Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ariely: Religion as a Source for Research Ideas

Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely posted some thought-provoking insights on his personal blog recently, raising questions about the potential role of religious teachings in providing insights into human nature that could be used to motivate scientific research:

Given religion’s role in society and the way it evolves over time, I think we could benefit from using its wisdom to direct social science research. The key is to zero in on a religious tenet and ask why it’s there and what is suggests about human behaviour, and then to empirically test the hypothesis with the hopes of deriving science from religious texts.

Science, especially the social sciences, is not immune from the subjective lenses through which we view reality. All scientific inquiry requires some sort of faith in the basic assumptions that form the foundation beneath the work of a scientist. In the social sciences, these assumptions are more pronounced, given the confusion and divergence of opinion among scientists regarding the nature of human behaviour.

It appears that much of Ariely’s work has led him to this realization (or vice versa). In one of the chapters of his book, Predictably Irrational, Ariely discusses the power of expectation in shaping our perception of reality. In one of his experiments, he provides free coffee at a University, and then asks students to state how much they would pay for the coffee if it were sold at the cafĂ© around the corner. On some days, he would serve the coffee in simple Styrofoam cups next to odd containers of sugar, cream, and coffee spices. On other days, he would provide the exact same ingredients, only the serving items provided were more classy-looking. He found that students were prepared to pay more for the coffee with the classy set-up, suggesting that their preconceived opinion of the coffee’s value ultimately affected their judgment of how good it tasted, or of its actual value. On a broader scale, this could illustrate how human perception of reality is never neutral, but always biased by one’s preconceived assumptions and values.

Let us now turn to Ariely’s thoughts on the potential of using religious teachings to enlarge the scope of scientific research. In a sense, he’s suggesting that scientists’ ‘expectations’ be informed by religious teachings. Let’s use economics as an example. We could take religion’s golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and accept this principle about social behaviour as one conducive to individual and shared prosperity. How would this ‘expectation’ then guide an economist’s research into human behaviour? Surely he would set out to prove different theories and shed light on new areas of research previously hindered by assumptions about the individual (i.e. that an individual is motivated by self-interest). Such work could shake the entire foundation of the science of economics. What would be the consequences on economic theory as we know it?

Certainly, economic theory would be obliged to tackle new and perhaps more complex questions. Assumptions about human nature promote and institutionalize a certain vision of progress based on the perceived potential of human beings. Once these fundamental assumptions change, a scientist’s theories and expectations would naturally evolve. Thus, the objectives they set and, by default, the indicators they choose, must be raised to heights commensurate to this new vision of human potential and human purpose. Questions asked may not simply be, how do we progress human society, but rather, how do we tap into human potential? What is the role of religious teachings here?

Ariely’s research also shows that whether religious or atheist, there seemed to be a universal attraction within an individual to act in a ‘moral’ way once presented with a ‘moral reminder’. But there is a point Ariely doesn’t consider in much depth: what is the force that motivates an individual to follow the laws or tenets provided by religion or social norms? What are the forces that can shape – even transform – human behaviour? What motivates man to reach to higher, nobler aspirations? These are evidently the big questions perplexing social scientists today, and we should consider how religion can provide insight here, too.

Some further considerations:

v Ariely defines religion as ‘a social mechanism that has evolved over time’. How would this definition change our understanding of religion’s role in motivating scientific research when compared with a definition of religion as a set of divinely-inspired teachings that responds to the spiritual and material needs of humanity?

v Could this extend beyond the social sciences to other areas in science? Are there limits to the relevance of religious teachings to science?


  1. Nice post. This is a topic that I have been thinking about for a while. I too wrestle with the implicit assumptions in the field of economics, assumptions which bode well for mathematical theory, but seem to ignore everything that is valuable as a human being. It can be argued that economics is the only social science with a complete and coherent conceptual framework, but if the core assumptions are built upon sand, how useful is it?

    On your first point for further consideration. I think this is a big issue that many Baha'i's don't seem prepared to think about. We view a social order that responds to revelation, while our humanistic peers will view "revelation", or religion, as arising out of society due to evolutionary necessity. There is a big difference there. Robert Wright's recent book, The "Evolution of God", makes exactly this point.

    While it may be plausible to study religion "scientifically" if you agree with the latter view, but is it plausible as a Baha'i? Can revelation really be studied scientifically, or just the effects that religion has on society?

  2. The last paragraph of my previous comment is a little convoluted. Let me rephrase. Given the Baha'i view of revelation, is it possible to study religion in the same way that secular people might? Can we disagree on the source of religion, yet agree on the assumptions necessary to collaboratively study the effects of that religion has on social/economic behavior?

  3. Hey, Vesall. Your first question "for further consideration" reminds me of a set of exercises in "Releasing the Power of Junior Youth" related to our two-fold moral purpose. (Unit 1, Sections 11 and 12.) In them, we examine a set of statements about the individual and society, and we are asked how our sense of purpose is connected to a vision of the individual that stretches beyond earthly life, and a vision of society that sees humanity "on a long evolutionary path leading to a Divine civilization."

    This is different than religion as social mechanism. Our understanding of spiritual reality is connected to our sense of purpose. When our sense of the "possibilities inherent in the human soul" are hemmed in by our conceptual framework, we set our sights lower. Our sense of purpose falls from the high goal of contributing to an ever-advancing civilization to the cares and distractions of our daily pursuits.

    So in regard to your question, these exercises, and their connection to the pursuit of scientific understanding, perhaps the connection is that, when religion is seen merely as social mechanism, the sense of purpose felt by the scientist decreases or is somehow made smaller. I would like to return to this tomorrow and try to articulate *why* this might be.

    Very pleased you all are writing this blog, and I'm looking forward to reading more!

  4. Hello, really nice article.
    I definately agree on the importance of religion in social science, i'm more skeptical when it comes to other "hard" sciences... Even though ultimately what drives science is the thirst for knowledge and for discoveries that give perspective to our existance in this material world.
    But, if by "religious teaching" the author means the universal values present in the given religion (like the golden rule) then i agree, if it is about the more down to earth teachings, then i remain skeptic, given that these teachings are bound to change over time and over human understanding... scientific research should never be restrained by religious laws. But it should however be practiced for the well being of mankind, ie within the framework of the universal religious values.