UBC undergrads think atheists are less trustworthy than rapists

In this recently published paper, UBC psychologist Will Gervais and his coauthors consider the causes of prejudice against atheists. In one of their studies, the authors tell UBC undergraduate subjects about a jerk called Richard:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.

Respondents are then asked which is more likely:

    (a) Richard is a teacher.
    (b) Richard is a teacher and XXXXX.

XXXX is randomized across respondents and is either “a Christian,” “a Muslim,” “a rapist,” or “an atheist.”

The idea here is that simply asking people about prejudices can be misleading, as no one likes to think that they are prejudiced. The correct answer to the question is always response (a): the set of people who are teachers and XXXXX can never be larger than, and will generally be smaller than, the set of people who are teachers. People responding (b) are committing the conjunctive fallacy. According to the paper, people commit this fallacy when the group membership (XXXXX) is “deemed representative” of the description (of, here, Richard).

The results:

As the authors note, Vancouver is one of the most liberal and secular areas of North America. Yet even in Vancouver, and at UBC, the graph shows that respondents are more prejudiced against atheists than against rapists.

Robin Hanson wonders whether atheists actually are less trustworthy, guessing probably so, but not as much as people think. A cursory scan of the relevant research suggests otherwise, although causation is very difficult to uncover in this case. For example, Heaton (2006):

Considerable research in sociology, criminology, and economics aims to understand the effect of religiosity on crime. Many sociological theories positing a deterrent effect of religion on crime are empirically examined using ordinary least-squares (OLS) regressions of crime measures on measures of religiosity. Most previous studies have found a negative effect of religion on crime using OLS, a result I am able to replicate using county-level data on religious membership and crime rates. If crime affects religious participation, however, OLS coefficients in this context suffer from endogeneity bias. Using historic religiosity as an instrument for current religious participation, I find a negligible effect of religion on crime and a negative effect of crime on religion. To further explore the relationship between religion and crime, I examine variation in crime incidence before and after Easter. Consistent with the IV results, I find no evidence of a decrease in crime following Easter.

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Copyright © 2014 M. Christopher Auld