Study: Are we kind for selfish reasons?

You had to read pretty far down today’s New York Times article on a study about moral behavior to find one of the most interesting findings.

Here, let me save you the time:

The survey found no significant differences in moral behavior or judgment between religious people and nonreligious ones.

The study asked participants to respond to text messages asking them about moral judgments and decisions they made or saw someone make each day — assisting someone looking for help or ignoring them, for example.

Researchers found that someone seeing an act of kindness is more likely to commit one of their own. But they also found that a person doing a good deed, for example, is more likely later to commit a rude one, as if they felt justified in doing so because it was offset by an earlier action.

But they did find a difference between the religious and the non-religious, LiveScience says, suggesting the extension of courtesy, for example, is self-centered.

Religious people reported experiencing more intense self-conscious emotions — such as guilt, embarrassment, and disgust — after committing an immoral act than did nonreligious people. Religious people also reported experiencing a greater sense of pride and gratefulness after committing moral deeds than their nonreligious counterparts.

This notion that there’s a selfish motivation for kindness and moral underpinnings is, a read of the Times comments section reveals, debatable.

Says one:

“I can’t be the only one that permits merging drivers to enter the road ahead of me, stops for pedestrians to cross the road when driving, holds doors for people entering a building behind me, offers the money necessary to make up a shortfall at the cash register, stands back to allow people to exit the train/bus before I enter, etc.

It just can’t be . . . .

  • Robert Moffitt

    If kindness is shown, does the motivation really matter?

    • I think that’s the unanswered part of the study. If people base their moral actions on “‘what’s in it for me?” what limitation does that have on the number of incidents of “kindness” (for example) vs. those who just do something because it’s the right thing to do?

  • Dave

    In theory there’s an evolutionary reason for everything. Maybe being kind to others affords us our own health and social well-being.

  • Jason Mock

    I would posit that ALL behavior is selfish. Religious or not. “What’s in it for me?” drives nearly all behavior. The answer may range from rewards in the afterlife, to financial gain now, to a warm fuzzy feeling. You let someone merge in front of you? You decided that feeling good about letting them in, was of greater benefit to you than being stuck in traffic 10 yards ahead of where you are.

    • boB from WA

      From a theologians point of view, you would be correct. This behavior has manifested itself from the beginning of time and would in “religious circles” be considered “sin”. That is the sin of setting ourselves up as god in place of the God of Abraham and Jesus. Martin Luther said that we are all “navel gazers” or focused on self. However, in order to build and sustain communities, humans both religious and non-religious, have figured our that its in the better interest of self to help others. In that sense Starquest has it right.

      • Jack

        ha, you heard me. thanks

  • Veronica

    I am kind to people because I think it’s important to treat people the way I want to be treated. I am not rude without reason, and I try to teach my kids the Same. Being mean and rude to others will not fix anything; it just spreads wave of hate.
    However, if someone does something illegal, unethical, harmful, or hurtful, I sure as heck will speak up.