Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Sacrificial Urge


Atheists aren’t immune to an irrational tendency to make sacrifices to a higher power.

By Stephen Luntz

A study finds that atheists will offer sacrifices to appease a higher being even if they experience no benefit – or even a punishment.

A tendency to sacrifice to gods or spirits is a common feature across cultures. “The ancient Greeks burnt pieces of beef as a sacrifice to the gods they wished to please. The Romans sacrificed fruit, cakes, wine, cattle and other domestic animals. The Mayas sacrificed humans, weapons and gold ornaments,” note Prof Paul Frijters of the University of Queensland and World Bank economist Dr Juan Barón in a paper published last year in Economic Record.

Frijters and Barón’s study found that atheists aren’t immune to an irrational tendency to make sacrifices to a higher power. Frijters believes that the study of game players provides evidence that most people have a belief in a reciprocal relationship with something abstract. For the non-religious this may be their nation, science or even the truth.

While we may regard such sacrifices as primitive, the most popular religions on Earth demand the sacrifice of time in prayer, and often financial contributions as well. “The societal cost of sacrifices is not just the sacrifice itself,” Frijters and Barón add. “The existence of sacrifices attracts religious interpreters who derive influence and wealth from their status as intermediaries between the deity and the agent, which itself can lead to an entrenched religious class.”

The study involved 393 participants in a game in which each player could invest tokens they had earned in a previous game. These tokens would be returned multiplied by a number, or price, set by a controller known as “Theoi, the market maker”. Theoi could set the multiplication factor at anywhere between 0 and 3. The process was repeated for 20 rounds, with the return from each round reinvested in the next.

At each round players were given the option to contribute a share of their goods to Theoi in the hope the sacrifice would see them treated more kindly. For the first round the contribution defaulted to 10%, but most participants chose to raise rather than lower this sacrifice. The average gift to Theoi in the first round was close to 40%. Players were allowed to keep their winnings, which averaged around $24, giving them an incentive to take the game seriously.

What the participants didn’t know was that Theoi was nothing other than a random number generator, with prices set by a combination of two random numbers: one common across all players and one specific to each individual. The sacrifices produced no more benefit than the Mayan’s dropping ornaments down wells. It took a long time, however, for this fact to sink in.

“Even after 20 rounds, the average participant still donated a quarter of all production,” Frijters says. “There were no participants who didn’t donate anything for all 20 rounds, and there were very few who didn’t donate anything for the last 10 rounds.

“Aggregate sacrifices were over 30% of all takings in the main experiments, and only slightly lower if we didn’t use a human name (like Theoi) for the uncertainty in price or if we allowed participants to see what others experienced.” In fact, changing Theoi’s name to “The Weather” only reduced the average sacrifice at the end by one-third.

One truly unexpected result came when Theoi was set to take sacrifices into account. Participants who had been rewarded for making a sacrifice gave less at subsequent rounds than those who gained no benefit, while others who were punished by Theoi for their donation paradoxically gave more. However, Frijters and Barón caution that the sample size for this aspect of the trial was so small that nothing could be read into it other than the need for more research.

Frijters describes the game as “the outcome of a longstanding project into motivations in groups”. His own motivation was his interest in the idealism of the young people who created democratic institutions by overthrowing autocratic rule. “Why did these smart, well-educated young men run enormous risks to challenge the status quo, often at great cost to themselves?” Frijters asked. “Their contributions are an important element in the institutional structures we have today.”

These thoughts led to what Frijters calls “a basic puzzle: what are the essential psychological mechanisms that allow idealism, that allow people to feel they have a reciprocal relationship with something unseen where if we contribute to it, it will look after us?”

Frijters says we know that if we make contributions to individuals they will usually return the favour. Collective societies are based on this. However, we also engage in reciprocal relationships with non-sentient objects. “If I look after my car it will continue to do what I need it to,” he notes.

Many people are confident they have such a relationship with a deity, which Frijters summarises as: “If I obey the Ten Commandments I will go to Heaven”.

Atheists may think they are above such superstition, but this was not the case. There was no statistically significant difference between the sacrifices of those who claimed to be atheists beforehand and those who identified themselves as religious.

Students of engineering and IT, who might be expected to be particularly rationally inclined, actually sacrificed more during the game than the average participants. Moreover, those who took longer to try to figure out the optimal amount to sacrifice actually gave more to Theoi than those who made a decision quickly.

Indeed it seems that far from rationality or a talent for problem-solving, the characteristic that most determined sacrifices was selflessness. Those students who, in a preliminary game, showed that they were interested in enhancing the public good were more likely to make larger contributions to Theoi. As Frijters put it: “People who were nicer to others and more cooperative were more prone to sacrifice”.

Older participants were inclined towards larger sacrifices, while marital status, financial satisfaction and even a belief in good luck charms seemed to make no difference.

While it would have been interesting to debrief participants after the game and investigate their reactions upon learning of Theoi’s random nature, Frijters did not take up this opportunity. “We drew on a student pool across university and didn’t want word to get out that Theoi was not reciprocal at all. We consciously stayed away, and by the time the paper came out many of them wouldn’t be students anymore and hard to find,” he says.

An Evolutionary Explanation?

