Vengeful God keeps cheaters honest

U. OREGON (US) — Belief in God doesn’t deter a person from cheating on a test, unless that God is a mean, punishing one.

On the flip side, undergraduate college students who believe in a caring God are likely to take advantage of a deity’s forgiving nature by cheating.

In two experiments, researchers put honesty to the test during a mathematics exam where students were told about a software glitch in which the correct answer to each problem would appear after several seconds. To avoid seeing the answer, they were told to press the space bar immediately after viewing each problem and before pursuing a solution without scratch paper or calculators.


Results of the study, that is part of a larger effort to understand the role of religion in encouraging—or even forcing adherence to—moral behavior is reported in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.

“Taken together, our findings demonstrate, at least in some preliminary way, that religious beliefs do have an effect on moral behavior, but what matters more than whether you believe in a god is what kind of god you believe in,” says Azim Shariff, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

“There is a relationship: Believing in a mean god, a punishing one, does contribute to non-cheating behavior. Believing in a loving, forgiving god seems to have an opposite effect.”

In the first experiment, 61 undergraduates took a simple “but tedious” math test. Afterward, they were questioned about their religiosity, views of God, and demographics. Their views of God, which involved 14 traits, were analyzed and divided to identify the participants’ perceptions of their God’s being loving, caring and forgiving or harsh, punitive, vengeful, and punishing. Their cheating—whether they used the space bar to avoid getting the correct answer—was measured.

No differences in cheating were found between self-described believers in God and non-believers. However, students who specifically perceived God as punitive, angry, and vengeful showed significantly lower levels of cheating.

The second study was designed to remove other potential variables such as personality and general religious affiliation. The 39 undergraduate participants were surveyed several days before the cheating task about their views of God in a series of randomly asked questions that touched on a number of different topics. The subjects later took the same math test.

Again, students who believed in a loving God were the most likely to cheat. Again, self-described believers were no more or less likely to cheat than non-believers. In both scenarios, the “punitive God” and “loving God” significantly predicted cheating in opposite directions.

Data emerging from social psychology literature tends to find that, as a general disposition, what people believe every day doesn’t really affect moral outcomes, Shariff says. Though some recent research on religion’s role, which involved unconsciously activating religious beliefs at a given moment, finds that being in a religious situation matters, little evidence shows that the religious disposition contributes to moral behavior

“According to the psychological literature, people who believe in God don’t appear to act any more morally than people who don’t believe in God,” Shariff says.

“We wanted to look deeper at particular beliefs. One idea is the supernatural punishment hypothesis: Punishing counter-normative behavior—immoral behavior—has been an important part of living in societies. Societies don’t get far without regulating moral behavior.”

Even though the trend found in the new study was significant, the results are preliminary. Specifically, the research focuses on academic cheating, which is only one type of moral behavior. It is unclear whether the pattern of results will generalize to encouraging positive behaviors, such as generosity. Researchers should examine other impacts of how views of God may influence other types of both negative and positive moral behaviors.

Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia was a co-author of the study.

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