Threat of divine punishment makes people more generous

The Weighing of the Heart against the Feather of Truth, from the Book of the Dead of the Scribe Any, c.1250 BC (painted papyrus), Egyptian 19th Dynasty (c.1292-1187 BC) / British Museum, London, UK / Bridgeman Images

Threat of divine punishment makes people more generous

If you came into some unexpected cash, would you keep the money for yourself or give it away to a faraway stranger? According to a new study, the answer may depend on what kind of god you believe in. Moralizing gods, which care about human behavior and punish transgressions, feature in religions from Christianity and Islam to the polytheism of ancient Egypt (pictured). One idea—popularly known as the Big Gods hypothesis—holds that such gods may make people more cooperative and could have helped societies grow from hunter-gatherer bands to politically complex states. To test the idea that moralizing gods foster group-oriented generosity, even across long distances, researchers asked 591 people, from hunter-gatherers in Tanzania to wage workers in Brazil, to play an economic game. Participants were given some money and asked to roll a die. If a certain color came up, they were supposed to drop some coins in their own pot; another color, and they were supposed to put the money in a pot destined for a stranger in another community who shared their religion. In another round, the recipients were either members of their own community or strangers in a distant one, all of whom shared the player’s religion. No one was watching the game, and the researchers expected a certain amount of cheating. When the scientists tallied up the coins in each pot, they found that in both rounds people who believed in more punishing gods gave more money to distant strangers, they report today in Nature. Intriguingly, belief in a god’s propensity to reward good behavior did not increase generosity in the same way, suggesting supernatural retribution may have been a key element in encouraging cooperation and helping societies expand.

Read Science’s feature on the Big Gods hypothesis here.

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