Tilting a game’s odds in someone’s favor may increase their karmic beliefs
Do economic hard times drive people to turn to religion for strength and solace? It’s a common notion, whether advocated from the pulpit or satirized by folk singers crooning about “pie in the sky when you die.” But until now, relatively little social scientific research has been conducted on how exactly religious views and economics are interrelated on an individual level. Do people’s economic realities make it more likely that they will hold certain religious beliefs? Does the answer to this question vary depending on people’s perceptions of how stable their economic situations are? Are some kinds of beliefs particularly well-suited to providing resilience during economic hardship? University of Virginia psychologist Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi and Will Gervais are exploring such questions as part of a multi-year project to investigate correlations between people’s religious beliefs and how they think about their past, present, and future economic situations, and to test the causal relation between economic outcomes and different aspects of religious belief.
The task in one of the experiments designed by Brown-Iannuzzi’s team seems simple enough: participants play several rounds of a simple investment game (created by grad students Nava Caluori and Stephanie McKee). After completing each round, participants learn they have either earned a few tokens or lost a few tokens based on their investments. “Essentially, they invest in fictional stocks and get feedback about how their investments went,” Brown-Iannuzzi says. What the players don’t know is that there’s an invisible finger on the scale, with some players assigned better odds of success than others. After the game’s completion, participants are asked a series of questions gauging their affinity for what the researchers term “Western-style karmic belief”: the view that a person’s present success or failure is attributable to their past actions. Importantly, these past actions aren’t limited to the context of the investments in the game but seem to generalize to past actions in their life.
“Before these experiments, we’d found that people who report that they have experienced upward mobility tend to have a much higher endorsement of karmic beliefs than people who report not or who have experienced downward mobility,” Brown-Iannuzzi says. The preliminary results of the financial game bear this out: she found that participants who had been surreptitiously dealt favorable hands were more likely to agree that their success resulted from their prior actions than were participants who had not received such a benefit.
THE MOBILITY BIAS
One of the challenges of studying the ways that religious belief interacts with people’s views of their economic condition is that those views are usually inaccurate. Brown-Iannuzzi cites Shai Davidai and Tom Gilovich’s work on showing that people have a bias towards upward mobility — predicting that lower-ranking NFL teams are more likely to rise in the standings than higher-ranking teams are likely to fall (a statistically impossible outcome) Thus, the advantage of the experimental studies is that they can control the experience participants have.
Currently, the team is expanding on these findings by investigating how economic inequality, a concept related to economic mobility, is related to different types of religious beliefs and charitable donations. Their preliminary findings suggest that in response to learning that economic inequality is relatively high, participants think inequality is unfair and, in turn, think the rich should donate more to charity. The team is currently currently replicating and extending these findings in order to understand the role of karmic beliefs and other religious beliefs in how people think about economic inequality.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
To complement their experimental hypotheses and findings, the team is trying to gather both nationally representative data and international data sets to provide a bigger picture of the interplay between economic conditions and religious beliefs and behaviors. In particular, Brown-Iannuzzi wonders whether the kinds of shifts in karmic beliefs seen in the West would be mirrored in Hindu- or Buddhist-majority countries where belief in karma is a fundamental part of the majority’s religion (and thus may not be affected by economic factors in the same way). “In the United States there seems to be a relationship between mobility and these karmic beliefs,” Brown-Iannuzzi says, “but how far do our findings generalize? Is it an international phenomenon or is it really only specific to the U.S.?” The team realizes they may not gain access to data that investigates karmic beliefs in countries around the world, but they hope to investigate broader questions about the relationship between individuals’ perceptions of economic mobility and their religious beliefs and behaviors.
Psychologists of religion often use economic metaphors such as “spiritual capital” as a way to look at religious behavior, and there is a wealth of studies on how religious factors affect responses to adversity. But research like Brown-Iannuzzi’s offers a new way to think about the relationship between economics and religion. “A lot of this is motivating us to understand what’s going on for those in tough economic situations,” she says. “Are they using religion to cope, and how are they using religion to cope? There are hints and applicable theories from other people’s research on religion and coping, though, that we can use to understand how people cope with economic insecurity.”