Want People to Trust Atheists More? Remind Them of Cops and Courts, Says New Study May 16, 2012

Want People to Trust Atheists More? Remind Them of Cops and Courts, Says New Study

Is there a way to get religious believers to trust atheists? We already know we’re the least trusted minority group out there — can we change that?

Researchers Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver are back and they believe there is a way.

In the May, 2012 edition of the journal Psychological Science, they lay out one solution:

Remind people of secular authority. In other words, remind them that we place authority in cops and courts (and, implicitly, not god).

For believers, thinking of God, like thinking of social surveillance by peers, increases both public self-awareness… and socially desirable responding… By making people feel that their behavior is being monitored, belief in watchful gods may increase cooperative behavior… As a result, religious people may interpret other people’s belief in watchful gods as a cue that they can be trusted.

Secular and sacred authority may also serve interchangeable functions in encouraging prosocial behavior, albeit with different implications for distrust of atheists. The view that atheists are untrustworthy because they do not believe that their behavior is monitored by a divine power may erode to the extent that people are aware of effective monitoring by other “higher” (but not supernatural) powers. If so, then reminders of secular authorities that enforce prosocial behavior should reduce believers’ distrust of atheists. Furthermore, this effect should be specific to distrust of atheists, rather than extending to prejudice in general.

Here’s what they did.

In one experiment, participants watched a movie about either a tourist visiting Canada (control group) or the Vancouver police chief giving the year-end report (experimental group). Afterwards, the groups were asked questions that included items dealing with the trustworthiness of atheists (e.g. “In times of crisis, I am more inclined to trust people who are religious”).

What happened? The amount of atheist distrust was lower with the group who watched the video of the cop:

Maybe that was a fluke, though…

So they compared distrust toward atheists with disgust toward homosexuals (both are minorities, with concealable identities, who are seen as “threats” to religious groups). Basically, they wanted to know whether examples of secular authority reduced distrust among atheists or distrust among generally-unliked minority groups.

They gave a (different) group words to unscramble and rearrange. Some of the group members were given words like “civic,” “contract,” “jury,” “court,” and “police.” The others were given random, non-authority-related words.

Then they asked them questions measuring their anti-gay and anti-atheist prejudice.

This time, the anti-gay prejudice didn’t change… but anti-atheist distrust was reduced:

But even if people harbor anti-gay prejudice, do they distrust them like they do atheists?

Time for one last experiment. A different group was chosen and broken up into subgroups. Each was assigned the same unscrambling task as before. Then, in a seemingly unrelated task, they were asked questions specifically about distrust of atheists and gays.

Once again, the effect on distrust of gay people was negligible. But the level of distrust of atheists went down:

So what’s up with that?! Gervais and Norenzayan conclude:

Our three experiments demonstrated that subtle reminders of effective secular authority — secular institutions that help secure cooperation among individuals — reduce religious believers’ distrust of atheists. In addition, we tested and found no support for three theoretically plausible alternative explanations for these findings.

Although religious prosociality may have served as an initial mechanism for bootstrapping large-scale cooperation in some cultures, cooperative groups may create a variety of secular institutions that also promote cooperation. As reliance on these secular institutions waxes in many societies, the influence of religion wanes… As a result, places that tend to have more effective governments also have much less religious belief (e.g., Scandinavia…).

What can we do with this information? I don’t know about you, but this is my new business card:

(Thanks to Lauren for the link!)

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  •  Well, that might work to get the theists trusting you but I can tell you that the experience I have with atheists and skeptics is a healthy dose of mistrust of  police.  Simply look at the abuses that have been heaped upon the Occupy movement. Do I need to even bring up myself and John Kieffer? 

    This premise may have been true 20 years ago but I am afraid that the police in this country have been granted far too many powers that they gleely abuse at the citizen’s expense.

  • Pcranny

    This has the unpleasant taste of the particular brand of bullshit known as Neuro-linguistic programming.

  • littlejohn

    I’d rather point out to theists that I need neither a god nor a cop to keep me from going on a theft, rape and murder spree. I don’t do those things because they’re evil, not because I fear the punishment. Besides, our police forces haven’t exactly put a stop to those behaviors, have they?

  • John Small Berries

    Hemant, you keep linking to that original article and repeating the claim that atheists are trusted less than rapists.

    Back when you originally posted the claim, a statistician disagreed and tried to explain what error bars are, and specifically what they mean in the infamous atheists-vs-rapists graph . And then he re-explained and clarified it in a followup post a month later.

