More On Sacrifice

I finally finished the article on Prof Paul Frijters research into testing predisposition to religious sacrifice. See original pieces here and here. The full article will be in Australasian Science in April, but I thought I’d add a couple of things I came across in the course of writing it.

The first one is pretty depressing. Before brining Theoi in Frijters had most of his participants play a game of long standing amongst economists. They were all given a number of tokens with an exchange rate to Australian dollars and offered the choice of contributing these to a collective pool or not. Tokens contributed were multiplied by 1.6 and then distributed evenly amongst all the players, while tokens that were not contributed stayed with their owner. This was repeated 5 times. So collectively everyone was better off if everyone contributed. If everyone put in all their tokens each time everyone would end up with tokens to a value almost 10 times what they started with. However, if one person contributed while others did not they would end up with less while everyone else enriched themselves at that person’s expense.

This game was played partly because the results are so well established Frijters could use it to see if his students were different from the general population, and partly by playing a previous game he gave his participants a sense of ownership over their tokens, so they would play the Theoi game more seriously.

But the depressing thing that came out of this is that people contributed almost as much to Theoi as they did to the community pool in the preliminary rounds. That’s right, when given the chance to make a contribution that benefited the whole community, and had clear potential to benefit you as well if it inspired others to follow your example, people were only marginally more inclined to pony up than when faced with a non-existent being who gave them nothing in return. And people wonder why the world is such a mess.

The other thing to note is that there was a correlation between the contributions in the two rounds. People who were more selfless were also more inclined to contribute to Theoi. I think you can read this in a number of ways. One interpretation, no doubt of appeal to followers of Ayn Rand, is that those who choose to act for the common good are soft brained and well as soft-hearted. They can’t recognise the non-existence of a fictional being and give for reasons that make no sense. As someone who gives rather a lot to charity, I naturally don’t like this interpretation, but I guess it’s valid.

A different way of looking at it is as a refutation of the claim made in defence of religion that it believers donate more to charity, volunteer for good causes more etc. It seems possible that in fact religions tend to attract people who are more inclined towards contributing to the common good, and these people sacrifice their money in tithes to the church/mosque/temple and their time to prayer and other things. If religion did not exist they might still be more generous, but just in other directions. This would indicate that bad religions (and I stress that I at least do not consider all religions bad) are even worse than we realised, because they redirect donations that might otherwise be made to the common good towards bigotry promotion.

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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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One Response to More On Sacrifice

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

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