In a study to be published in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers investigated how thinking about God and notions of a higher power influenced positive social behaviour, specifically cooperation with others and generosity to strangers.
Dr. Azim Shariff and Associate Professor Ara Norenzayan found that altruism could be promoted among people by introducing them with 'God concept'. The researchers did so by activating participants' subconscious thoughts through word games during the study.
The study also showed that this effect was consistent in behaviour whether people declared themselves believers or not, and that secular notions of civic responsibility promoted cooperation and generosity.
"This is a twist on an age old question - does a belief in God influence moral behaviour. We asked, does the concept of god influence cooperative behaviour. Previous attempts to answer this question have been driven by speculation and anecdote," says Shariff.
The researchers undertook two related studies, both of which had groups randomly assigned to the religious prime or to the control group. Participants in the religious prime group were given a word game and had to unscramble sentences (using spirit, divine, God, sacred and prophet). Those in the control group were given the same task with non-spiritual words.
All participants were played an anonymous dictator game thereafter. They were given 10 one-dollar coins, and asked to make a decision of what to keep and what to share with an anonymous recipient.
The researchers found that 68 per cent of subjects from the religious prime groups allocated 5 dollars or more to anonymous strangers, compared to 22 per cent from groups where neutral or no concepts were activated.
In the second study, the researchers also investigated the strength of the religious prime relative to a secular prime. They used concepts of civic responsibility and social justice to prime subjects (with target words civic, jury, court, police and contract) and obtained almost identical results.
"We did not anticipate such a subtle prime, simply getting participants to unscramble sentences with a few key words, having such a large effect on people's willingness to give money to strangers," said Shariff.
"These are compelling findings that have substantial impact on the study of social behaviour because they draw a causal relationship between religion and acting morally - a topic of some debate. They by no means indicate that religion is necessary for moral behaviour, but it can make a substantial contribution," the researcher added.