  • I know what error bars are. But the fact that we’re even in the same vicinity as rapists is pretty bad, no?

  • TiltedHorizon

     Yeah! We are more trusted than rapists!

    wait…  that still does not sound good.

  • Fsq

    This study was conducted in Canada where there is slightly more trust in authority, government and cops.

    Frankly, the last people I trust in this country are police and law enforcement. They rank somewhere just slightly above Christians on my scale of “who ya gonna call” as police in the USA are thugs, criminals with badges and extortionists.

    So there seems to be an inherent flaw in the application this hypothesis in the USA.

    Cops. The bullies from grade school that couldn’t pass the test to become firemen, so they became paid thugs for the state.

  • Fsq

    What is your educational background, and withough going back to the university of google, tell me two studies or references you have read to completion on the “bullshit known as nuerolingistic programming.”

  • Pcranny

    Not that it matters, but I have an Honours degree in English and Education.


  • Fraser JH

    He’s not a statistician, he’s a scientist who shows at least a basic understanding of stats, which is a whole ‘nother ball game. Besides, the linked article claims “atheists are distrusted as much as rapists” not “more than,” nor do I see Hemant stating that here (unless you are counting rapists as a minority group). You can argue that the evidence for atheists being trusted as little as rapists is not convincing due to the methods used (as Vlad Chituc does), but as Hemant says, the fact that atheists are being caught by the same effect, which does not seem to be happening for either Christians or Muslims, is worrisome.

  • TiltedHorizon

    I would not label it BS, at least not all of it, it can be watered down to “how something is said” outweighs “what is said”. You only need to watch a charismatic politician or mega church pastor to see how they manipulate the crowd without saying much.

    Take a typical opening statement like:

    “You have all seen what is happening around the world today, how much violence and suffering is going on.”

    Obviously it does not give any specifics, it lets the observer fill in the blanks. A politician can now steer the observer’s problems to a root cause:

    “How long will Republicans/Democrats allow this to continue unabated? Which is why if I am elected I would ….. ”

    Using the same opening a Pastor can build on fear:

    “You can clearly see how the end of the world is approaching, only true believers will be granted a place in heaven. You don’t want to miss out on the chance for eternal peace and happiness, do you?”

    I would not completely dismiss Neuro-linguistics, it may contain some grains of truthfulness.

  •  No it doesn’t. It seems like a fairly well constructed study which provides some new information on trust systems. The recommendations as related to interactions between theists and atheists are almost certainly culturally specific, but the concept exposed seems probable, and is supported by evidence.

  • Mitch W.

    I call bullshit!  Most policemen in the US are regular good people, just like everyone else.  Many joined the force to help people, and catch “bad guys.”  Sure, I’ll admit that some police abuse their authority, but they are not the majority… not even close.  It seems to me that politician abusing their authority does more harm than police.

    If you want people to respect us as a group, you really shouldn’t go around dismissing other groups as nothing but legalized thugs. 

  • Mitch W.

    Must resist the fist of irony!!!

  • Carla

    This seems like a dangerous road to me. We don’t believe in god, but we believe in the secular authority of the democratic state. We remind the religious of that, so they trust us to follow the law. Solution to the atheist problem? More laws. Result? Limited freedom for us, more protection from the dangerous atheists for them. Wouldn’t it be better to just stick to showing them that we can be good people *without* any sort of force making us do so? Isn’t that the whole point of being an atheist anyways?

  • Mitch W.

    And that makes you guilty of doing to police what theists do to us.

    I agree that I don’t like the way Occupy movement was handled, but the police on the street are taking orders from our politicians, and no doubt, being natural law & order types, I would suspect that most police would lean to the political right, and since our political right is infected with some serious bat-shit crazy these days, I have to consider that too.  But you cannot say that the average office on the street is just waiting to trample the rights of Joe Citizen.  That’s just not fair.

    And we are suppose to be the smart and wise ones, remember?

  • Wonder if the card would “work” if it said instead:  “See you in court.”

  • I’ve interpreted the study as saying that a large number of people make the same or similar errors in judgement when they think of atheists and of rapists, but they’re less likely to make that error when they think of Christians.

  • Samoore0

     They need to increase the power of the study so that they can determine if the effect is statistically significant and not just a “trend” that supports the hypothesis.

  • How do you get from “we follow the law and respect courts” to “more laws”?

  • The Other Weirdo

     Isn’t this what the theists say about us, that we’re all evil and of our father the Devil?

