There has been a lot of research regarding what personal characteristics make a person more or less likely to lie. The results of this research have been decidedly mixed. Some research suggests that pretty much everyone lies. Some research suggests that men are more likely to lie than women.1 Other research, however, shows no difference in the amount that men and women lie.2
A new study3 was recently published regarding the personal characteristics of those who tend to lie, and it has gotten some attention from the atheist community. Why? Because one of the results indicates that people who claim religion is important to them are more likely to lie for financial gain. Indeed, as one popular article on the study put it:
However, he [the author of the study] discovered other factors predicted a greater likelihood of telling an untruth — including the assertion that religion plays an important role in your life. Somewhere (or not), Christopher Hitchens is chuckling.
Now before I begin discussing the study, please understand that in my personal experience, Christians are less moral than the general population. I don’t suggest that this is a general trend; I have no idea. It is simply what I have gathered from my own personal experiences. For example, if I look back on my professional career, I have had several bosses – people who exercised authority over me at work. Some of them were atheists, and some were Christians. At least one of them would never speak about his religious beliefs. The most moral among them was one of the atheists, and the least moral among them was one of the Christians. This is consistent with my overall experiences as well. In general, I think that Christians do a very poor job of representing Christ to the world, especially when it comes to whether or not you can believe what they say.
I am always interested in looking at studies that try to quantify whether or not my personal experiences are representative of a general trend. When I first heard about this new study, then, I wasn’t surprised about its conclusions. However, a detailed look at the study did offer one surprise.
The study set up a “sender/receiver” scenario in which the sender had an opportunity to lie for financial gain. He or she would send a message to the unseen receiver, essentially telling the receiver that there are two payments for being in the study. In some cases, the payments were $5 and $7, and in other cases, the payments were $5 and $15. The sender could say that if the receiver chose option “A,” the receiver would get the lower amount, but if the receiver chose option “B,” the receiver would get the higher amount. The sender then asked which option the receiver would like to choose.
The key, of course, is that the sender could lie. For example, he or she could say option A was the one that gave the receiver more money when, in fact, it was really option B. The sender and receiver were not in contact with one another before or during the study, and in some cases, they would not be in contact after the study, either. In other cases, the sender was told that the receiver would come to pick up the money. The study used 200 senders and 200 receivers, all taken from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.
The researchers found that on average, about half of the senders lied. That’s fewer than I would have expected. Gender, age, grade point average, student debt, difference in the two payments, socioeconomic status, and average time spent in religious observation had no effect on whether or not the sender would lie. However, business majors were more likely to lie so as to get the larger sum of money, as were children of divorced parents and those who said that religion is important in their lives. In addition, the sender was more likely to lie if he or she was told the receiver would not come to pick up the money.
The author said that most of these results make sense. People are less likely to lie if they know someone else (even a stranger) will find out about the lie. In addition, the author said it makes sense that business majors were more prone to lie – their training probably promotes that. He also said that other research shows children of divorced parents are more likely to be antisocial, so the fact that they are more likely to lie wasn’t surprising. However, the author was surprised that those who said religion was important to them were more likely to lie. He says:
This is surprising as the Abrahamic religions most common at the University of Regina promote honesty as a virtue. It may be that subjects for whom religion was important feel separate from other students at this largely secular university. The impact of group membership and religion’s impact on lying warrant further investigation.
As I mentioned previously, that result doesn’t really surprise me, as it is consistent with my personal experiences. However, what surprises me is that the average time spent in religious observation had no effect on whether or not the sender would lie. This seems to be a contradiction. One would think that in general, a person who says religion is important would spend more time in religious observation. However, that’s clearly not the case in this study, because the time spent in religious observation had no effect on whether or not the sender would lie, but the statement that religion was important to them did. Thus, I think the best one can conclude from this study is that those who say religion is important but don’t take their religious observations seriously are more likely to lie.
Of course, the results still aren’t good for those who practice Christianity or Judaism (the “Abrahamic religions” the author says are most common at the university). After all, the more time people spend in religious observations, the less likely they should be to lie! The fact that they are just as likely to lie as anyone else means they aren’t taking their religious observations very seriously.
Before I end this discussion, I have to add two thoughts. First, this study’s conclusions are of limited value since all the subjects came from one university in Canada. Who knows how representative those subjects are for the rest of North America? Second, whether or not people actually obey the teachings of their religion has no bearing on the truth of that religion. We are all flawed, sinful people. While Christians should be significantly more moral than everyone else, the fact that they might not be doesn’t say anything about the truth of Christianity. Christianity is true, whether or not those who follow it are living up to its teachings!
1. Friesen, Lana and Lata Gangadharan, “Individual level evidence of dishonesty and the gender effect,” Economics Letters 117(3):624–626.
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2. Jason Childs, “Gender differences in lying,” Economics Letters 114(2):147–149, 2012.
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3. Jason Childs, “Personal characteristics and lying: An experimental investigation,” Economics Letters 121(3):425–427, 2013
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