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article imageOp-Ed: Kids with religious upbringing ‘less altruistic’ — New study

By Paul Wallis     Nov 9, 2015 in Lifestyle
Sydney - For some reason, altruism is the subject of a lot of psychological research. The University of Chicago study shows that kids brought up on religious principles are less giving than others. It’s not likely to be a popular finding.
The UC study shows a few issues which are basically Twitter fodder:
* Religiously raised kids are less inclined to share.
* Religious parents think their kids are very sensitive and empathic.
* Religious upbringings are more associated with “punitive” responses to anti-social behavior.
The study of 1170 kids aged five to 10 from six countries used a game called The Dictator Game to assess sharing and other behaviors. The kids were given stickers, and allowed to share them with another, unseen, child. Children from Christian and Muslim households were said to be “significantly” less likely than non-religious children to share. This tendency increased with age.
The “moral sensitivity” part of the study included watching animations of people bumping in to each other accidentally or deliberately, and the kids were asked how “mean” the people doing the bumping were.
The parents were categorized as Christian, Muslim, and non-religious. They were given a questionnaire regarding punishments which showed them more inclined to punitive judgments regarding “personal offenses.”
The value of research into altruism
Altruism research is surprisingly common. Major colleges and institutions study it. The question is “Why?” In a society which is anything but altruistic, it seems a strange choice of research subject. Why not study why so many people seem to be such itinerant jerks? Maybe even find a cure?
There are definitely such things as real altruists. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a few, and if I’m not noticeably one myself, I can say that those people really are something special. That said — I can also say with absolute certainty that I don’t hear a lot of people saying “Wow, I met a lot of altruists today!”
The religious angle is a bit each way. The basic tenet of most religions can be summed up in one short sentence: “Don’t be a jerk.” Most religions have some form of punitive element in them, largely to reinforce the various morals and beliefs of those religions.
I’ve met religious people who are absolutely selfless. I have met nonreligious people who are absolutely selfish. I really don’t see, however, that being religious or not religious has a lot to do with it.
If child psychology is trying to prove something, it might help if they knew what they were trying to prove. Kids are as much the product of the environments as anyone else. A deprived family may be far more conscious of the value of sharing than a rich family. A rich family may be more inclined to share simply because it is rich.
The theory of punishment as an indicator of the values of beliefs is also questionable. Many kids react badly to an overly harsh environment and set out to be the exact opposite of their parents. How you were brought up is one thing; what you do with it is something else. Some family households are absolutely brutal; the kids of those households may become their parents, or not.
The classic view of altruism is that it confers values and rewards on both givers and receivers. That’s a bit hard to argue with, particularly when you consider the number of aid workers and other people who go into hellish situations to help others. They’re as bad as army combat medics; you simply can’t stop them from helping other people, even with a sea anchor.
In the sick modern “culture of evil,” altruism could not possibly be said to be much of an issue. Social responsibility isn’t exactly a core component of most political and corporate ideologies. Altruism isn’t even comprehended, let alone part of the agenda.
…Which brings us to the relevance of studies of altruism. Altruism is carried out by those mentally and physically able to be altruistic. That’s a diminishing percentage of the population, as economic and other factors chew their way through people’s lives. The psychology of altruism may be an interesting aesthetic study, but whether or not it has any practical applications is highly debatable.
I found an interesting article derived from a book called the How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubormirsky, a professor at the University of California Riverside, regarding “promoting altruism” on PBS. It’s a short shopping list of things to do to deliver those altruistic values.
This is probably the best description of the functional values of altruism, and its role as a part of human happiness. Lyubormirsky, to her credit, put altruism into a practical perspective as something you can actually do.
This also highlights one of the issues of the University of Chicago study — give people choices in a situation where they have a very narrow perspective on the options, and selfishness is probably the logical result.
What motivates altruism? Real altruism seems to come from genuine inner perspectives. Do kids have the life experience and emotional structures to create those perspectives? Some do, many don’t.
A family friend of ours, a practicing Catholic, gave up her own deathbed in a private ward to total strangers trying to cope with the death of a family member in a public ward, simply so they could have some privacy. This unselfishness was absolutely typical of the woman; it simply wouldn’t have occurred to her not to do something like that.
Sorry, but I don’t believe kids have the emotional range to really understand that type of very practical, situation-based, altruism, let alone the broad principles of altruism. I think altruism is learned and evolved by individuals, not simply imparted.
If life is a series of choices, lugging around a behavioural rule book may not be the best practical option. If you don’t understand an ethos of altruism and have never experienced it yourself, how can you possibly put it into practice?
The irony is that all those old cautionary tales and moral tales of the past probably did a better job of teaching altruism than anything else, past or present. Maybe modern culture needs to learn how to do that again?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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