    Years ago, when I was living in Houston, I used to listen to a talk radio station that always tried to bring balance to its stories. Then, one day to the next, they changed their formatting and became entirely an anti-establishment propaganda mouthpiece.

    Anyway, one day they had this “community activist” on and his claim to fame was that he hated cops with a fiery vengeance of doom. When asked about it, he related the following story:

    When he was a boy, a couple of cops caught him throwing stones at passing trains. First, illegal. Second, dangerous. So, these evil men of badness grabbed him, threw him into the back of their cruiser and then took him straight home where, after explaining the situation, they left him with his mother. Who, when the cops had gone away, proceeded to beat three living shits out of him.

    And that is why he hates the cops!

    This program also marked the last time I listened to the station.

    What I’m saying is that just because some people have had bad experiences with cops, and I’ll be the first to admit that they have far too much power to destroy lives without repercussion, it doesn’t mean that every single cop out there is a thug with a badge.

  • Fsq

    This for for the other weirdo as well Mitch,

    The problem with both of your arguments is the same problem Catholics use with defense to pedophile priests. There is a clear cut case of cover ups, abuse of power and a thin blue line that prevents these so called good cops from turning in the bad ones for the abuse of power.

    Any cop that turns a blind eye to the abusive cops is as guilty as the bad ones.

    Also, there is a clear cut record of growing police abuses and civil rights infractions. Basically, when it looks like a duck, talks like a duck, and walks like a duck….

    Facts are that law enforcement in the USA has degraded and taken a turn to the opposite of serve and protect. Cops in this country have become the palace guard. The facts show it. Trying to use the what about the good ones argument is the same argument as look at all the good the Catholics do. It doesnt excuse the evils, nor does it make the cops who allow the bad to happen good.

  • The Other Weirdo

     Do you mean that there ever was a time when the cops didn’t abuse power, take law into their own hands or abuse suspects. Or act like palace guards?

    Also, I’m not sure about the pedophile priest analogy. In that case, nobody ever–and certainly not their superiors–do anything about it.  Is that true of cops, that they are allowed, even when outed, to continue with their abuses?

  • Mitch W.

    Most excellent touche!  

    I have no problem with prosecuting police that abuse their authority; being I live in New Orleans, I’ve seen a lot of this recently, and applaude it as justice.  

    But to be truly like my RCC argument, the problem again is management, and the people to hold management’s butt to the fire are the voters.  Being angry at Joe Cop on the street is like being angry at nurses in Catholic hospitals who won’t talk about contraception with patients for fear of losing their jobs.

    What I’m saying is, our real problem is that modern Democrats are like Ronald Reagan, and modern Republicans are like batshit crazy conspiracy theorists.  Wait, most of them actually are batshit crazy conspiracy theorists.  We won’t be able to correct the policing policies until we fix the politics.  I’m thinking the best way to fix the politics is to expunge the religion.

    Speaking of batshit crazy conspiracy theorists, I have an old friend who is technically an atheists, but he doesn’t care the least about atheist issues, nor does he seem worried about the mixing of politics and religion in the US.  He’s retired now, and quite wealthy.  He’s also one of the biggest Obama conspiracy theorist out there.  He’s never had a religion that I’m aware of, but it seems GOP dogma has become his religion… but I digress.

  • Miko

    Correlation does not imply causation.  A better explanation for this is that people who are reminded of the corrupt actions of the police and the courts think better of atheists by comparison.

  • BTW, this is the same research team that recently published a very rigorous study (in Science, Vol 336, p 493) demonstrating both correlation and causality between analytical thinking and a lack of religiosity (also discussed in this forum). There is no reason to think they are anything other than scientifically meticulous researchers.

  • Judy Saint

    It seems references to protective services help reduce fear of threats, not necessarily that trust in a certain group rises.  Feeling more secure would reduce your expression of fear, moreso of groups you fear more.  I’m not convinced it reduced actual distrust of atheists.

  • Judy Saint

    On a related note, I am interested in the research that shows atheists are more successful in conversations with believers when originally questioning fringe beliefs that are not held as dear, such as origin of holidays or whether monotheisms have always existed, etc.  When believers begin questioning their fringe beliefs they can lead themselves to eventually question more central beliefs that they never question in front of an atheist.  Just a thought about trying to “get through” to believers, as an aside to this article.

  • Xeon2000

    That rational doesn’t work with many theists. They think that without God, the fear of prison is the only thing keeping us from going on a murder, raping, and pillaging rampage.

