Study finds moral equality between religious, nonreligious

Linda Skitka

Linda Skitka, UIC professor of psychology. Photo: Mark Schacht (select image to download)

Religious and nonreligious people have more in common than generally thought when it comes to moral experiences in everyday life, according to a new study co-authored by a University of Illinois at Chicago psychologist.

The study, which appears in the Sept. 12 issue of Science, found no significant difference in the number or quality of moral and immoral deeds experienced by people in their everyday lives, whether they were religious or nonreligious.

“To our knowledge, it’s the first study that directly assesses how morality plays out in people’s everyday lived experience,” says Linda Skitka, UIC professor of psychology and study co-author.

To learn how people experience morality and immorality in everyday life, the researchers surveyed more than 1,200 adults, aged 18 to 68, via smartphone. For three days, the demographically diverse group of U.S. and Canadian citizens received five signals daily, prompting them to deliver short answers to a questionnaire about any moral or immoral act they had committed, received, witnessed or heard about within the last hour.

In addition to the religion variable, the researchers also looked at moral experience and political orientation, as well as the effect moral and immoral occurrences have on an individual’s happiness and sense of purpose.

The study found that religious and nonreligious people differed in only one way: how moral and immoral deeds made them feel. Religious people responded with stronger emotions – more pride and gratitude for their moral deeds, and more guilt, embarrassment and disgust for their immoral deeds.

The study found little evidence for a morality divide between political conservatives and liberals.

“Our findings are important because they reveal that even though there are some small differences in the degree to which liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral priorities, the moral priorities they have are more similar than different,” Skitka said.

Both groups are very concerned about issues such as harm/care, fairness/unfairness, authority/subversion and honesty/dishonesty, she said.

“By studying how people themselves describe their moral and immoral experiences, instead of examining reactions to artificial examples in a lab, we have gained a much richer and more nuanced understanding of what makes up the moral fabric of everyday experience,” Skitka said.

The researchers hope to do more studies using similar smartphone sampling methods, rather than a lab setting, to further explore morality and the psychodynamics of gratitude, anger or feelings of exclusion.

Co-authors of the study are Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Cologne, Daniel Wisneski, a UIC doctoral graduate in psychology, and Mark Brandt of Tilburg University.

Funding was provided by a SAGE award from the Foundation for Personality and Social Psychology and a research grant from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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