Fairness encouraged by religion and…market economies?
- Published on 12 October 2010
- Written by Connor Wood
- Hits: 1850
All mammals demonstrate kin-based altruism – that is, making sacrifices to help family members. By making sacrifices to help a relative, an animal is helping its genes pass down into the future, since close relatives are likely to carry many of the same genes. So kin-based altruism makes genetic sense.
But what about modern cultures, where people often act helpfully toward one another despite being strangers who will quite possibly never see each other again? Since I don’t share any genes with the owners of the grocery store where I shop, what biological imperatives keep me from stealing fruit when nobody’s looking?
Together with a group of colleagues, psychologist and economist Joseph Henrich (the University of British Columbia) recently carried out a study that investigated exactly this question. In a group of experiments carried out around the world, Henrich and his colleagues looked to see whether people who lived in societies where money was used more extensively would be primed to act more fairly to anonymous strangers. Suggesting that religion might be a tool for large societies to enforce anonymous altruism, the researchers also looked to see whether adherence to Islam or Christianity was positively correlated with fair behavior toward strangers.
Henrich and his colleagues had volunteers from a number of cultures play several games that allowed them to decide whether or not to share money with an anonymous co-participant, as well as wether to punish others who chose not to share. Interestingly, the amount of “market integration” in a participant’s society and his or her religiousness both predicted higher rates of voluntary sharing. Market integration was measured by the average percentage of calories that were purchased in a given society rather than grown, gathered, or hunted.
Similarly, adherence to a world religion was also significantly related to anonymous sharing, with profession of Christianity or Islam adding between six and ten percent to the amount of money participants said they were willing to share.
The results for punishment, however, were much less conclusive, showing that when there was an option to punish others for failing to act fairly towards a third party, overall fairness tended to drop. This contradicted one of the authors’ main hypotheses, which was that large-scale societies would use punishments to enforce social norms. The fact that this appeared not to be true is a puzzle for the model proposed by Henrich and his co-authors.
Still, Henrich et al.’s results indicate that fairness as we know it is not purely innate but is also driven by cultural factors – such as residence in a market-based economy or belonging to an ethically driven world religion. But it's important to realize that no group in their survey was totally unwilling to share – living in a large urban society or being a Muslim just increased sharing, sometimes by only a few percentage points. In other words, the results don’t settle the nature/nurture question once and for all – in fact, as respondents to the article’s publication in Science suggest, they may even make it murkier.
The question of whether humans are innately driven to be fair or whether they are compelled by society’s rules is an important one for evolutionary psychologists and students of religion alike. If religion is a tool to enforce fairness, it certainly speaks about its role in our evolutionary development. On the other hand, if fairness is built in and simply modulated by different cultures’ norms, does that make religion merely a tool for highlighting prosocial tendencies that are already there? Or is religious behavior more complex than that?
See the original article here.