Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates

Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA.
PLoS ONE (Impact Factor: 3.23). 06/2012; 7(6):e39048. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0039048
Source: PubMed


Though religion has been shown to have generally positive effects on normative 'prosocial' behavior, recent laboratory research suggests that these effects may be driven primarily by supernatural punishment. Supernatural benevolence, on the other hand, may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior. Here, we investigate these effects at the societal level, showing that the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. These effects remain after accounting for a host of covariates, and ultimately prove stronger predictors of national crime rates than economic variables such as GDP and income inequality. Expanding on laboratory research on religious prosociality, this is the first study to tie religious beliefs to large-scale cross-national trends in pro- and anti-social behavior.

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    • "Religious believers can also commonly expect to live forever, in paradise. Though the belief in a hellish afterlife may be an effective way of inspiring ethical behavior, the promise of a heaven may not be (Shariff & Rhemtulla, 2012). Instead, both correlational and experimental research indicates that the belief in heaven offers individuals well-being benefits (Shariff & Aknin, 2014). "

    Cheating, corruption and concealment, Edited by Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Paul A.M. van Lange, 04/2016: chapter 13; Cambridge University Press.
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    • "For example, people who think God has primarily a punishing and fearful character tend to cheat less on an academic task, whereas those who think God is primarily forgiving tend to cheat more (Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011). A world-wide survey indicates that national crime rate correlates negatively with belief in hell whereas it correlates positively with belief in heaven (Shariff & Rhemtulla, 2012). In a study covering 186 different cultures, belief in a punishing God was associated with increased cooperation and decreased selfish behavior (Johnson, 2005; see also Atkinson & Bourrat, 2011). "
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    ABSTRACT: People’s large-scale cooperation with genetically unrelated people is widely assumed to lie beyond the scope of standard evolutionary mechanisms like kin selection and reciprocal altruism and to require mechanisms specific to human sociality. The emergence of the idea of being monitored by supernatural agents who can punish social norm violations has been proposed as one solution to this problem. In parallel, secular authorities can have similar functions with that of religious authority based on supernatural agents in today’s secularized world. However, it is not clear whether it is the idea of religious or secular authority in general or the punishing aspects of both institutions in particular that leads to increased cooperation and prosociality. Study 1 showed that people reported more prosocial intentions after being implicitly primed with punishing religious and secular authorities (versus non-punishing ones or a neutral one) in a scrambled sentence task. Study 2 showed that explicitly priming the punishing aspects of God (versus the non-punishing aspects or a neutral prime) led to an increase in the level of prosocial intentions. The findings support the supernatural punishment hypothesis and suggest a similar mechanism for the influence of secular authority on prosociality. More generally, the findings are consistent with views that punishment, whether real or imagined, played an important role in the evolution of large-scale cooperation in the human species.
    Evolution and Human Behavior 09/2015; DOI:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.09.005 · 3.13 Impact Factor
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    • "Recent studies suggest that mean gods, but not nice gods, are effective at controlling antisocial impulses. Namely, DeBono et al. (2013) found that primes of religious forgiveness caused increased cheating in a laboratory task; Shariff and Rhemtulla (2012) found that belief in heaven robustly predicted higher crime rates cross-nationally; and Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) reported that belief in God as a more punishing figure predicted lower rates of cheating in the laboratory. While loving gods may not be effective at improving behavior, they might be very good at making us happy. "
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    ABSTRACT: In religions where God is portrayed as both loving and wrathful, religious beliefs may be a source of fear as well as comfort. Here, we consider if God’s love may be more effective, relative to God’s wrath, for soothing distress, but less effective for helping control behavior. Specifically, we assess whether contemplating God’s love reduces our ability to detect and emotionally react to conflict between one’s behavior and overarching religious standards. We do so within a neurophysiological framework, by observing the effects of exposure to concepts of God’s love vs punishment on the error-related negativity (ERN)—a neural signal originating in the anterior cingulate cortex that is associated with performance monitoring and affective responses to errors. Participants included 123 students at Brigham Young University, who completed a Go/No-Go task where they made ‘religious’ errors (i.e. ostensibly exhibited pro-alcohol tendencies). Reflecting on God’s love caused dampened ERNs and worse performance on the Go/No-Go task. Thinking about God’s punishment did not affect performance or ERNs. Results suggest that one possible reason religiosity is generally linked to positive well-being may be because of a decreased affective response to errors that occurs when God’s love is prominent in the minds of believers.
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