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Moralistic gods and the rise of complex societies

by Kurt Kleiner
Apr 7 / 16

An increasing belief in gods who see when you do wrong and punish you for it might have been a key factor in the development of large and complex societies, encouraging people to behave morally toward those outside of their immediate communities.

Research by Joseph Henrich (Harvard University and University of British Columbia), a senior fellow in the Institutions, Organizations & Growth program, tested the idea by asking people to allocate money fairly either between themselves and someone from their local community, or between a local person and a distant co-religionist they had never met.

The more they believed that their god was interested in morality, was monitoring them, and was willing to inflict punishment, the more likely they were to split the money fairly with a distant person.

“This research supports the idea that if you believe in a god who sees what you’re doing and will punish you for bad behavior, then you’re more likely to extend pro-social behavior outside of your immediate circle,” Henrich says.

The research could help answer the question of how large and complex societies came about and were able to sustain themselves.

Humans spent most of their evolutionary history in small groups, where reputations mattered and other people were in a position to reward or punish behavior. But once society grows bigger it is difficult or impossible to know everyone by reputation. It isn’t obvious why people in larger communities should keep engaging in pro-social behavior with others they don’t know and may never even meet.

Some previous research had shown that larger and more politically complex societies tend to have more supernatural punishment and moralistic deities. But Henrich and his team wanted to test the link more directly.

They tested people in eight different communities across the world, including farmers, hunter-gatherers, and market-integrated communities, holding religious beliefs including Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and many local religious traditions.

Participants were seated in front of two cups and a pile of 30 coins. In one case the cups were labelled either for themselves or a distant co-religionist they didn’t know. In another case they were labeled with either a co-religionist from their village or a distant co-religionist.

Participants were asked to mentally choose one of the cups and then roll a die to determine if they should put the money in the cup they chose, or in the opposite cup. The idea was that no one—including the experimenter—could tell if they were cheating in any particular instance, but statistically it would become obvious if they routinely favoured either themselves over others, or local people over distant people.

Results showed that believing in a moralistic god decreased the degree to which people favoured themselves or their fellow villager by five times. Crucially, people’s beliefs in local, less-powerful and non-moralizing gods did not predict their behaviour in the experiment.