Does Religious Belief make you nicer?

When evolutionary psychologists look at religion they tend to highlight the way it could strengthen communities to make them one successful. The intuitions behind this theory also spur a large body of research linking religiosity to prosocial behavior. As Robert Putnam famously put it: they make better neighbors.  They’re more generous, trustworthy, helpful, cooperative, and generally healthier. … or so the theory goes.  But a recent review of these studies suggest that we may be drawing too simple and hasty conclusions.

“Prosocial” is the technical term for the person you would want to watch your dog when you go on vacation or the friend who is always willing to help you move.  It involves volunteering, donating, sharing, and cooperation, or personality traits like agreeableness and empathy.  These studies also extend from behaviors and personality traits into general health and well-being.  Any concept this diverse eludes easy comparison, especially when compared with something as complex as religiosity.  But the general impression emerging from these studies suggests a correlation between religiosity and prosocial behaviors.

This research isn’t just about what makes people nice people.  It’s especially significant because it supports theories in evolutionary psychology about the ubiquity of religious behavior.  The dramatically simplified argument is that religious societies were better equipped to handle the difficulties of living and working together (a task we all know can be trying at times) and therefore likely to outcompete neighboring communities. Research linking religiosity and prosocial behavior isn’t just about whether religion makes people nicer, it also has dramatic consequences for how we understand the origin of religion and the role of religion in culture today.

To handle this wide breadth of research, Luke Galen, a psychologist at Grand Valley State University, conducted a comprehensive survey of these studies.  He organized the research into three groups: naturalistic studies, controlled economic studies, and priming studies, each of which I will review below.  In each case Galen critiques the assumptions that religion is causally connected to prosocial behavior and highlights research which forces us to be a little more careful with the complexity of this topic.


Naturalistic studies attempt to observe prosocial behavior in a natural context.  Therefore they typically rely on self-reports or peer-reports.  Any data about donations or volunteering fall into this category.  And typically these reports show that religious people are more charitable and volunteer more.  But Galen challenges this conclusion on two different fronts.

First he cites a body of research revealing a cultural religion-morality stereotype.  This comes as no surprise when we consider the reverse stereotype against atheists, who remain one of the most vilified groups in American culture.  Studies show that this prejudice often operates on an non-conscious level, affecting how we perceive the morality of those around us.  Given this bias, how much should we really trust self-reports or peer-reports?  Galen argues pretty persuasively that they aren’t especially reliable.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to tell what exactly counts as a charitable donation.  While religious individuals consistently report greater charitable giving, most of these gifts go to religious organizations.  Of course those donations still count as charity and are still generous and prosocial.  But if that charity is concentrated within the group then it challenges assumptions about more universal prosocial behavior among the religious.  In other words, the religious may be nicer, but primarily to those who are like them.


This in-group favoritism, a preferential treatment towards those who are similar to yourself, comes into sharper focus when Galen turns to examine the controlled economic studies of prosociality.  These studies use a variety of games to measure generosity, trust, and cooperation.

One example is the public goods game- in this game players donate to a common pool of money.  That pool of money is then doubled and redistributed to all the players regardless of their contribution.  The way to earn the most money in this game is to donate nothing and have everyone else donate, then you sit back and reap the benefits of other’s generosity.  But if everyone adopts this strategy then you end up with the worst option: nobody’s money is increased.  So participation requires trust and cooperation.  Each of the economic games are different, but all are designed to measure some level of trust, cooperation, or generosity.

Amidst the varying conclusions of this research the consensus agree on a strong in-group generosity.  When a religious participant was asked to cooperate with someone with a different religious identity, their prosocial behavior was lower than when the partner shared the same identity.  So religious individuals do tend to share more and cooperate more, but only when the person they are sharing or cooperating with is similar.

While this trend definitely points to an in-group preference among religious individuals, it also may affirm the wider religious-morality stereotype which Galen described before.  Religious participants were consistently given greater offers and more trust than non-religious participants.  In-group favoritism explains part of the trend, but this tendency was even present across group difference. Without these important caveats, it’s easy to draw the simple conclusion that re-enforces the religion-morality stereotype: that religious people are more generous and cooperative.  Galen draws on a wide sampling of research to show that it’s just not that simple.


