How Religious Are Athiests?

Shifting direction rather dramatically, on Monday I interviewed University of Queensland Professor of Economics Paul Frijters about an extraordinary experiment he conducted. We normally don’t cover Economics at Australasian Science, but this experiment was more philosophy than economics with broad and fascinating implications, including for science.

Frijters had participants in his study (mostly university students) play a game where they produced a virtual crop and then sold it for a market price. They were told that the price was set by Theoi, the Market Maker. If they wished, they could donate a share of their return to Theoi in the hope that this would inspire Theoi to give them a higher price. The game was played over 20 rounds, and for the first round the donation defaulted to 10%,although this could be shifted if participants wished. After this, they set its value.

Frijters tinkered with the rules in a few ways to see what effects they had, but on average people donated, or sacrificed as he puts it, almost 25% of their crop to this god of the Market. Which was a pretty bad move since Theoi was a random number generator completely unaffected by how much a person had sacrificed.

There are plenty of absolutely fascinating aspects to this study, and I’m covering it in considerably more depth in a feature article I am writing (probably published in March) but the one that might be considered the lead: Atheists were just as likely to sacrifice as religious believers.

Yup, we may like to think of ourselves as so much more rational, but the non-believers in the study were just as likely to see patterns where they did not exist and leave burnt offerings on the temples of their god as those who follow major religions.

There is a bunch of other data there, comparisons of students from different courses, the effects of various changes to the rules of the game. Lots to be fascinated about, but for the moment I thought I would leave people with the concept and this single smugness-controlling fact.



About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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4 Responses to How Religious Are Athiests?

  1. Kathi says:

    that is indeed pretty interesting…i am reminded of my second year lectures in cognitive psychology where numerous studies showed that we humans are not really that rational or logical in our decision making.

  2. Pingback: What Stops Religion? | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

  3. Pingback: More On Sacrifice | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

  4. Pingback: April Still On Sale | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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