They look like this

They look like this

I'm sure we've all seen, or at least heard of, the often brightly-colored bracelets embossed with the letters WWJD. According to that venerable source of COMPLETE HUMAN KNOWLEDGE (as written by weirdos on the internet), wikipedia, these bracelets became popular among evangelical Christian youth groups in the 1990s. Evidently they really got going when Janie Tinklenberg and a friend started making friendship bracelets with the "WWJD" message for children in her local church. Eventually, things went from local to global, and somewhere between 15 and 52 million of these bracelets were eventually sold.

The idea was pretty simple: WWJD stands for "What would Jesus do?" People with the bracelets would wear a constant reminder to consider their Christian faith when making decisions about how to act in the world. Should you shoplift that candy bar? Well, WWJD? Naaah, don't shoplift. Should you help out the homeless guy on the street? WWJD? Sure, give him a hand. Paper or plastic? WWJD? Hmmmm...maybe not this one. It's one thing to hold a given set of beliefs, but another thing entirely to consistently act on those beliefs. So a little reminder might go a long way.

So, would these bracelets work? Yeah, probably, says social psychology. Back in 2007, Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan found that even really subtle reminders of religion make people nicer, at least in the lab. In an interesting convergence, other teams found highly similar results at roughly the same time. If you want religious people to live up to their religious norms, remind them of those norms! WWJD, after all? (As an aside, the classic "Good Samaritan Study" that we all hear about in PSY 101--often cited as showing that reading the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn't motivate helping behavior, but being in a hurry makes people jerks--probably would have found that religious reminders promote good deeds, if only the authors would have read my first blog post and run an adequately-powered study. Seriously, go eyeball their descriptive statistics and sample sizes).

Okay, so WWJD would probably work. Here, for me, is the interesting question: if people think about their religious beliefs and norms, they might be more likely to act in accordance with those beliefs and norms (for better or worse). But, how do perceivers judge religiously-motivated actions?

So I ran some experiments. And the results are now in press at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Like this: Two Thumbs Up!

Like this: Two Thumbs Up!

There are a couple of different predictions one could make about the perceived morality of good deeds influenced by religious motivations. On the one hand, people seem to have a persistent intuition that religion is the very source of morality. So if people think that 1) good deeds are moral (duh), and 2) religion is moral, maybe religiously motivated good deeds would be seen as double moral! If that's the case, then religiously motivated good deeds would be seen as at least as moral as good deeds performed for other, or unclear, reasons.

Who keeps kittens in a cardboard box? Or owns cats in the first place? They're barely even domesticated animals.

Who keeps kittens in a cardboard box? Or owns cats in the first place? They're barely even domesticated animals.

On the other hand, we know that perceptions of people's intended goals and obligations are really important for moral judgment. There's a ton of classic social psych work going back and forth about whether an act should still be considered altruistic if the actor is also benefitting in some way. And we also don't give people moral "high fives" if they're just doing what they're supposed to do. For example, it's pretty nice when a firefighter runs into a burning building to save a box full of kittens who are about to be incinerated. But hey, that's what firefighters are supposed to do. Do you know what's extra cool? When some random stranger runs into a burning building to save the box of kittens. Major "high five!"

Two competing predictions...who wins?

Nice...and nicely dressed!

Nice...and nicely dressed!

In one experiment, I gave participants a story about this guy Brad. Brad was reading about the recent Philippine tsunami. Then he decided to fork over some cash for charitable aid organizations. Isn't Brad a nice guy?

Half of the participants just read that story. Half of them read a story that was identical, except for one small detail: before getting out his checkbook, Brad asked himself "What would Jesus do?"

Then, I asked participants (in both conditions) to rate 1) How moral they thought Brad's action was, and 2) How much praise Brad should receive.

Drumroll please.....

Turns out that participants in the "WWJD" condition viewed Brad's charity as both less moral and less praiseworthy than did participants in the control condition. You add a religious motivation (which people see as good) to a charitable deed (which people see as good), and the resulting act is seen as less good. 

And in a bunch of other experiments, the same pattern kept popping up. People thought that Lesley arguing for animal welfare, or Russell buying a homeless man a sandwich, was less moral if Russell or Lesley did it because it was important to their religious beliefs. Don't believe me? Here's a graph:

The WWJD study just described is Experiment 1, on the left.

The WWJD study just described is Experiment 1, on the left.

Notice on the right that I also added a secular motivation condition. If someone performs a good deed because it's important to his or her secular worldview, people still think that's moral!  Heck, even thoroughly neutral actions were seen as a bit less moral if done for religious reasons. So it doesn't seem like it's just the case that adding an explicit motivation makes things seem less moral. It looks to be particularly the case for religious motivations. And, these effects also generalized across both religious and nonreligious participants.

So, what gives?

Well, remember the second prediction above. In order for us to say that something is moral, we need to know that 1) helping was the intended goal (i.e., it's not seen as moral if you do something nice to show off for someone), and 2) the person is personally responsible for the good deed (e.g., not just acting out a script, or fulfilling obligations). So in a bunch more experiments, I tried to assess the degree to which people saw religiously-motivated actors as both 1) being primarily motivated to help others, and 2) being personally responsible for their good deeds. Across all of these experiments, participants were rating religiously motivated actors as not necessarily viewing helping others as an intended goal (rather than a side effect of some other motivation). And, people rated religiously-motivated actors as less personally responsible for their good deeds.

