Lukas Plewnia - wikimedia. Public
Source: Lukas Plewnia - wikimedia. Public

A few months ago, I wrote an article about whether to use the term ‘Islamic Extremists’ or ‘Violent Extremists.’ I’ve received many comments about not wanting to use references to Islam because of fear that it would promote distrust and racism. There have been many reports in the mainstream media about rising anti-Muslim sentiments. Does this mean we are less trusting of Muslims in general? Does religion promote or mitigate trust?

Dr. Adam Cohen and his research group in the Psychology Department at Arizona State University, have been investigating the relationship between trust and religion and some of the results will appear soon in Psychological Science. Not only are the answers interesting from a social science perspective, but, they are also incredibly important from a national security standpoint. So much so that Dr. Cohen received a grant from the US military to study this subject (the Air Force Office of Scientific Research). Trust works both ways. If we learn how to enhance trust, we may better protect the lives of our US service personnel in foreign countries. 

It is tempting to assume that people trust those with the same religious affiliations (religious ingroups) more than they do those with dissimilar affiliations (religious outgroups). For example, it seems likely that Christians would be more trusting of other Christians than they would be of Muslims. Cohen recently sought to answer this question.The results are surprising!

Dersaadet - wikimedia - Public
Source: Dersaadet - wikimedia - Public

It turns out that for over fifteen hundred Christian undergraduates, religious affiliation is a far less important predictor of trust than the degree of religious observance. In other words, Christians were more trusting of individuals who appeared to be more religious (gave to charities or adhered to religious dietary restrictions) irrespective of whether they were Christian or Muslim. Christians readily crossed religious group lines to trust anyone who appeared to be more steadfast in their religious beliefs. Trust is the most valued characteristic in a relationship.

Here are Six key factors that Dr. Cohen has identified when it comes to trust and religion.

Shishruth - public domain - wikimedia
Source: Shishruth - public domain - wikimedia

1) Social Identity Theory: All else being equal, we usually value our ingroups more than outgroups. Religion is often a powerful source of identity and thus, Christians may be more likely to trust other Christians than they would Muslims or Jews. This was not the case in the above studies. In fact, Christians overall were trusted similar to or even slightly less than Muslims.

2) Supernatural Punishment Theory: Believing in a punishing God often makes us behave well, whereas belief in a forgiving God makes people more likely to cheat, as Ara Norenzayan from the University of British Columbia has argued. Thus, the belief in a powerful and punishing God may promote trust. This was also not the case in the above studies.

3) Costly Signaling Theory (CST): Examples of this are seen in the animal kingdom such as with male peacocks’ feathers. They are biologically or behaviorally costly to produce and send a signal of high value and commitment. In humans, costly signals include activities, which are associated with a cost- like, risk-taking in young men. In terms of our religions, costly signaling involves dietary observances and donating to charities. It is plausible when members of a different religious affiliation costly signal, they may be considered less trustworthy as they are more committed to an outgroup. However, in Cohen’s studies, costly signaling enhanced trust no matter the religion. The more religious, the more trustworthy. Muslims who engage in costly signaling were more trusted than Christians who did not!

4) Donating to a charity (costly signal) was associated with being more trustworthy. This works across all religions.

5) Religion vs No religion: Atheists are perceived as particularly untrustworthy. Among religions, Muslims received the highest rating of being an outgroup, although this did not adversely affect trust from Christians.

6) Credibility Enhancing Display Theory (CREDS): Religious behaviors that signal the intensity of someone’s beliefs. People may actually care more about other people’s behavior than they do about their beliefs, although this phenomenon may not have been a significant factor in the above studies.

The results of these studies, while surprising, are also encouraging in terms of human nature. Our assumed preconceived biases don’t necessarily result in distrust. Even in a predominantly Christian society, Islamic practices may in fact promote trust.

As these findings are somewhat counterintuitive, it is possible university students are more religiously tolerant than are older adults. It is also possible that trust may be decreased when the stakes are higher or more realistic – such as boarding an airplane.

As Dr. Cohen has told me, “These results are both exciting and reassuring. We often think of religion as a factor that separates us socially. The results of our study suggest that religiosity can be an important factor that actually promotes trust.”

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About the Author

Neil Farber

Neil Farber, M.D., Ph.D., is an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. He is a retired physician, life coach, hypnotherapist, researcher and the author of Throw Away Your Vision Board.

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