Did scientists just prove religious kids to be little brats?!


The big scientific news today seems to be around a paper that was just published in the Journal of Current Biology, which shows how children from religious families are more selfish and mean compared to those from non-religious families. 

Here’s the article: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(15)01167-7.pdf

I see this news being paraded around by some like a trophy. “A win for the non-religious!” they say. “Religious people are immoral!” they chant. Calm down people…this is science not an inquisition.

This study, just like any other, is part of a process of empirical inquiry. That means that it is vulnerable to falsification and that the data must be carefully considered before generalizations are made. So let’s be critical.

  1. I’ve conducted studies using the Dictator Game, which is the method used by these researchers to measure generosity in children. The Dictator Game can be time consuming to set up and to deliver. I’ve also gone through the process of contacting schools to recruit children as participants in research – a major headache. Combining the Dictator Game with children recruited from schools presents a major challenge to this study: Selection bias. Selection bias is where the process of selecting participants for a study is non-random, which poses a problem for validity. In this case, I’m mostly concerned with sampling bias due to attrition or nonresponse, which would mean that the sample is not representative of the population being studied: “religious people.” More science.
  2. The models presented in this article only explained 18-20% of the variability in sharing behaviour. Although typical of studies attempting to predict human behaviours, this also means that 80% of the variability in sharing behaviour could not be predicted by the models they reported. That’s a lot of explainin’ that needs to be done! More science.
  3. The effect sizes reported were small to moderate. In the social sciences I feel like we tend to dismiss the magnitude of effects, as long as effect sizes are reported (IMHO). In clinical sciences, low effect sizes are often the result of poorly or inconsistently delivered treatments. In this case, the “treatment” was “religiousness.” I suspect that, given this was an inter-cultural study, the delivery of “religion” was dependent on cultural norms. Therefore, there’s going to be lots of inconsistency between cultures and less between religions within cultures. How do you measure the influence of culture? More science.
  4. In terms of measures, the terms “religiosity” and “non-religious” or “atheistic” are thrown around a lot in the social sciences, as are the tools used to measure them. My trouble with these terms is that they often don’t tend to capture the nuances of religious belief and practice. One thing to consider is that the tools used to measure these constructs are largely developed and tested in North America, and reflect a North American bias regarding religiosity. We need a broader debate regarding the validity of these measures before we start evaluating research based on their use. More science.
  5. This study was severely limited by its definition of religious identity. Only two groups had adequate sample sizes to be included in the final analysis (Muslims and Christians), and these two groups share a lot in common when it comes to measuring “religiosity.” Personally, I think they could be lumped into one sample for a study like this. Also, using “non-religious” as a comparison group introduces its own issues. Self-identifying as non-religious can mean many different thing. Are these individuals predominantly Atheist? In my view, self-identifying as an atheist is as belief-driven as calling yourself religious. Do self-identified atheists train their children in morality more systematically in spite of Christians and Muslims? Are the Christians and Muslims in this study those who may simply believe that mere adherence guarantees salvation? I suggest further inquiry. More science.

I haven’t been as thorough as I would like to be, but this should give you a sense of how complex research is, and the type of questions we could be posing as critical consumers of information.

Science is a means of generating knowledge and understanding our reality, let’s not use it to to further divide us.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing that. I like that this research is short. I skimmed it. This is not a fulsome reply but just to note that the explanation seems to be about moral licensing. Moral licensing seems to be a synonym for spiritual materialism: Moral licensing is a a particularly interesting mental glitch: apparently, doing something  that helps to strengthen our positive self-image also makes us less worried about the consequences of immoral behaviour, and therefore more likely to make immoral choices. For example, studies have shown that people who have just expressed strong disagreement with sexist statements are more likely to then hire a man for a job in a male-dominated industry, because they feel secure about their “non-sexist” self-image and therefore pay less attention to the possible biases they might have (the exact same thing happens with people who express disagreement with racist statements and then are more likely to unconsciously  discriminate against racial minorities). It seems that being “good” is where the slippery slope towards being “bad” starts. Any act and any thought  that you consider to be “good” can license a  subsequent “bad” behaviour because we feel that we deserve a reward for being so righteous.  For example, one study have found that merely considering donating to a charity increased participants’ desire to go on a shopping spree.  The problem here lies not in  rewarding yourself, but in the fact that our rewards often tend to be the  things that stifle our progress towards our goals, or even set us back (say, if you reward exercising with delicious meals, it’s likely that you will gain weight as a result). Real life examples: Rewarding yourself with junk food, alcohol, expensive items, and so on when those rewards sabotage your efforts to achieve your goals (for example, if you have no intention of eating healthy or losing weight, then it doesn’t matter how much junk you eat, but if you want to shed some pounds, then rewarding yourself with junk food isn’t the best idea..).What to do about it: Stop seeing every willpower challenge as a test of your character.Read more at Moral Licensing: How Being Good Can Make You Bad – Pick the Brain | Motivation and Self Improvement

    |   | |   | |   |   |   |   |   | | Moral Licensing: How Being Good Can Make You Bad – Pic…We are quick to beat ourselves up for our apparent lack of willpower. However, the reason why we struggle so much with self-control is often not some innate weaknes… | | | | View on http://www.pickthebrain.com | Preview by Yahoo | | | |   |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s