The final group of studies that he review are those which use priming techniques.  Priming’s a way to activate certain memories and concepts so that they are more present on people’s minds and therefore influential. It’s similar to cramming for a test, but in experiments it’s often done subliminally. To prime individuals’ religious concepts, researchers will often embed religious words within a scrambled sentence task.  Participants think they are solving a word problem, but they are also activating religious ideas which may then affect their behavior.  Another way to prime participants is to conduct the study in a religious versus a secular context.

Once primed, individuals are then engaged in tasks similar to the economic games described above.  Priming experiments are especially compelling, because they reveal stronger and more consistent trends than the economic tasks alone.  In nearly all the studies, religious priming resulted in more generous offers and more sharing.  This body of research provides pretty conclusive evidence that priming religious concepts activates more prosocial behavior in individuals.

But Galen compares these religious priming experiments with similar secular priming examples- like priming people with the words civil or court.  These concepts seem to have identical effects as their religious counterparts.  One novel example is that priming with the category of super hero increases volunteering behaviors, but nearly any reminder of a watchful third party can reliably increase individual’s honesty.  So while religious primes instigate prosocial behavior, it is likely the authoritarian, watchful, aspect of the concept which causes the increased generosity.


Within each section of the literature, Galen points out the difficulties which complicate any direct correlation between religiosity and prosociality.  But this is to be expected.  Religiosity is a complex category and while there are issues with each individual study, the literature continually points to some correlation between the two.  The question becomes why.

Galen recognizes belonging as the most robust correlate to prosocial behavior.  Being actively religious is likely to bring people into social groups and increase their sense of community.  This is the same conclusion that Putnam and Campbell came to in their monumental work on religion in America: American Grace.  In their words- religious belief turned out to be “utterly irrelevant” to good neighborliness.  What matters are the religiously based social networks. But if this is the primary correlate to prosociality then we end up in a bit of a tautology: those who are the most socially engaged demonstrate the most prosocial behaviors.

Of course the relationship is more complex that this logical circle implies. Galen argues that this simplification emerges in part from an oversight in the research.  These studies often do not include the non-religious as part of the sample.  Those which do include the full spectrum of religiosity reveal a curvilinear dynamic where the confidently nonreligious resemble the confidently religious.  One reason this might be the case is that prosocial behaviors are often supported by strong conviction, self-control, and nonconformity.  By studying the full continuum of religiosity, this research could begin to understand how religiosity might promote each of these more specific characteristics and thereby shed more light on the complex relationship between religiosity and being a good neighbor.

It’s worth noting that Galen’s critiques do not undermine the evolutionary explanations of religion.  In fact, the strong in-group bias is exactly what one would expect from an evolved prosociality within religion.  Furthermore, evolutionary psychologists have pointed to the supernatural authoritarian function of religion as an advantageous means of preventing free-riders within a group.  If people think they’re being watched, and judged, by a supernatural omniscient being, then they are more likely to conform to social expectations.  So, while religious belief may not make people better neighbors, the cohesion which religion likely assisted may have made our ancestors better teams.

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I'm a post-doc studying the psychology of meaning-making systems.

2 thoughts on “Does Religious Belief make you nicer?”

  1. Interesting research. I too have often seen religion tied to prosocial behavior as well has longevity in marriage and general happiness and well-being. I’m most familiar with the literature connecting these states of being to Christianity, but can definitely see the tie in to the sense of belonging and the watchful eye of a supernatural being. applying to other religions as well. Here’s a few other things I would like to know in surveying the research or in designing new research. In looking at the naturalistic studies, I too would like more detail on what counts as a charitable contribution. Are these contributions making a difference in society as a whole? Are they tackling issues of social justice or poverty? A contribution back to one’s religious entity may count if the entity supports these greater causes. Secondly, in the gaming studies, it would be interesting to me to know not only if one is more likely to cooperate with someone with a similar religious identity, but is someone more likely to cooperate when the cause is desirable for the participant. In other words, would we cooperate more if the money is pooled to aid in social justice or equality rather than just pooled to the participants ourselves. A survey prior to participation could determine what the participants value and the game could be designed around that knowledge. And finally, I would love to see a study done on prosocial behavior and contributions as they relate to the religious leader one is following. Are the contributions that we are counting as coming out of our religious background really emulating the prosocial behavior and philosophies of the religious leader? I realize this is dicey because there are many interpretations of religious philosophies even within a particular religion, still it would be interesting to see the correlation.

    I throw out these thoughts not to diminish your article because it was very thought provoking, but more to say that I think your conclusion that there is more to be done on this subject is valid. I believe you are correct in saying that many of the conclusions between religion and happiness are too simplistically stated.

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