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Lutherans revisited: Did we dismiss Darrow too soon?

Monday, December 5, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Remember Clarence Darrow’s wonderful essay on how to pick a jury? He covers almost every possible stereotype–including religion–in a thorough essay that was then ground-breaking and now a reflection of the wide-reaching stereotypes we attempt to avoid. [A sample from his essay is below with a link to the entire essay.]

Beware of the Lutherans, especially the Scandinavians; they are almost always sure to convict. Either a Lutheran or Scandinavian is unsafe, but if both in one, plead your client guilty and go down the docket. He learns about sinning and punishing from the preacher, and dares not doubt. A person who disobeys must be sent to hell; he has God’s word for that.”

But have we perhaps dismissed Clarence’s advice too soon? Some researchers exploring the relationship of religious beliefs to attribution appear to say we should look again. And so look we shall.

The researchers were interested in one of our favorite concepts: the fundamental attribution error.

We commit a “fundamental attribution error” when we over-value the personality-based explanations [“it’s in their character”] for what we see in the behavior of others and under-value the situational factors [“it was pressure from the economy”] behind their behavior.

Interestingly (but not too surprising), when we are assessing our own behavior we do the reverse! We give ourselves the benefit of a doubt but know full well that others are simply “bad”.

The researchers wanted to explore whether religious belief (Protestant vs Catholic affiliations) was connected to assuming personality-based explanations for behavior (as opposed to situational explanations). Their assumption, based on a review of the literature, was that the importance of the “belief in a soul” inherent in the Protestant belief system would lead Protestants to assert personality-based explanations for behavior to a larger degree than Catholics. Why?

“We suggest that for religious people, and for Protestant Christians especially, the soul is very much a salient concept and that belief in a soul promotes a tendency to attribute behavior to dispositions, not situations. [snip] Since the Protestant Reformation, most non-Catholic Christians have believed, for example, that repenting of one’s sins and trusting in Jesus Christ as the Savior will assure rewards in the afterlife. This “inner” form of religion [snip] is typically contrasted with both intrinsically and “extrinsically” motivated Catholicism with its more ecclesiastical requirements for salvation.”

And after four different experiments, their hypothesis was supported. Protestants do attribute behavior to personality-based explanations more often than do Catholics. The researchers controlled for cognitive rigidity (i.e., the need for structure), the Protestant work ethic, and intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity to avoid confounding their results with these variables.

Chief among their findings were:

Protestants endorse more internal/personality-based explanations for behavior than do Catholics. This tendency is mediated by the Protestant belief in a soul.

Protestants (either active or inactive but raised in a Protestant home) who were reminded of their religious beliefs or upbringing through a process known as ‘priming’ were more likely to endorse intrinsic/personality-based explanations for behavior. [The ‘priming’ used was related to the concept of a soul. There was no change in the number of external/situational explanations for behavior.]

The authors describe their findings as a “fundamental(ist) attribution bias” and assert that social psychological research should explore the differences between various religious dominations and belief systems. Their feeling is that we sweep too many potential differences under the rug in the belief there is not significance in the relationship between religious affiliation and values, beliefs and attitudes.

In our view it depends on the strength and relevance of these complex religious communities– there is no single attribute of “Protestant” or “Catholic”.  But the researchers included both practicing and inactive ‘Protestants’ in their research. It’s an interesting finding.

For many years, there has been a general expectation that, other things being equal, Catholics are better for plaintiffs in PI cases, and Protestants are more likely to assign higher levels of contributory negligence and award lower damages.  This research offers a suggestion as to why this could be so.  The next step would be a careful analysis of whether there is evidence that this is more than another sweeping generalization.  We don’t know where that data will lead us, but we’ll get back to you when the results are in.

Li YJ, Johnson KA, Cohen AB, Williams MJ, Knowles ED, & Chen Z (2011). Fundamental(ist) attribution error: Protestants are dispositionally focused. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology PMID: 22082060

 

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