Direct my steps by Your word, and let no iniquity have dominion over me.
Redeem me from the oppression of man, that I may keep Your precepts.
Make Your face shine upon Your servant, and teach me Your statutes.
Rivers of water run down from my eyes, because men do no keep Your law.
-Psalm 119: 133-136
If you read Predictably Irrational, you may recall that we carried out a study on cheating that assessed the value of moral reminders. In the experiment, we asked participants to complete a test, told them they’d receive cash for every correct answer, and made sure they knew they had ample room to cheat. Now here’s the kicker: prior to starting, we had half the participants list ten books off their high-school reading list, and the other half to recall the Ten Commandments, a manipulation that turned out to have a marked effect on the results: While many in the first group deceitfully reported a higher number of correct answers, no one in the second group cheated.
How do we explain the findings? A tempting conclusion to draw would be to equate religiosity with a higher morality; however, this argument doesn’t hold, since in a follow-up study with atheist participants, recalling the Ten Commandments had the exact same effect. Rather, what was at play here was the power of a moral reminder: Prime a person to think about ethics right before they have an opportunity to cheat, and they’ll avoid immoral behavior.
This experiment also suggests to me that religion can be a good source of ideas for social science research. If you think about religion as a social mechanism that has evolved over time, then you can ask what purpose(s) its many rules serve and how they can help us to better understand human nature.
For example, though religious leaders may not have understood the exact psychology of moral reminders, they’ve certainly had enough of an intuitive sense of their importance to circulate the Ten Commandments and emphasize a whole score of other religious tenets, statutes, and regulations. Whether or not they could cite the causes for it, somewhere along the line they gathered that a good way to keep people in check was to present them with a moral benchmark to keep in mind (e.g. reciting prayers, for instance, before dinner as a continual reminder of the standards).
Given religion’s role in society and the way it evolves over time, I think we could benefit from using its wisdom to direct social science research. The key is to zero in on a religious tenet and ask why it’s there and what it suggests about human behavior, and to then empirically test the hypothesis with the hopes of deriving science from religious texts.