How about another graph?

Once again, people morally ding religious motivations, but they don't ding secular motivations. For some reason, I think that's really really interesting. Maybe it's because a lot of my research focuses on how people seem to think atheists are less moral than...well...everyone but rapists.

On top of that, I tried to test a bunch of explanations for what's going on. The effects hold up if the religious motivation is pretty blatant (e.g., "Brad stopped to think 'What would Jesus do?'"; "Because it was important to his religious beliefs, Russell...") or a bit more subtle (e.g., "Russell stopped to think about his religious beliefs, then..."). It didn't look like a judgment just driven by perceptions of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.

And, maybe most interesting of all, the effect still held up when the religious motivation was entirely implicit. In one study, the protagonist sees a hungry beggar. The protagonist then...without even stopping to think for a second...helps the beggar out. But if I described the protagonist as having grown up in a religious community, and having internalized religious norms about being nice to others, people still saw him as less responsible for his good deed.

So, if you put all of that together, the story looks about like this...

When people find out that someone has religious motivations for a good deed, they do three things. First, they seem to ask themselves "What is this person's goal? Is he or she expecting something out of this?" Second, this uncertainty makes them view the protagonist as less personally responsible for helping behavior. Third, as a result, they view the protagonist's actions as less moral.

Combined, I think this is kind of surprising. People think religion is the source of morality. So why would they think that people acting on religious imperatives are less moral? (Caveat: my surprise could result from me just being bad at psychology. As one reviewer on an early version of the manuscript commented, these findings are "not surprising to any psychologist who understands principals [sic] of attribution and intention." Yes, that was a Reviewer #2. And, honestly, maybe he/she is right). And, perhaps more surprising, why do people think that secularly-motivated actors are better off than religiously-motivated actors? After all, the principles of attribution and intention would make similar predictions in both cases. Yet the results were very consistently different (across 6 experiments and nearly 1100 participants).

I've got a few ideas on that front. So, why do people consistently think religiously-motivated actors are less responsible/moral than their secularly-motivated counterparts?

Possibility 1: The "Bonus Points" Hypothesis.

Is this a bunch of hockey fans, or an atheist sleeper cell? NOBODY KNOWS!

Is this a bunch of hockey fans, or an atheist sleeper cell? NOBODY KNOWS!

There's a ton of evidence out there that people are morally suspicious of people who aren't religious. In about a week, I have a paper coming out that finds that people think atheists are potentially capable of a wide range of moral violations. People who don't believe in God, across a bunch of experiments, were viewed as potentially puppy kicking, incest loving, chicken f$@#ing, Canadian feigning, serial killing, cannibalistic poker cheats.

So, maybe people expect the worst from people without religious beliefs. When they see a religious person and a secular person doing nice things, they might think the religious person is merely living up to expectations. But they might be shocked and awed by the thought of a nonreligious person giving a homeless guy a sandwich.

Possibility 2: The "What's In It For You?" Hypothesis.

Moral judgments really do come down to attributions of intentions, responsibility, and goals. It's definitely moral to help others out...unless you're helping others out because you expect something in return. Religions introduce a whole host of pressures that might complicate inferences of intended goals. Is the religiously motivated actor helping primarily out of compassion? Is she trying to fulfill religious obligations? Is he trying to alleviate the guilt he'd feel if he didn't help? Is she trying to do what's right because there's an afterlife hanging in the balance?

To be perfectly and unambiguously clear: I'm not saying that religiously motivated actors really are helping others out of a rote sense of obligation, or with the expectation of eternal rewards. Maybe it genuinely is all about compassion. But it is certainly possible that my participants perceive all of these various potential conflicts of interest in my experiments.

Now, these hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. And they certainly aren't an exhaustive list. They're just two ideas I had. But we're working on it.

So, let's come around full circle to the WWJD bracelets. I'll put on my "cable news pundit" hat and ask a deeply insightful and important question: Good Thing, or Bad Thing? Now I'll take off that hat and attempt a nuanced answer. A WWJD bracelet is probably a great tool to get people to focus on the norms and beliefs that they have largely internalized. It will get people to practice what they've been preached. And in the domain of compassion for the less fortunate, and helping others, that is a Good Thing. The odd thing about this research is that it seems to imply that the WWJD bracelets would totally backfire for someone who is trying to cultivate a reputation as a moral actor. Good for the action, bad for the reputation. But for those folks out there who really care more about actions than reputations, a little reminder (of whatever motivates you to do good deeds) is a Good Thing.

That post was longer than I initially intended. But hey, I just saved you from having to read the actual paper! (no I didn' it, and cite it).

And evidently my blog now has comments enabled. So feel free to drop me a note if you feel like it (mom, my grad students, whoever else stumbles across this...just kidding, my grad students should do more research instead of commenting).


Now go cite the paper.

Now go cite the paper.

AuthorWill Gervais
CategoriesNew Research