The Other I

March 30, 2010

A preconceived notion upended

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 3:14 pm

Before reading any further, I have a question:  if you were given an unearned $100 and asked to share whatever part of it you chose with an unknown person, how much would you give away?  Would that percentage change if you were given $100,000 instead?  Would the percentage change if the money you received were an inheritance from your parents which left nothing to their other children who were also your genetic siblings?  Would it be different if they were not blood relatives?

I’ve just read an article in The Economist reporting on a research study to find out if our sense of fairness was inherited or more influenced by economic integration such as trade and/or by our religious beliefs.

The study included more than two thousand volunteers from 15 different contemporary small societies around the world.  Some of them were highly isolated with little interaction with individuals outside their small group.  Others experienced fairly high levels of trade, exchanging market commodities with people outside their own group.  At the same time, they also varied in terms of their religious affiliations, some participating in their tribal religions, others in world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

The findings surprised me:

  • Voluntary fairness toward strangers was significantly greater in communities with higher levels of trade and economic integration.
  • It was also greater among individuals who participated in a world religion than among individuals who participated in their tribal religions.

There are more questions to be asked and additional research to follow up on these findings.  But as they stand, these findings suggest that

  • buying and selling things helps us learn to be fairer to more people, including strangers
  • And so does participating in one of the great world religions.
  • And that in turn helps create societies in which cooperative ventures such as systems of education, transportation, sanitation and energy can develop.  As The Economist suggests, maybe that is why they have become world religions.

Not, actually, the answer I’d been expecting.



  1. One immediate thought.

    If there’s a correlation between a kind of fairness and participating in a world religion that doesn’t necessarily mean the religious participation causes the fairness. It could be the other way round – ie that fair people tend to join world religions. Or it could be that another character trait is the reason for both world-religion participation and fairness to strangers…

    Just a thought,
    thinking makes it so


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — March 30, 2010 @ 4:38 pm | Reply

    • Yes, I agree. The question of correlation and the direction of cause and effect (among others) were the kind of things I was thinking about when I said the research suggested further questions. Nonetheless, I found it disconcerting that there is a correlation at all. I would have predicted little or no relationship. Religion seems to me to as often be a force for good and a force for bad. Which still might be the case. It was a good piece of research but by no means a complete examination of the question.

      Thank you. It is, as usual, good to hear your point of view, whether or not it coincides with mine. In this case it does.


      Comment by theotheri — March 30, 2010 @ 7:54 pm | Reply

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