Journal Article

Rewarding the good and punishing the bad: The role of karma and afterlife beliefs in shaping moral norms


Moralizing religions encourage people to anticipate supernatural punishments for violating moral norms, even in anonymous interactions. This is thought to be one way large-scale societies have solved cooperative dilemmas. Previous research has overwhelmingly focused on the effects of moralizing gods, and has yet to thoroughly examine other religious moralising systems, such as karma, to which billions of people subscribe worldwide. In two pre-registered studies conducted with Chinese Singaporeans, we compare the moralizing effects of belief in karma, reincarnation, and ancestral spirits to those of Christianity. In Study 1 (N=582), we found that Buddhists and Taoists (karmic religions) judge individual actions as having greater consequences in this life and the next, compared to Christians. Pointing to the specific role of karma beliefs in these judgements, these effects were replicated in comparisons of participants from the non-karmic religions/groups (Christian and non-religious) who did or did not endorse karma belief. Study 2 (N=830) exploited religious syncretism in this population by reminding participants about either moral afterlife beliefs (reincarnation or heaven/hell), ancestor veneration beliefs, or neither, before assessing norms of generosity in a series of hypothetical dictator games. When reminded of their ancestor veneration beliefs, Buddhists and Taoists (but not Christians) endorsed parochial prosocial norms, expressing willingness to give more to their family and religious group than did those in the control condition. Moral afterlife beliefs increased generosity to strangers for all groups. Taken together, these results provide evidence that different religious beliefs can foster and maintain different prosocial and cooperative norms.

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Willard, Aiyana K.
Baimel, Adam
Turpin, Hugh
Jong, Jonathan
Whitehouse, Harvey

Oxford Brookes departments

Department of Psychology, Health and Professional Development


Year of publication: 2020
Date of RADAR deposit: 2020-06-11

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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