Are Non-Religious Children Really More Altruistic?

By: Robert Woodberry

November 17, 2015

One argument in favor of religious liberty is that it unleashes religion's pro-social potential and benefits. Conversely, an argument against religious liberty is that religion is a socially dangerous force that needs to be held in check or at least highly regulated. Given these contending positions, it becomes important to engage studies such as the one by University of Chicago professor Jean Decety and colleagues entitled “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World.”
Mainstream media outlets picked up on this study and publicized it widely. “Religious Children are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts” proclaimed a headline in the Guardian. “Religious Kids are Jerks” raved the Daily Beast. Hundreds of other newspapers and blogs touted similar articles: the EconomistForbesGood Housekeeping, the LA Times, the Independent

But what is the evidence behind these claims? Does it match pervious research? Is it worth all the hype? My analysis of the article demonstrates that the project was poorly constructed and the data analysis sloppy. The authors do virtually nothing to test alternative explanations or mitigate the flaws in their research design. The results contradict the vast majority of other research on the topic. The authors extrapolate well beyond what the data show, and reporters extrapolate beyond even what the authors claim. However, to make the problems clear for those not trained in statistics and not familiar with the previous research on the topic takes some space.

The authors ran an experiment with 1,170 children in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa). In the main experiment, the authors gave each child 30 stickers and allowed them to pick the 10 they wanted to keep. Researchers then told the child that they lacked time to run the experiment with other children in their school, but if the child gave up some of their 10 chosen stickers, the researchers would give those stickers to another child. The researchers then counted the number of stickers each student gave back as a measure of how “altruistic” the children were. The researchers then interviewed a parent of each child and asked the parent an open ended question about the parent’s religion. The researchers decided whether or not they considered the parent religious, and then applied their religious designation to the child. The children (5-12 years old) were not asked about their own religiousness. The researchers then compared the number of stickers given away by “religious” and “non-religious” children and found that on average “non-religious” children gave away more stickers (or actually 86 percent of a sticker more). Yes, the global media campaign is about a fraction of a sticker. Despite the huge diversity of people in their cross-national sample (for example, Canada and Jordan) and the many factors that influence the generosity of children in such diverse contexts (for example, poverty), the researchers assumed that the only difference between the “religious” and “non-religious” children was being religious.*

In the second experiment the researchers showed the children a series of scenarios involving one child pushing another and other types of “interpersonal harm.” The religious students judged the behaviors as more “mean” than the non-religious children. Muslim children recommended a harsher punishment for the bad behavior than non-religious children. The punishments Christian children recommended were indistinguishable from those recommended by non-religious children.

However, in the conclusion of the article and in most media reports the various authors claim that “religious” children were “meaner,” “harsher,” or “more vindictive” without qualifying that only Muslim children were (if we assume the problematic sample applies to Muslim children in general). The researchers did not interpret the religious children’s concern for people who were harmed by another child as a sign of altruism, but as vindictiveness. The authors do not adjust their evaluations of the severity of the punishments to account for the children’s interpretation of the severity of the offences—if you don’t think pushing someone is bad, you obviously won’t want a strong punishment for it. Nor do they interpret the Christians as merciful for simultaneously thinking harming another student was meaner than non-religious students thought, yet calling for equally mild punishments as non-religious students did.

In the third experiment, researchers asked parents how empathetic their child is and how sensitive to injustice. Religious parents rated their children as more empathetic and sensitive to injustice than non-religious parents. The researchers interpret this as parental blindness—assuming the sticker experiment better captures the empathy and sensitivity of the children than either the child’s concern for children who are shoved, or a lifetime of parental experience. Alternatively the researches could have asked a teacher or other students about the empathy and sensitivity of the children (as outside corroboration), but they did not.

The researchers interpreted these three experiments as indicating that religious people think they are more helpful, when in fact they are actually “less helpful” and “more punitive.” In interviews with reporters Decety explains that if people think they are more moral they give themselves permission to be more immoral. Thus, thinking you are moral is detrimental. Decety also claims his research shows that secularization is good. “…secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.” Both claims are rather broad and not well supported by the data. We do not know if the children think they are more moral, only that their parents think they are more moral. We do not know why the religious children gave away fewer stickers (or even if the association is causal) let alone that they acted less “morally” because they think they are more moral. Nor did the researchers do any investigation about the effect of secularization on kindness. 

Popular articles extrapolate even further. An article in the Mirror claims that “Children of atheists are kinder and more tolerant”—although it is unlikely that 28 percent of the parents in the sample coded as “non-religious” are all atheists. An article in Forbes claims the research demonstrates that religious people are “less moral” and that “history backs-up the scientific evidence that secular people are more moral.” I guess a fraction of a sticker outweighs Hitler and Stalin, but who’s counting? 

So, how do we evaluate if this research is worth taking seriously? A six-question test—outlined in brief here and in more detail in this separate piece—help answer this question.

1) Does the research adequately deal with and explain previous literature? No. 

2) Is the article in an appropriate, peer reviewed journal, where scholars are likely to have been able to catch the major flaws? No. 

3) Do the authors use a representative sample of the groups they are studying? No. 

4) Do the authors do sufficient work to demonstrate that the relationship between religion and giving behavior is causal? No. 

5) Is the statistical analysis rigorous and appropriate? Is it plausible that difference in religious upbringing is the only thing that makes stickers more valuable to some of the children than other children? No. 

6) Is religion carefully measured and are religious groups carefully distinguished? No. 

Finally, as regards mainstream media coverage of this study, it’s striking that the many newspaper and magazine articles that reported this story consistently take the research by Jean Decety and his colleagues as objectively true and unproblematic. They do not interview any other scholar who has researched this topic, nor cite any of the many peer-reviewed journal articles and university press books that find a different result. Given the dozens of scholars who have researched religion and altruism, it would not have been hard to find another scholar who could have offered perspective. I thought it was standard journalistic procedure to get more than one point of view for a story. Maybe not if the story says something you desperately want to be true.

In some analyses the researches also statistically controlled for age, country, and a rough measure of the education of the child’s mother. I will discuss the adequacy of their controls in my next blog post.

This piece was originally written for the Religious Freedom Project's 
Cornerstone blog.