  • Ah, the Po-Leese, the Enforcers of  The Rich.  Tossers of Flash-Boom grenades, shooters of “Non Lethal” rounds, oppressors of the downtrodden, Masters of the hand-held lightning, with steroid-packed biceps…

    And our Courts, the place where the only people who get “Justice” are the ones wealthy enough that they don’t have to put in a personal appearance.

    Yeah, just the people *I* want to be compared with.

     Mitch and Weirdo?  Save your breath.

  • Those are the truly scary ones, the “Iffn’ ya don’t believ in GAWD, what’s keeping ya from going on a rapin’ and killin’ rampage?” people.

    Gives ME an idea of what kind of leash THEY are on.

    This was meant as a reply to Xeon2000. I don’t know how it got out of order.

  • Jbrock

    Pretty much what most other commenters have said. This study might have some validity in Canada, but I doubt that a majority of USAvians trust either the police or the courts.

  • Yeah, you’re right. It doesn’t matter.

  • Wait, now you do babysitting? Sign me up! My little girl will be counting by primes by the end of the first evening!

  • Gringa

    The conclusion  that “places that tend to have more effective governments also have much less religious belief ”  implies that the US does not have an effective government since we are one of the most religious nations in the western world.   This leads me to think that the right-wingers would use this study to argue that we need more religious belief and less government, and our problems would be solved.  Left-wingers would argue that we need more government, or at least more effective government.  I’d like to see the outcome of a study that explores each of those options and the effects on social behavior.

  • Umang11

    lol so hemant are you a hindu?

  • Where do you live that is it is not “protected” by police?

    While there are still a few paces that are outside country boundaries, and even more that are remote enough that they might as well be, I did not realise that any of those places got internet access.

  • Sounds stupid, but it does seem to have the statistics to back it up.

    But really, what kind of religious person thinks of the courts or cops are atheistic in nature. From what I have seen if you are the major religion in your country then you (at least believe) that your country is that religion (belief example: the US is a Christian nation, and that includes the cops and courts). And if you are a minority then you have no faith in your government (evidence: Muslims setting up parallel court systems in the UK that ignore UK law).And more basic then that, who trusts cops?

  • Tom

    Haha Hemant, that business card is far and away the funniest thing I’ve seen you post on this blog in all the years I’ve read it

  • Interesting.

  • Fsq

    My summer house is in the northwest corner of The Adirondack Park. The nearest trooper detachment to me is 47 miles. Plus, there is no road to my home. It is accessible only by trail, boat or seaplane, so while technically they have jurisdiction, the response time is minimum one hour, and frankly, I feel better protecting myself.

    And there are no phones there. There is satellite Internet, but that doesn’t really allow even VOiP style phoning or even Skype.

  •  There are quite a few places within boundaries that are not protected by police because police don’t place as high a priority on certain locations, so yes.  There are places where the police won’t go, yet cable and electricity exist.   Interesting huh?  You can still get electricity in the projects and the ghetto?   “I didn’t realize that any of those places got internet access.” Sounds peculiarly like you’re suggesting poor people don’t have computers.  Many don’t but still have access to libraries.  Even so, internet access is cheaper and cheaper these days.

  • Vladimir Chituc

    Hey all,

    Really flattered that my writing is being linked here. I’m actually not exactly a statistician–I’m just finishing up my undergrad as a psychology major, and I know just the statistics I picked up in Intro Stats, Research Methods, and that I’ve needed to get by in my own research, but I think my points still stand. So I’d just likely to quickly chime in, say my piece, then exit as gracefully as possible.

    First, assuming the study shows that atheists are comparably or more distrusted than rapists (I hope to convince you it doesn’t, but lets assume it for a second), I still see a trend that bothers me, where this finding has somehow now become “atheists are the most distrusted minority–period.” Just like the survey where atheists are shown to be relatively unelectable,or not in line with the respondents vision for the future, is frequently cited as showing that atheists are the most “despised” or  “hated” minority (of course, of the handful of minorities tested on a handful of questions on a handful of surveys). Neither survey shows either point, so as a personal note I’d love to see the claims tamed down and better apportioned to the evidence. Sensationalism does no one any good, least of all us.

