"Are religious people nicer?" And does going to church have a measurable impact on people? Deepak Malhotra of Harvard Business School asks some of these questions in a report for the journal of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making. He surveyed people about their religiosity and the days they attended worship services, if at all. Then he arranged with an online charity-auction site send out two different kinds of emails to people who had just been outbid. Both messages informed users they could return to the site to increase their bid, but one focused on charitable motives, and the other on beating competitors. This was what he found:
I predicted that the appeal-to-charity message (but not the appeal-to-compete message) would be more likely to elicit additional bids among those who were high rather than low in religiosity, but that this effect would be limited to Sundays ... The pattern of results is consistent with our hypothesis. On Sundays, whereas religious bidders were 40% likely to re-bid in response to an appeal to charity, non-religious bidders were only 11.8% likely to re-bid in response to such appeals. Notably, on other days of the week, re-bidding in response to charity-appeals was almost identical among religious (25%) and non-religious bidders (27%), strongly suggesting that religious individuals are not more pro-social in general; they respond to appeals for help more so than non-religious individuals only when their religion is salient to them.
Simply put, when people have been primed by religious services earlier in the day, they are more likely to respond to appeals to charity. As Malhotra points out, these "appeals for pro-social behavior depended not simply on the religiosity of the individual (regular vs. non-regular worshipers)," but on how recently they had attended services. That somewhat contradicts the "long-held belief that religious individuals are inherently more pro-social."
So does going to church make us nicer, at least for a little while?