattern in which people give and receive items of value in
predictable ways. The giving of food, a tool, or an item of personal adornment are examples of such value items. The giving of one’s time in the
form of helping to build a hut or watching someone’s child also illustrates
something of value. This giving of items of value is part of the fabric of
band societies.
Marshall D. Sahlins (1968) identified the following three categories
of economic reciprocity: (1) Generalized reciprocity is when everyone
gives of time, food, and artifacts and no one keeps track of what is given
or received. It commonly occurs between kin who are perceived as being
close, such as parents, siblings, and spouses. These are people whom one

[Lenkeit, Roberta (2012-07-01). Introducing Cultural Anthropology, 5th edition (Page 113). McGraw-Hill Higher Education -A. Kindle Edition.]

interacts with regularly, and these individuals have an equal ability to give.
(2) Balanced reciprocity involves the exchange of favors (such as helping
with a task) or items while keeping mental records in the expectation that
something of equal value will be returned within a reasonable period of
time. This form of reciprocity usually takes place between those perceived
as more distant relatives as well as those who are not related. Individuals
participating in this form of reciprocity also have an equal ability to give.
Both giver and receiver have equal access to items that are given; neither
is significantly wealthier than the other. (3) Negative reciprocity occurs
when one tries to get more than is given, often through haggling or even
theft. Because it can create ill will, this giving typically takes place between
unrelated individuals.
Among foragers, generalized reciprocity is dominant. It takes place,
often on a daily basis, between persons who are close kin, which is everyone in the foraging band. Foragers are considered egalitarian; that is,
members of the society have equal access to status, power, and wealth
within the same category such as age or gender. For example, all male
elders have equal access to status, power, and wealth. Everyone has an
equal potential to give, and does. While thoughtful members of foraging
bands have no doubt considered that it is in their own best interest to give
goods and services, it is wrong to believe that members of such groups
give only for selfish reasons. Enculturation results in this behavior being
expected; most participants do not analyze it. Outsiders, such as anthropologists, are the ones to offer the analytical (or etic) view that this is how
everyone survives.
Balanced reciprocity does not appear as a significant economic element within foraging societies. Rather, it surfaces when foragers interact
with other societies. This is also the case with negative reciprocity — it
is not usually undertaken with any person on whom you must depend or
with whom you must maintain good relationships.

[Lenkeit, Roberta (2012-07-01). Introducing Cultural Anthropology, 5th edition (Page 114). McGraw-Hill Higher Education -A. Kindle Edition.]

Band societies and tribal societies tend not to think of fairness or expected behavior in terms of an external authority. I.e., band societies (at least) will enjoy ceremonies and other communal activities, but they're not appealing to a higher power. They're bonding within the group.

I mention this because it's a favorite theme of mine, which is that humans evolved both genetically and culturally, but during those (band/early tribal) times, cultural behavior was rapidly overtaking genetic evolution as the primary influence on fitness/survivability of the species... even before religion was invented.

"Band societies and tribal societies tend not to think of fairness or expected behavior in terms of an external authority. I.e., band societies (at least) will enjoy ceremonies and other communal activities, but they're not appealing to a higher power. They're bonding within the group."

- yes, from what I've been reading, we didn't need this higher power until we got into large groups. 

Thanks Pope Beanie, that's really good, I've been looking for something like this and it really helps me with my studies.  What they call "generalized reciprocity" is what Frans de Waal calls "symmetry-based reciprocity", although one is within a group and the other is within a pair, so I suppose they are different in that respect. 

From what I've been reading, cooperation gave birth to culture (norms, morality, institutions), and culture gave birth to religion, all aimed at doing the same thing: cooperating. 

Except there's significant evidence that it worked the other way... Big Moralizing God religion preceded and was necessary for the development of agriculture, which in turn gave rise to culture.    The basis is cooperation, you're right, but there needed to be a basis for cooperation beyond close family/tribe.

See this paper from Science for example:

@Pope Beanie, I'm just going to lift most of this and use it in my website, and ask the publishers for permission.  Could you do me a big favour - could you identify this reference for me? 

