Study fails to show religious kids to be more selfish!

Selfish Religious Child praying! Moral atheist child looks on.

According to a recent study Religion Makes Children More Selfish!

Yesterday, Forbes magazine published a good write-up of the study with further comments from the head of the study (Professor Jean Decety, a neuroscientist from the University of Chicago), but go ahead and read the original for your self from the Current Biology online articles at

Magazine headlines often sensationalize.  The study really is about altruism.  From the study:

“Here, we show that religiosity, as indexed by three different measures, is not associated with increased altruism in young children. Our findings robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”

The study claims that religious children are less altruistic then non-religious children.  But the study is fatally flawed!   The study relies on the “Dictator Game”  to measure altruism:

“To examine the influence of religion on the expression of altruism, we used a resource allocation task, the dictator game.”

But other research shows that the dictator game is not a good measure of altruism.  See Do Dictator Games Measure Altruism? by Daniel John Zizzo.   From the paper:

“This note paper considers briefly whether dictator games are a good tool to measure altruism. The answer is negative: behavior in dictator games is seriously confounded by what I shall label experimenter demand effects”

Experimenter demand effects (EDE) are simply the social expectations of the experimenter. Subjects of a dictator test are not immune to perceived social pressures and expectations.  The research presented by Dr. Zizzo shows that dictator test outcomes are driven by “cues about what constitutes behavior that is appropriate to the task” from the experimenter and by “perceived social pressure that the experimenter,”

Or in other words what the University of Chicago study really showed is that non-religious children are more susceptible to peer pressure than religious, not that they are necessarily more altruistic.

The other two measures were survey questions.  One from the children.  From the Forbes article: “after children were shown videos of mild interpersonal harm – such as pushing or bumping – they were asked for a judgment of meanness and a rating for the level of punishment the perpetrator deserved.”  Typically the religious kids judged the behavior to be meaner than the non-religious.  Muslim children further favored harsher punishments.

The other was an assessment from parents.  Religious parents seem to believe that their children have strong moral tendencies.

I see nothing particularly surprising about the survey results.  Of course the research paper’s conclusion from the children’s survey that, “children who are raised in religious households frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions” is clearly biased.  One could easily say instead that children raised in religious households frequently show more empathy for the victims of harmful behavior.  But that is not part of the agenda is it?

*** Update ***

A couple other blogs have linked to this article. They both have excellent things to say and touch on issues I have not addressed. One is by Heather Tomlinson (Are religious children less altruistic? Bad science and anti-faith propaganda in The Guardian). The other is by Lewis Waha at his Cogitating Duck blog.

Also, I was asked the following on Facebook:

“So.. This doesn’t seem to be either peer-reviewed or any research done to make the point clear. Though referencing some other studies, it doesn’t come clear to me where the data to make this assertion comes from.
What am I missing?”

This was a good question. I answered as follows:

“Good morning . . . Are you referring to the university of Chicago study from the OP? Or to the Centre for Behavioural and Experimental Social Science (CBESS) University of East Anglia discussion paper regarding the Dictator Game?

Regarding the later, your right that it is not in itself peer reviewed research. It is a discussion paper that refers to other peer reviewed research. Nevertheless, it represents real scholarly work showing real problems with common interpretations of Dictator Game outcomes. Some of the research represented in the discussion paper maybe found online (for example: ).”


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