Imitation of causally opaque behavior is a distinctively human trait. None of the other great apes shows a marked interest in devising highly stylized procedures and bodily adornments and using these to demarcate and affiliate with cultural groups.
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Because rituals lack overt usefulness, most animals would not see any value in copying them. Yet by meticulously conforming to arbitrary social conventions, human groups bind themselves together into cooperative units facilitating cooperation on a scale that is very rare in nature. From an evolutionary perspective, deriving the benefits of group living requires a means of identifying ingroup members the ones you should cooperate with and out-groups people you should avoid or compete with.
One solution is to have a distinctive set of group conventions or rituals of course, there are other means too, e. Indeed, the willingness to copy arbitrary conventions is essential for acquiring language requiring us to accept that arbitrary utterances refer to stable features of the world around us, not because there is a causal relationship between the sound and the thing it refers to, but simply because that is the accepted convention. Herrmann et al. Inclusive fitness theory predicts that organisms will behave in ways that preferentially benefit kin, with more benefits conferred as the degree of genetic relatedness between the actor and the recipient increases Hamilton, Mechanisms for recognizing and calibrating kinship are critical for such behaviors to evolve and can be classified as one of two broad types: those that exploit direct, phenotypic cues e.
According to Lieberman, Tooby, and Cosmides , cues indicative of kinship are taken as input by two separate motivational systems. As Pinker points out, kin recognition in humans depends on cues in particular, linguistic cues that others can manipulate:.
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Thus people are also altruistic toward their adoptive relatives, and toward a variety of fictive kin such as brothers in arms, fraternities and sororities, occupational and religious brotherhoods, crime families, fatherlands, and mother countries. These faux families may be created by metaphors, simulacra of family experiences, myths of common descent or common flesh, and other illusions of kinship. Cultural manipulations of kinship detection machinery may be rife in ritualistic behavior.
As Saroglou notes, religious rituals serve to bond ritual participants together. Such rituals may accomplish this, in part, by incorporating a range of kinship cues. First, many religious rituals involve artificial phenotypic cues of kinship—similar costumes, headdress, face paint, and so forth.
Second, social synchrony is a key feature of many religious rituals, and has long been hypothesized to promote group cohesion e. Recent experimental studies confirm that synchronic movement increases cooperation among participants. For example, Wiltermuth and Heath found that participants who engaged in synchronic behaviors e. Third, the arousal that many rituals generate may function as a contextual cue to kinship.
Xygalatas et al. High-ordeal participants donated significantly more than low-ordeal participants, and higher levels of self-reported pain were associated with greater donations. A key feature of our approach is to consider whether the fractionated components of morality and religion have overlapping evolutionary histories. As noted earlier, just as there are genetically endowed physical structures e.
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Our fractionating strategy produces a preliminary matrix of at least 25 basic questions at the level of biological evolution e. In our view, the most plausible cases of biologically evolved connections between the religious and moral foundations involve agency-detection mechanisms and ToM. Likewise, if the limitations of our evolved capacities to simulate mental states, or the absence of such states , triggered intuitions about the continued invisible presence of dead individuals, this would have been incidental.
However, D. Johnson, Bering, and colleagues e. Johnson, ; D. The supposition of moral-foundations theorists is that the various foundations evolved to solve a range of adaptive problems e. The evolution of these various mechanisms would have occasioned a novel set of selection pressures—in particular, the costs associated with being caught violating foundational moral principles. According to D. Johnson, Bering, and colleagues, the evolution of linguistic and mentalizing capacities would have ramped up these costs, as moral transgressions could be reported to absent third parties, exacerbating reputational damage for the transgressor.
The conjunction of these various mechanisms, therefore, may have increased the premium on mechanisms that inhibit moral transgressions. Johnson, , p. The notion that humans have a genetically endowed propensity to postulate moralizing, punitive supernatural observers is both compelling and controversial. If intuitions about punitive supernatural observers are a biological mechanism for inhibiting moral transgressions, we should expect activation of these intuitions to have the relevant inhibitory effect.
In the next section, we review the evidence for this hypothesis. Surveys indicate that people who score higher on indices of religiosity e. This would render religious individuals more susceptible to social desirability concerns, to which self-report measures of socially desirable behaviors are notoriously vulnerable Paulhus, Some studies have found that a link between self-reported religiosity and self-reported altruism remains even when social desirability concerns are measured and controlled for e.