Frijters says he has received positive reactions when he discussed his work with religious adherents. “I presented at a workshop on economics and religion,” he says. “I was the only non-religious person there. Their attitude was that ‘God made us this way’ with an in-built tendency to form a relationship with the divine, but gave us free will as to the form that takes.”

For those who prefer evolutionary explanations the task is more difficult. Frijters hypothesises that as children we are highly dependent on adults. “Children don’t understand the adult world, but find if they give something they get something back on the things they care about. This extends towards reciprocal relationships; if they can’t have a transparent relationship, people engage in an unseen relationship to feel safe.” However, the idea is just speculation as Frijters’ project did not lend itself to testing the source of his participants’ behaviour. However, clues may lie in other research indicating a strong tendency for people to detect patterns that do not exist, and hence believe there is some underlying basis to random events.

Evolutionary psychologists Prof Marti Haselton and Prof Daniel Nettle explained this behaviour on the basis that during human evolution there was a greater cost in failing to detect the activities of a human or animal than in imagining a false one, establishing a cognitive bias in our brains towards seeing intentional behaviour that might not exist.

Since a pattern in which Theoi might give less in the face of larger sacrifices is counterintuitive, this theory would suggest an inbuilt tendency to see some connection between large sacrifices and higher rewards even where the evidence could not sustain this. “If people are sufficiently motivated they can almost rationally convince themselves that there is a pattern but it is really complex,” says Frijters.

An alternative suggestion Frijters raises is that a tendency to sacrifice is an important part of group bonding. In an environment where survival meant being able to trust your kin demonstrating commitment to the clan was essential if you didn’t want to be cast out on your own. What better way to prove your commitment than by sacrificing hard-earned possessions to a being thought capable of favouring the whole tribe with fair weather or plentiful game.

However, if millions of years of evolution have programmed us to see the hand of God in everything we can’t explain, how is it that atheists exist at all? To test this, Frijters modified the game in various ways to see what would induce doubt, and hence cause sacrifices to decrease. However, most of these changes produced either no effect or movement that was not statistically significant.

Religion and the Welfare State

“We designed variations on the basic experiment to knock it down, and could see a very clear relationship between uncertainty and amount sacrificed,” Frijters says. “Sacrifices only really dropped when the level of uncertainty was lower.” Contributions to Theoi only decreased when prices started to move in a more narrow range. “The more uncertain our situation is, the stronger our need to have a reciprocal relationship,” Frijters explains.

The finding has implications for the motivations of those making sacrifices. “This rules out some other theories such as the warm flow from prayer,” Frijters says, referring to the idea that people make sacrifices not because they expect any return but because it simply makes them feel warm and generous. However, the greatest significance lies in the implications for real world behaviour and even policy.

Frijters notes this pattern is consistent with observations of international levels of religious adherence. “If the level of uncertainty is reduced on important parts of life, the usefulness of the unseen abstractions is reduced. So the stronger the welfare state is, and the more education and healthcare are provided, the less important it is to believe in a god who will look after you no matter what. The prediction that comes out is that in more functioning welfare states the level of atheism will be higher.”

The findings will come as no surprise to anthropologists. As long ago as 1925 Dr Bronislaw Malinowski observed that Trobriand islanders were more superstitious if their lives contained more risk. Subsequent work has confirmed the relationship between danger or economic strife and commitment to higher powers, be they those we associate with religion or with magic. However, the explanation for the link remains debated.

Malinowski proposed that superstitious behaviour was a way to provide an illusion of control for those who have none, thus reducing their anxiety. Prof Andrew Clark of the French National Center de la Recherche Scientifique explained the lower level of unemployment insurance in more religious countries on the basis that belief provides psychological buffering, with believers suffering less when they lose a job.

However, Frijters’ findings appear to support an opposing theory, suggesting that religious beliefs may atrophy faster wherever the social safety net is stronger.

The results certainly fit with what is sometimes called the American religious anomaly. In most countries, increasing wealth is associated with loss of religion, but America and the oil states have not seen this to anything like the normal extent. Unlike residents of other wealthy nations, a major illness is sufficient to send many high-earning Americans bankrupt. If financial insecurity, rather than poverty, is what fosters religious belief then Americans have an incentive to maintain faith that they are being looked over by a deity who will respond if they do the right thing.

Indeed the intense resistance of many religious groups to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act may have been motivated in part by a desire, conscious or not, to ensure that the members of their congregation remained so vulnerable that they felt the need to contribute to their church to feel safe.

Likewise fundamentalist Islamic organisations have flourished in nations with little in the way of state-funded welfare. While this is often attributed to the respect organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas earn by providing social services, it might be concluded from Frijters study that extremists also benefit from the uncertainty, even without doing anything practical to address it. On the other hand, foreign aid donors may conclude that the best way to reduce terrorism is by supporting projects that minimise the perception of risk in places that currently foster terrorists.

Nevertheless, Frijters suggests that even in the face of reduced uncertainty we do not so much abandon God altogether but shift our faith to a less demanding deity. “Even the most rational scientists I know can’t say why their pursuit of truth is useful,”Frijters says. “Truth has become their god. The number who are really not religious is very small.”