The Relation between Religious Beliefs and Prosocial Behavior

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The Relation Between Religious Beliefs and Prosocial Behavior

Dolunay Uludağ

Bilkent University, Spring 2020

The Relation between Religious Beliefs and Prosocial Behavior

Among the vast majority of societies, there is a general tendency to associate prosocial behaviors with religious individuals in a greater extent than non-believers. Having a lifestyle in accordance with the religious beliefs is seen as a leading factor for an enhanced sense of altruism and empathy, greater compliance to social norms and coherent group dynamics. A significant number of studies were conducted aiming to understand whether there is indeed a correlation between religiosity and prosocial behaviors, with many of them suggesting a positive - even causal- relation (Galen, 2012). This relation may not come as a surprise, given that a considerable amount of qualities was associated with religiosity, such as higher levels of moral behavior, helpfulness and self-control (Saroglou, 2015). In the light of these congruent scientific results, some scholars have proposed a “religious prosociality hypothesis”, which refers to the idea that religious beliefs lead to prosocial behaviors (Galen, 2012). In addition, earlier psychoanalytic perspective suggested that religion serves as a source of various mechanisms that control the destructiveness of human behavior derived from sexual impulses and narcissism. Although prosocial behaviors could go against one’s own pragmatic benefits, they are encouraged by the altruistic religious models such as saints and holy figures and they are accompanied with specific religious reinforcements and punishments. Such reinforcement and strict moral standards render believers to claim that they tend to favor the sake of their community instead of their own sake (Saroglou, Trompette, Verschueren & Dernelle, 2005). However, although believers seem to have a more charitable approach toward the ones who are in need, their prosocial attitude is primarily directed to their religious ingroup lacking universality due to their heightened inclination to prioritize the sake of their group members (Saroglou, Trompette, Verschueren & Dernelle, 2005). Their selective approach in altruistic matters lead believers to derogate the outgroup and exhibit social discrimination at a higher level compared to non-believers. Although many religious beliefs earned cultural success and became pervasive as they led to the creation of cohesive and ideologically aligned ingroups by putting a great emphasis on ingroup commitment, they tend to neglect outgroup members, a process which questions the universality of believers’ altruistic intentions (Shariff, Piazza & Kramer, 2014).

Prosocial behavior can be defined as a voluntary behavior intended to benefit others by sharing, helping and cooperating. Voluntariness is a key factor for prosocial behavior, whereas coerced or obligate behaviors aiming to help others cannot be considered as purely prosocial behavior (Hawley, 2014). Emotions such as empathy and sympathy are closely tied to prosocial behavior (Simpson & Willer, 2015). Individuals typically distinguish the benefit one receives as a consequence of prosocial acts into self-oriented or other-oriented acts. Hence, one’s motives to behave prosocially play a crucial role as prosocial behavior might derive either from altruistic or instrumental motives (or a combination of the two). True altruism is reserved for acts that benefit others without receiving benefits in return (Carlson & Zaki, 2018). Acts that have altruistic motives cannot be performed with the primary intention of gaining reputational benefits or reducing guilt for prior non-prosocial actions. In order to consider a prosocial act as altruistic, the prior motivation must be other-oriented rather than self-oriented (Hawley, 2014). On the other hand, instrumental behavior includes a repeated game strategy in which agents sacrifice their short-term gains to increase their own benefits in the long run. Individuals who are fueled by instrumental motives tend to be more selfish when they behave in a prosocial way (Cabral, Ozbay & Schotter, 2014). As most prosocial acts are visible to the other members of society that could reward generous acts to maintain the sustainability of prosocial behaviors with reciprocity, receiving approval and appreciation from the society might have a more dominant role in determining one’s tendency to perform prosocial behaviors than the pure intention to help someone in need (Carlson & Zaki, 2018). Interpersonal mechanisms such as social norms, reputational concerns, and maintaining social relationships might be the leading factors for prosocial behavior (Simpson & Willer, 2015).

