- New Study: Non-believers More Likely to Be Driven By Compassion than Highly Religious People -

By Rebecca Lewis on February 20, 2018

In a report published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers suggest that people who are less religious tend to be more generous than the highly religious ones.  

Laura Saslow, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley was inspired to establish the relationship between compassion and religion after hearing an atheist friend lament on donating to earthquake victims only after seeing a video of a woman being saved from the rubble, and not because he feels it is his moral duty to help.

Compassion and Religion

In a series of experiments, social scientists from the University of California in Berkley looked at the effect of compassion on people and how it drives them to help those who are less privileged. The researchers defined the term ‘compassion’ as an emotion felt by someone when he or she sees other person suffering, which motivates them to extend help even if it would constitute risk on their part.

For the first experiment, researchers looked at the 2004 national survey involving 1,300 American adults. Respondents were asked about what they feel when they see someone being taken advantage of. When they analysed how much compassion has motivated people in helping others (like lending money or food to homeless people), non-believers stand out. The research indicated that even though compassion is linked to pro-sociality on both religious and non religious individuals, it is more common among the non-believers.

On the other hand, researchers found out that compassion was greatly unrelated to how generous highly religious individuals were. Their findings also show that these people ground their generosity not on compassion but on other factors like communal identity, reputational concerns, and religious doctrines.

Non-Believers Base their Generosity on Compassion

In the second experiment, the researchers asked 101 American adults to watch one of two short films – one heartrending video and the other one is a neutral one. After the activity, each one was given 10 ‘lab dollars’ and instructed to give any amount they feel fair to a stranger in need. The results showed that non-believers seemed to be moved by the touching video and gave more money to the stranger. In the case of religious people, said video didn’t make any significant effect on their generosity.

The last experiment involved 200 college students. They were asked to report how compassionate they felt at the moment. Afterwards, they were directed to play ‘economic trust games’ wherein they were given the option to share money or not. In one portion of the game, participants were told that someone has given them money and they had to make a choice to give back some part of it which has doubled since the start of the game. Their findings show that less religious people were more inclined to share their earnings to strangers than to their co-participants.

“Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” said Robb Willer, study co-author and UC Berkeley social psychologist.

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