When Poorly Constructed Studies Make Things Worse

Recently, I came across a psychology study (published in a biology journal of all places; I guess it wasn’t up to snuff for the actual field it was designed for) claiming the children of atheists are more altruistic than children of Christians and Muslims. (As a preface, you should check out my guide for social science literacy).

The news about the study is here:

A short technical critique is here:

Here’s Why that Study Stinks

To start, this “experimental” setup pales in comparison to empirical studies that show that groups within Christianity are the most altruistic groups in American society.

My criticism for this study, however, is in their definitions. The study designers explicitly define “morality” in terms of a single aspect of most moral matrices: that of empathy.

The core shortfall of this approach is that altruism is multifaceted, and cannot be defined in terms of a single variable alone.

For example, consider the actions of a man who gives a drug addict on the street his coat. Altruistic, right?

Then compare that action to another man who takes the drugs away from the person on the street (read: stealing!), and offers the person a choice to stay clean and have a job (doesn’t actually give him anything) or remain where he/she is.

Which is more altruistic? If we rely on results for the answer, altruism depends on the recipient, which is ironic to say the least. Should the addict choose the job, his/her life would be changed for the long-term. If they do not, the effect is zero.
If we rely on intent, whose intentions were purer?

The problem in defining altruism is that respect for others’ choices and the development of their own moral framework is excluded from the definitions of altruism in this study. Is altruism giving a small piece of help? Or is altruism caring for the whole person?

For example, if an individual is guilty of violating laws of cleanliness or propriety, it may be in their long-term best interests to stop the activity and learn proper behavior. Often times that need of change is only evident after some punitive measure is taken by the larger group. Parents punishing their children come to mind quite easily as an example.

Jonathan Haidt’s work puts this into perspective: religions individuals have a far broader definition of morality. They not only include the morality against temporary suffering and oppression, but of social responsibility, prevention of cheating, loyalty, sacrifice, and cleanliness. The study above links altruism to only one of these.

If the morality espoused by this study is what is becoming popular, then heaven help us, because we’ve sunk into the shallowest form of one-dimensional morality there is.

The study does not contribute to our understanding of philosophies among religious versus nonreligious people. It simply acts as gunpowder in the culture wars.


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