Marshall D. Sahlins (1968)

Here's all for Sahlins:

Sahlins, Marshall D. 1958. Social Stratification in Polynesia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
. 1968. Tribesmen. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:
. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sahlins, Marshall, and Elman Service eds., 1960. Evolution and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lenkeit, Roberta (2012-07-01). Introducing Cultural Anthropology, 5th edition (Page R-8). McGraw-Hill Higher Education -A. Kindle Edition.

I promised @Strega I'd share some thoughts on this piece. I confess I asked a colleague in Psychology for input.

First the general rule: know the author and the journal.  Dr. Degety seems to be a competent senior person at an R1 institution.  The paper doesn't "feel" like a senior person's piece, so it might be a case where the senior researcher took lead authorship to provide some cover for a grad student or post-doc.  Current Biology is a second-tier, relatively young journal that aims to publish things quickly.  What's more teling is that this is really a social psychology study that's out-of-scope for Current Biology.  This suggests an article that might not have been publishable in a first tier Psychology journal.

To distill the study down, they had the following measured data:

Independent variables:

  • Country
  • Mothers self-reported education level (proxy for SES)
  • Self-reported religious affliation
  • Age

Dependent variables:

  • Score on “the dictator game” taken as a measure of “altruism”.
  • Score on a scale of responses to watching a video of kids exhibiting anti-social / bullying behavior (like shoving another kid in a hallway)
  • Score on a scale of desire to sanction/”punish” kids who exhibit anti-social/bullying behavior.

So the first question to ask is what is the reliability and validity of the measures being used?  Are these good instruments? Mother's self-reported education level across different cultures is a really poor proxy for socioeconomic status, for example.   Does "the dictator game" really measure altruism?  There's a lot of research that suggests the way people play games to win (wargamers, for example) does not reflect how they treat people in real life.  Does reacting negatively to bullying behavior really reflect "meanness"?  Judgmentalism, perhaps, but "meanness" seems like a stretch.

The second question to ask is whether the analysis methodology is sound.  In this case, it isn’t.  An Analysis of Covariance (ANCOVA) model is a linear regression model that relies on certain underlying assumptions, one of the most important of which is low correlation between the independent variables.  In this case it is *extremely* unlikely that there aren’t strong correlations between country, mother’s education level, and religious affiliation.  In fact, families are nested within country which requires a multi-level / hierarchical model. 

An additional pervasive problem in the social sciences is the tendency for people to “go fish” for statistically significant effects, by trying lots of different analyses and combinations of data.  That’s hard to assess here, but I’d want to see some justification for why they chose the countries they did, and some more information on the distribution of the sample across those countries.

As a rule, to apply a Bayesian estimate to a classical study like this, we should accept only p values < .001 as being significant.  Alternately and more properly, one should examine the reported effect size of the measured effects to see if it really amounts to anything or is just junk.

Applying those rules, about half of the main effects can be dismissed.  The remainder show low effect sizes.  Coupled with the statistical problems and validity questions, I'd strongly suspect that this is one of those studies that would not survive a well-designed attempt at replication.

Still, it's interesting for coffee-table conversation.  I really wish they had broken out the analysis by country, which would have greatly improved the quality of the work and been interesting of itself.

Wow! Thank you Dr.Bob for distilling that. I found it a fascinating read, I sincerely appreciate that you took the time. So interesting :)

Thank you very much for your analysis Dr Bob, it's interesting that you think it's pretty much a bunch of junk.  I don't know anything about statistics so I will take your word for it about that.  

I'm not doubting you, but I'm asking, why would Jean Decety, a reputable scientist, sign his name to something which seems obviously below-standard?  

How do you explain the final graph, where the altruism score of non-religious children (4.09) shows a big fat obvious difference from that of the two sets of religious children, which are nearly the same as each other (3.33, 3.20)?  

"Does reacting negatively to bullying behavior really reflect "meanness"?  Judgmentalism, perhaps, but "meanness" seems like a stretch."