    As for whether that survey actually shows whether atheists are comparably distrusted as rapists, well it just doesn’t. Error bars aside (which was really actually kind of a minor point, I regret now spending so much time on it), it’s simply not a test that I can see used to measure distrust finely, or compare distrust between groups meaningfully. It’s not even a claim the research supports. In fact, it’s basically just been sensationalist reporting because it makes a neat headline (and maybe some good attention and press for the graduate student and professors who did the research, but I’ll try to suppress my cynicism–Gervais has done some neat work, and I am huge fans of Shariff and Norenzayan , the other co-authors).
    Briefly, it’s just an implicit measure, a single implicit measure, that registers atheists and rapists similarly. Of course, that can be for any huge number of reasons–for example a base minimum amount of distrust will show an effect, and in essence you either end up getting something near the floor, and something near the ceiling (think of it as a survey registering either 0’s or 1’s), with no fine-grained measurement whatsoever. Either a group is distrusted or it isn’t. In which case the measure just shows that people don’t trust atheists and rapists, with no information whatsoever about how much either group is actually distrusted.

    There are a lot of other possible explanations for the data, and I see no theoretical reason to interpret it as it has been in the media (of course, it’s not really up to me to show that the alternatives are true, it’s up to people making the extremely counter-intuitive and outrageous claim about atheists and rapists to provide more than a single measure that seems not to really measure distrust that well, anyway).

    In short, all you can really say about the study is that in one measure, atheists and rapists scored similarly. But of course, with 4 data points and a bizarre measure it seems weird to make such a strong claim. Why are we taking an implicit measure of a cognitive bias that likely has a ceiling of gullibility as something of a fine-tuned measure of disgust, again? Because the rationale here is lost on me. In fact, it seems a lot more likely that no more than half of the people are going to fall for the fallacy, anyway, no matter how much or little they distrust who they’re reading about. So it seems entirely unjustifiable to me to make such a strong.

    It should strike you as extraordinarily counterintuive that liberal UBC students  think atheists and rapists are comparably trusted, and for good reason. It’s an absurd claim, that even if it is true, needs some support far more than this part of a single experiment in a large paper has provided.

    Hopefully that was (relatively) brief and clear. I’d prefer not to get into a protracted comment discussion, so hopefully either this, or my two blog posts above, should suffice to clear anything up if I’ve been ambiguous.

  • Reilly1102

     @Mitch W.–I think that Ellen Beth Wachs speaks specifically of “police”, in general, as opposed to “Officer XYZ”. Individuals can be good, bad, or other, but law enforcement as an organization across the U.S. has many problems. I don’t trust any individual whom is wearing a police uniform because he/she is a representative of an oppressive, and frankly, racist machine.

  • Fsq

    Fantastic and well said sir!!!!

    Thanks for popping in and giving us your first person account, it is clear and concise and makes a strong argument.

    I agree that sensationalism does nothing. One thing I see in the secular and atheist community is the “long suffering Jew” syndrome. The community seems to love to wallow in the hatred against us. The same thing occurs in the Mormon population as they too love to try and wallow in the self imposed “we Re so oppressed syndrome”.

    I wonder what the atheist and secular community would do if tomorrow, upon waking, the world no longer gave a shit about us, one way or the other….in other words everyone though we were hunky dory and we had equal representation in everything. I posit that a large section of the atheist and secular community would still try and find controversy where there was none and would still continue to beat the oppression drum.

    I think this is a bit of human nature and another part of just wanting attention, ever it is negative.

    Anyway, thanks for your well reasoned addition here.

  • Iam2bz2p

    Although hidden behind the Psychological Science Journal paywall, the full study is also available elsewhere: http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~ara/Manuscripts/Gervais%20Norenzayan-in%20press-PsychScience_secularauthority.pdf

  • There’s no “point to being an atheist”, as far as I can see. It just means we’re not theists. There really can’t be a point to not having a belief in any supernatural entities, can there? Ironically, I DO have trust in the courts and the Police and I make that known to people. But that’s more because I think a lot of people assume that liberals have a mistrust in authority, which I don’t (as a liberal myself). Until I see proof (real evidence) that police, judges (and even politicians) tend to be more corrupt than people who are not in authority positions, I will keep on having confidence in general- and I live in the USA!

  • Stonkers

    Maybe the problem with atheists is that there is a perception that atheists are moral relativists and don’t believe there are intrinsically and objectively wrong or immoral acts. Moral relativists, by definition cannot logically be trusted since. Or maybe atheists should try and defend a logical argument for why a moral relativist can be trusted…. Good luck with that.

  • Jack

    Well LGBTs have it much harder than atheist, lacking tones of rights and are the most discriminated , killed ,and beaten minority in America, by a very long shot.

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