Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Restricted accessResearch articles

Wrath of God: religious primes and punishment

Ryan McKay

Ryan McKay

Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

Centre for Anthropology and Mind, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX, UK

[email protected]

Google Scholar

Find this author on PubMed

,
Charles Efferson

Charles Efferson

Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

Google Scholar

Find this author on PubMed

,
Harvey Whitehouse

Harvey Whitehouse

Centre for Anthropology and Mind, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Google Scholar

Find this author on PubMed

and
Ernst Fehr

Ernst Fehr

Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

Google Scholar

Find this author on PubMed

Published:https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2010.2125

    Recent evidence indicates that priming participants with religious concepts promotes prosocial sharing behaviour. In the present study, we investigated whether religious priming also promotes the costly punishment of unfair behaviour. A total of 304 participants played a punishment game. Before the punishment stage began, participants were subliminally primed with religion primes, secular punishment primes or control primes. We found that religious primes strongly increased the costly punishment of unfair behaviours for a subset of our participants—those who had previously donated to a religious organization. We discuss two proximate mechanisms potentially underpinning this effect. The first is a ‘supernatural watcher’ mechanism, whereby religious participants punish unfair behaviours when primed because they sense that not doing so will enrage or disappoint an observing supernatural agent. The second is a ‘behavioural priming’ mechanism, whereby religious primes activate cultural norms pertaining to fairness and its enforcement and occasion behaviour consistent with those norms. We conclude that our results are consistent with dual inheritance proposals about religion and cooperation, whereby religions harness the byproducts of genetically inherited cognitive mechanisms in ways that enhance the survival prospects of their adherents.

    References