Study questions religion’s influence on kids


Health Column PhotoThe notion that religion plays an important role in childhood moral development is not necessarily true a new international study suggests.
The study by a team of developmental psychologists from the University of Chicago published Nov. 5 concludes that children of religious parents may not be as altruistic as those parents think.
A team led by Prof. Jean Decety examined the perceptions and behaviour of 1,170 children, aged five and 12 in six countries: Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey and the U.S.
The study assessed the children’s tendency to share – a measure of their altruism – and their inclination to judge and punish others for bad behaviour.
Children from religious families were less likely to share with others than were children from non-religious families. A religious upbringing also was associated with more punitive tendencies in response to anti-social behaviour, the research found.
The results were at odds with the perceptions of religious parents who were more likely than non-religious parents to report that their children had a high degree of empathy and sensitivity to the plight of others.
“Our findings contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. In our study, kids from atheist and non-religious families were, in fact, more generous,” said Decety, the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry and the College and director of the University of Chicago Child NeuroSuite.
For the altruism task, children participated in a version of the “Dictator Game” in which they were given 10 stickers and provided an opportunity to share them with another unseen child. Altruism was measured by the average number of stickers shared.
For the moral sensitivity task, children watched short animations in which one character pushes or bumps another, either accidentally or purposefully. After seeing each situation, children were asked about how mean the behavior was and the amount of punishment the character deserved.
Parents completed questionnaires about their religious beliefs and practices and perceptions of their children’s empathy and sensitivity to justice. From the questionnaires, three large groupings were established: Christian, Muslim and not religious. (Children from other religious households did not reach a large enough sample size to be included in additional analyses.)
Consistent with previous studies, in general the children were more likely to share as they got older. But children from households identifying as Christian and Muslim were significantly less likely than children from non-religious households to share their stickers. The negative relation between religiosity and altruism grew stronger with age; children with a longer experience of religion in the household were the least likely to share.
Children from religious households favoured stronger punishments for anti-social behaviour and judged such behaviour more harshly than non-religious children. These results support previous studies of adults, which have found religiousness is linked with punitive attitudes toward interpersonal offences.
“Together, these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development – suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite,” Decety said.
And new psychology research from New Zealand’s University of Otago suggests that people from across a number of faiths and culture tend to date and marry others who share their religious beliefs. This phenomenon – known as ‘religious homogamy’ – is partially a result of inferences about religious people’s personalities.
The researchers measured how religious and non-religious individuals perceive the ‘openness’ – a primary dimension of personality associated with intellectual curiosity – of potential religious and non-religious mates.
They found that non-religious participants in particular associated religious behaviour with less openness, and that this inference led them to devalue religious individuals as romantic partners.
In one experiment, religious and non-religious participants decided whether or not they would date 40 possible romantic partners who varied in how frequently they attended religious services.
The researchers discovered that non-religious participants found potential partners less desirable and also less open to new experience, as their religious behaviour increased.