- what I think they're talking about is how "mean" the various groups judge anti-social behaviour to be.  "... children in Muslim households judged interpersonal harm as more mean than children from Christian ...", "... children from Christian households judged interpersonal harm as more mean than children from non-religious households ...".  

"Does "the dictator game" really measure altruism?  There's a lot of research that suggests the way people play games to win (wargamers, for example) does not reflect how they treat people in real life."

- what they're measuring with this game is unconditional generosity, which is one form of altruism.  I think there is a difference between this and competitive war games: those are laden with aggressive and competitive emotions, while the game in this study was relatively emotionally neutral, allowing, in my opinion, the altruistic instinct being tested to be isolated out.  I can't think of any better way to test unconditional generosity than the one they have used.

I'm not sure why they decided to test how "judgemental" the children were, but I believe it was a very clever idea as this is linked to reciprocity.  

It may well be that the study is flawed and insignificant: I can't comment on that.  But I think it represents a step forward in several ways.  1) they're studying morality itself, in the wild, rather than these dumbass theories about morality, or dumbass theories about the dumbass theories.  2) whatever you might say about the methodology and statistics, there is a plausible explanation of causual connection between the experiment and the results, that fits in with the latest thinking on how morality has evolved in the human race.  So - this doesn't prove anything, but it is worth pursuing.  3) it points the way towards further fruitful research into the moral landscape of human beings, of which religion is a significant part.  

I can presume that any objections you have made will naturally be picked up by Dr Decety and his team.  

@Dr Bob - "Buddhism actually has remarkable parallels in Christian monasticism"  

- I agree, there really are a lot of similarities between the two, primarily in the morality.  Apart from one being theistic and the other not, Christianity has prayer while Buddhism has meditation.  Both hold their hands in the "praying" position.  

Thank you for the opportunity to showcase my ideas, I'll try and be brief while giving you a good taste of what it's about.  

The framework consists of two principles:  1) which I keep trying to explain, God's love, nature's compassion, the healing principle, it's hard to find a good name for it.  The tendency of all living things to flourish if you put the right conditions in place, the result of natural selection and evolution.  2) given that all organisms, in this case humans, spend their lives generally aiming to flourish, what happens when that individual need to flourish bumps up against someone else's life?  This is where morality comes in.  The formula is that when my action affects others, those others are to receive the maximum benefit and minimum harm available to them.  I believe that out of all possible models, this accurately captures the core situation of doing things in the real world of people.  

These two principles form the framework, and the other elements of morality (e.g. reciprocity, the Golden Rule, cooperation, good manners, etc.) either slot in to this framework of benefit / harm or they form a separate framework of their own (arguably, fairness; and "sanctity", for example of dead bodies; etc.).  Apart from the framework, the rest of the philosophy consists of a straight, comprehensive description of the human moral landscape and how we think it evolved.  The more you go into this, the more insights pop straight out.  The rationale for this is "making the most of being human: what in human nature works best to give the best results?" and this turns out to be a very powerful motivator in my opinion.  Aside from this there are various axiomatic pieces of moral information such as "truth is love", "love is the absence of judgement", and "no good comes of no good".  

The idea is that this stuff is all simple and natural and that ordinary people can use it to make insights of their own.  There is this pattern that crops up over and over again (below): the first describes the benefit/harm of interacting with others; the second describes thinking versus observing; the third describes a cooperative situation.  I believe that each one is valid in its own right, and that this being the case, you can combine them to come up with useful new insights.  It's really worth reflecting on these diagrams and putting them together.  It's a little bit rough and ready but I hope it makes sense. 

For example, from looking at "benefit/harm", it is obvious that the reason we don't like selfish people is that they only care about their own needs.  If we put this together with "cooperation", we see that each person needs to play their part as a good cooperator instead of only attending to themselves, otherwise the others will think they've let the side down selfishly.  Finally, combining these with thinking/observing, we see that in order to give compassion effectively, it is helpful to know something of the situation of the other people, and that in order to cooperate effectively, we need to have knowledge of what the other people are doing.  


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