Monday, March 7, 2016

The More Vengeful Your God, the More Cooperative Your Society

Or so says this study:
Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups. To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers. We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship. Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists. Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.


G. Verloren said...

But that's not really what they're saying.

"Cooperative" isn't quite the right notion here. "More fearful of defying rules" is much more on point.

Prosociality is an unusual technical term, one which generally means "voluntary behavior meant to benefit others", but which also encompasses simply conformity to rules and accepted behaviors. Wildly different behaviors can be considered prosocial based purely on the context of the society in which they take place.

For example, in a democratic society, championing universal suffrage is a "prosocial" act, while working against it is "antisocial". But in an authoritaive or dictatorial culture, the exact opposite is the case - agitating for the right to vote would be "antisocial", while helping to reinforce the authority of the rulership would be "prosocial".

Thus, claiming that belief in a vengeful god leads to "cooperation" is misleading at best, since mere conformity is not the same thing.

Shadow Flutter said...

Silly me, and I thought we and our ancestors joined larger groups because they/we profited from it — food, security, specialization, controlling and maintaining resources, etc — all of which improves the individual’s (and kin's) chances of survival. Next a moralistic (and punitive) religion develops to keep everyone in line, always a bigger problem in a larger group than a smaller one. Have they placed the cart before the horse? Which explains which?

I also ponder such phrases as "large anonymous groups," "higher participants," and other vague descriptors.