The Frontal Cortex

Religion and Morality

Here’s Drake Bennett:

In a set of experiments carried out in 2005 by the economists Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely, of MIT, and On Amir, a marketing expert at the University of California at San Diego, subjects were given a timed test of general-knowledge questions and paid for each correct answer. They varied the setup of the experiment and found that people would tend to cheat when given the chance, but that the risk of being discovered did not deter them. Even more surprisingly, the experimenters found a way to limit cheating that had nothing to do with the threat of getting caught. When they asked subjects to write down as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember before taking the test, it virtually eliminated cheating.

This doesn’t mean that an awareness of religion magically leads to moral behavior. Instead, it suggests that many of our ethical decisions – to cheat or not to cheat – can be primed by subtle cues and contexts. (In this sense, the Bible is just another cue capable of reminding the students to be moral.) Take the infamous experiment performed by John Darley and Daniel Batson. Their experiment was inspired by the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.

The experiment was simple. Darley and Batson recruited a group of seminarian students from Princeton, and asked each one to prepare a short talk on a specific Biblical theme. Then, the students were told to walk over to a separate building and give their talk. This is where the experiment got interesting. While they were making their way to the other building, each student ran into a man crouched over in pain and groaning for help.

To make the study more meaningful, Darley and Batson introduced a few other variables. Each student was surveyed on why they decided to study theology. Were they looking for spiritual meaning? Or did they want to help others? Then, Darley and Batson varied the subject of the talk that the students were supposed to deliver. Some were told to say something about the existence of God. Others were told to discuss the Trinity. Still others were told to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Finally, as the students were given directions to the other building, a few of them were told by the experiment that they were late, and “that they had better get moving”.

So which students helped the man in need? You’d assume that the students who had just prepared a lecture on the Good Samaritan parable would be more likely to stop and help. Or that the students who entered the church to help others might be more likely to actually help others. But you’d be wrong. As Darley and Batson wrote, “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.”

According to the data, the only variable that mattered was whether or not the students were in a rush. While only 10 percent of those who were told to hurry offered help, 63 percent of those who had a few minutes to spare offered aid.

There are a few take-away lessons from this experiment. The first is that the speed of modern life isn’t always amenable to altruism. We are all so rushed that we don’t have time to help each other. The second lesson is that religion and religious thoughts are no guarantee of moral behavior. (Shocking, I know.) The Darley and Batson study demonstrates that our ethical decisions are often determined by a wide range of inputs – many of them below the surface of self-awareness – and that knowing how to do right is no guarantee of doing the right thing.


  1. #1 Mitch Harden
    September 25, 2007

    In the recent APS publication that found it’s way to my mailbox, I read this article about priming God to achieve economic altruism. And while priming God did lead to more altruistic behavior, so did priming Secular ideals.

  2. #2 Ted
    September 25, 2007

    Instead, it suggests that many of our ethical decisions – to cheat or not to cheat – can be primed by subtle cues and contexts.

    Primed behavior; is it a suitable excuse for crime if enough motivating factors are present?

    Then this:

    CHICAGO – Tough choices tempt kids at every turn — whether it is soda in school, junk food ads on TV or the fast-food chain around the corner — and school policies limiting physical activity only make matters worse, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday.

    Primed behavior; is it an excuse for lifestyle choices? Are they choices or the results of intentional manipulation?

    No guarantee of doing the right thing indeed.

  3. #3 john Caulfield
    May 3, 2008

    What about those people who do have the time and still behave badly ?

    In the film, �Catch Me If You Can�, the main character (played by Leonardo De Caprio), very successfully fools the airline industry, medical and law professions plus a host of other unsuspecting characters in between, making an absolute fortune along the way.
    Admittedly, we see him as an anti-hero (did you say hero?) rather than a felon which is partly due to his charm but predominantly due to the fact that although he assumes false identities and qualifications to gain a foothold, we do not begrudge him his success as he rewards us multifold with the sheer brilliance of how he builds success upon success ie.
    But let�s take a breath of reality.

    Forget about anti-heros we all love and likeable rogues beating the system.
    And for a moment put aside brilliant minds who without any qualifications to speak of have made their way to the top of their game (honestly or dishonestly).
    Think of the most obvious area where it�s so easy to deceive: Selling services on the web.

    How often have you wondered whether the web site you are looking at with it�s offering of such fantastic IT training really have the accreditations it makes its claim to?

    Does the candidate who�s cv you�ve just received really have a grade A in woodwork and Computing? Was the woodwork very cleverly thrown in as a decoy.

    In the IT training industry for there are precious few qualifications. The trainer may have been on a short train the Trainer course. Passed the seven modules of ECDL (European Computer Driving License. Even passed the MOS (Microsoft Office sepecialist) exams.

    However, this does not really take us very far. No disrespect to the thousands of individuals taking ECDL exams but they are are a very weak test of technical competence useful only to say that a candidate has a little knowledge across a broad range of subjects.

    This means that anyone in the position of hiring full time or contract staff has to rely upon the veracity and accuracy of the CV viewed through the prism of the recruitment company if one has been appointed.

    Looking at the CV often the real problems lie in the long list of applications the tutor claims to teach and the level of expertise within each.

    One candidate will claim Excel up to VBA (Visual Basic Application) which suggests the ability to program in Excel when in really they can barely automatic a simple sequence of steps. A candidate claiming to teach Microsoft Project should be able to answer a question regarding critical Path analysis but when asked says that they only used Project at college for working as an Interm and they haven�t looked at it for a while.

    I recently had a call from a candidate who wanted to be a freelance trainer. I gave them some advice about steps to take. A week later I got a call from an agency that supplies freelancers. They followed this up by emailing through details of a trainer for a Web design course. All the details had been inflated to such an extent it was no longer the same candidate.

    In short the individual upgrades their CV for the job agency who in turn might be tempted to revamp the candidate into something they are not.

    Unfortunately finding this out in an Interview is a waste of time and resources.

    Ideally we need new qualifications that link the ability to teach and create exercises to the technical requirements within the applications.
    In the absence of this the best alternative is the telephone Interview.
    This is my preference prior to inviting any candidate to our offices for an interview �in person�.
    A candidate who has vaguely claimed to be at an Intermediate level in Excel can be quizzed about the differences between Goal Seek and Solver.
    This is an ideal sifting tool and saves both my and candidate�s time.

    After many years of conducting interviews (this will involve a practical 30 min demonstration of an application plus traditional interview), I have found that the proof is truly in the pudding.
    I can look at a seemingly outstanding cv and think �looks good�, but until I�ve heard/seen some kind of demonstration of the candidates knowledge, I�m happy to put that carefully constructed self promo to one side.

    Back to Leo.

    What makes him so different to my friend, the trainer in waiting with his highly propagated cv?
    Why don�t we see him as a liar, a sly opportunist with no real entitlement to success, but rather as someone deserving of achievement despite the irregular methods he has used to achieve it?
    Because when they called his bluff, he somehow produced the goods. Time and time again.

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