The drives for prosocial actions, including both altruistic and instrumental ones, might differ among believers and non-believers. Ingroup favoritism can be considered as one of the primary motives for believers. The study of Saroglou et al. (2005) revealed that, prosociality of religious participants were not purely altruistic as their willingness for prosociality was limited to ingroups and did not apply to outgroup members. According to the results of this study, ingroup favoritism overrode the religious reinforcements for altruism, suggesting a stronger impact of cultural kinship compared to natural kinship on believers’ prosocial behaviors. It seems therefore that believers are more sensitive to behave in a socially desirable fashion in order to gain long-term benefits from their ingroup. Their religious doctrine seems to favor their family and inner circle as those who should be treated with reciprocity (Saroglou, Trompette, Verschueren & Dernelle, 2005). However, the study of Galen, Sharp and McNulty (2015) indicates that selective prosociality of believers toward their ingroup members does not necessarily derive from religious belief but rather from communal values, roles and social similarities that group members share within their groups. Thus, the sense of belonging to a group tend to enhance the willingness to act prosocially toward ingroup members for both believers and non-believers (Galen, Sharp & McNulty, 2015). Although individuals are less eager to help strangers compared to their ingroup members, fear of a religious authority figure might induce enhanced prosociality toward outgroups. The study of Shariff and Norenzayan (2007) revealed that, believers tend to donate more money to random strangers when the presence of God or a divine observer was implicitly primed. This priming had no effect on the prosocial behavior of non-believers for whom however priming of moral institutions such as courts and police, led them to behave in an equally prosocial way toward strangers -with that shown by believers when God was priming. In short, believers were more motivated to act prosocially in the presence of a divine and punitive observer while non-believers were more motivated by the figures of a justice system and social contract (Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007).

On a broader perspective, the work from Shariff and his colleagues (Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007; Shariff et al., 2014) indicates that believers tend to engage more in prosocial acts in general but they show greater ingroup favoritism and social discrimination against outgroups; in contrast, non-believers seem to be less affected by ingroup-outgroup differentiation as they tend to have a more universal scope for prosociality. Further, although communal aspects of groups might also drive people to favor their ingroup members, non-believers may exhibit less prosocial behaviors than believers because unlike believers, they are less likely to belong to cohesive groups. In addition, although believers seem to engage in more prosocial acts (toward ingroups) than non-believers, their behavior might be driven from their greater concern to portray a socially desirable profile.

It should be emphasized also that the presence of observers play a crucial role for both believers and non-believers: Believers tend to act more prosocially in the felt presence of supernatural monitoring, while non-believers tend to show greater prosociality in the felt presence of social monitoring. Therefore, both believers and non-believers seem to behave in a similar mode when they feel that they are monitored by punitive authority figures (Shariff, Piazza & Kramer, 2014).

To summarize the overall picture of the motives for prosocial behavior seem more instrumental and less altruistic for both believers and non-believers. Although both groups may engage in more or less prosocial behavior for different reasons or under different circumstances, they seem to favor instrumental over pure altruistic behavior. But is this the case? As the research so far on this issue is rather limited, more evidence is needed towards that direction. Further, it is possible that believers may be further differentiated depending on the reasons for which people identify themselves as believers. Specifically, people might admit that they are believers because they truly accept, endorse, and eventually integrate, among others, all the principles of altruism that are typically embedded in almost all major religions. According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017), Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: The Guilford press), these believers are thought to be autonomous motivated. In contrast, believes may be controlled motivated due to internal or external psychological pressures such as fears of punishment or feelings of guilt. Such controlled motives may better describe believers who are afraid of after-death punishment (which is a typical feature of most well-known religions worldwide), or who attend religious services to avoid feelings of guilt (in case they do not do so) or to attain a kind of social reward. Given that prior research has indicated that autonomous motivated believers exhibited more genuine religious beliefs and adaptive pattern (Neyrinck, B., Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., Duriez, B., & Hutsebaut, D. (2006). Cognitive, affective and behavioral correlates of internalization of regulations for religious activities. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 323-334. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9048-3) than controlled motivated believers, it is possible that overlooking such differentiation might explain why believers and non-believers may not differ in altruistic behaviors. Perhaps the motives for which people identify themselves as believers may shed more light on when, if so, believers differ from non-believers is reported altruism. In this study, I am going to examine to what extent autonomous believers, controlled believers, and non-believers differ in altruistic behavior. In order to specify what kind of benefits have a greater impact on autonomous believers, controlled believers, and non-believers, I am going to present a series prosocial vignettes inspired by Carlson & Zaki’s (2018) the themes of motives for prosocial acts that were mentioned above as well as dilemmas that contradict with the given motives based on their religious and secular beliefs.

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