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Project research presented at IAPR Congress in Lausanne

Recent research on factors influencing prosocial behaviour was presented by Ryan McKay at the 2013 Congress of the International Association for Psychology of Religion in Lausanne.

Catholic guilt? Recall of confession promotes prosocial behaviour

Ryan McKay, Jenna Herold, Harvey Whitehouse

A number of studies indicate that participation in religious rituals increases commitment to the group and co-­operation with group members. In releasing sinners from guilt, however, rituals of absolution -­ such as Catholic confession -­‐ arguably remove a key motive force for prosocial behaviour. Recent experiments indicate that prosocial behaviour is more likely when people feel guilty, or when their “moral ledger” has a negative balance. In light of such experiments, we wondered whether religious rituals of atonement and absolution are – from the perspective of religious groups -­ counterproductive mechanisms for addressing the moral transgressions of group members. If sin is a form of capital, might absolution rituals squander that capital?

36 Catholic participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions, Absolved or Control. Participants then completed two “memory tasks”: in the first, they were asked to recall privately a sin that they had committed in the past; in the second, they were asked to recall attending confession for this sin – or to imagine doing so, if they had not in fact attended confession for the sin. In addition to these two key tasks, each participant was given an opportunity to donate some of their £5 show-­up fee to a local Catholic church. The only difference between conditions was the point at which this donation was collected – either in between the two memory tasks (for Control participants) or after the second memory task (for Absolved participants).

We found that Absolved participants, who recalled committing a past sin and then recalled being absolved of it, donated significantly more money to the church than Control participants, who recalled committing the sin but had not yet recalled being absolved of it. This effect was more pronounced the more participants believed in divine judgment and the more they engaged in religious activities such as reading the bible or praying. Our findings indicate that the Catholic ritual of confession is an effective means of promoting commitment to the church. These results complement a cultural evolutionary approach to religious prosociality, whereby religious practices evolve to the extent they contribute to high levels of co‐-­operation in religious groups.

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