One limitation of some of these behavioral studies, from a pluralistic moral perspective, is that competing moral motivations are sometimes conflated. For example, given the effect of religious priming on dictator game allocations, one might conclude that such priming activates the care foundation, promoting moral concerns for the well-being of others. An alternative possibility, however, is that the increased giving in the dictator game reflects the activation of the fairness foundation. This might be seen as compelling evidence that fairness concerns were paramount here.
However, although the modal response was to transfer half of the money, some participants in the religious prime condition transferred more than half—strictly speaking, an unfair allocation. A similar issue arises when considering the study of Pichon et al. These authors found that participants primed with positive religion words e. One might conclude that religious priming or, at least, positive religious priming had activated compassion for the disadvantaged.
Notwithstanding these interpretive complexities, the results of religious priming studies, taken together, would seem to indicate that religious priming promotes adherence to moral norms. Nevertheless, the picture may be more complicated than this, as other studies have shown that religious priming also elicits a range of aggressive and prejudicial behaviors. Saroglou, Corneille, and Van Cappellen found that religiously primed participants encouraged by the experimenter to exact revenge on an individual who had allegedly criticized them were more vengeful than those given neutral primes.
Van Pachterbeke, Freyer, and Saroglou found that religiously primed participants displayed support for impersonal societal norms even when upholding such norms would harm individuals the effects reported by Saroglou et al. And Ginges et al. One might suppose that the effects of such priming on aggression and prejudice count against the hypothesis that intuitions about supernatural observers inhibit moral norm violations.
But without knowing what participants perceive as the relevant norm, this is difficult to establish. For example, in the Bushman et al. There are other reasons to doubt that religious priming studies demonstrate that activating intuitions about punitive supernatural agents curbs moral infractions. The effect of the secular primes, they suggest, is more consistent with the behavioral priming explanation.
Similar considerations apply to a study by Mazar et al. More recently, Ma-Kellams and Blascovich found that even primes of science e. It remains to be demonstrated, however, that the perception that one is observed is what mediates the effect of the primes on behavior. It is possible that religious priming might activate both surveillance concerns and moral concepts, but that only the latter influence game behavior.
Earlier we mentioned methods that potentially conflate distinct moral motivations e.
Jesus preached the latter e. If supernatural primes activate concerns for fairness, then primed participants should be more likely to punish violations of fairness norms.
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If, on the other hand, such primes stimulate kindness, then participants may be less likely to engage in such punishment. We found that religious primes strongly increased the costly punishment of unfair behaviors for a subset of our participants—those who had previously donated to a religious organization. This finding seems consistent with the notion that supernatural agency concepts promote fairness and its enforcement, although, as this study did not disambiguate agency and moral dimensions along the lines suggested earlier, it may be that the effect here was a result of behavioral priming of moral behavior in this case, punishment of unfair behavior rather than activation of supernatural agent concepts.
Another problem is that different idiosyncratic conceptions of God e. When possible, therefore, priming studies should attempt to measure idiosyncratic conceptions of God e. Overall, we think that religious priming studies provide at least tentative evidence that activating intuitions about supernatural agents curbs moral norm violations. But what of the intuitions themselves? If intuitions about such supernatural punishers are properly foundational , they should be culturally and historically widespread. However, Baumard and Boyer a note that the gods of numerous classical traditions e.
Although these considerations may seem to refute any suggestion that moralizing, punitive supernatural agents are historically and cross-culturally universal, recent work suggests that even when gods are not explicitly represented as caring about human morality, there is nevertheless a moral undercurrent beneath the surface of such explicit, reflective representations Purzycki, In any case, as Graham et al. Cultural influences may restrict the expression of innate cognitive tendencies, just as they can restrict the expression of innate physical propensities e.
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However, Graham and colleagues also note that not all cultures are equally informative when it comes to establishing foundationhood. For example, the Hadza of northern Tanzania and the! Kung of the Kalahari Desert are contemporary hunter—gatherer societies with gods who take little interest in human wrongdoing Norenzayan, In our judgment, therefore, it is unlikely that our evolved cognitive systems produce stable intuitions about omnipresent supernatural punishers.
What we think more plausible is that we have a genetically endowed sensitivity to situational cues that our behavior is being observed. A burgeoning literature indicates that even very subtle cues of surveillance influence adherence to prevailing moral norms. In contrast to these studies, Raihani and Bshary found that dictators donated less money in the presence of eye images.
However, these authors only analyzed mean donations, and not the probability of donating something however small.