When We Display Our Piety, Our Social Stock Rises

People perceive signs of religious observance in others as a measure of dependability, new research shows

One of the many unusual aspects of this presidential campaign has been how little the candidates have discussed religion. Compare this with two previous presidential contenders, among many others who publicly affirmed their faith. When asked in 2000 to name his favorite political thinker, George W. Bush replied, “Christ, because He changed my heart,” while a 1980 ad for Jimmy Carter’s unsuccessful re-election campaign intoned, “He takes the time to pray privately and with Rosalynn each day.”

Perhaps one reason for the change is that “none” is the fastest-growing major religious affiliation in America, as a Pew Research Center survey showed last year. Given this shifting terrain, does being visibly devout still signal that you can be trusted?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. People perceive signs of religious observance in others as a measure of dependability, new research shows. Whether one fasts on Yom Kippur, wears a cross of ash for Lent or places a red dot in the middle of one’s forehead, such religious “badges” do more than just signal that you belong to a particular group. Other people see these displays as a shorthand for reliability.

In four experiments published last year in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, the anthropologist Richard Sosis of the University of Connecticut and his colleagues altered one fifth of the images so that people appeared to be wearing a cross around their necks or a cross of ash on their foreheads. The experiments were conducted between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The researchers interspersed these images with those of people without any religious adornments.

Several hundred university students of varying backgrounds then examined the stack of photos, rating each of the faces for trustworthiness. The students also played an economic game during which they entrusted money to players whom they deemed honorable.

The researchers were surprised to discover that a person wearing Christian religious symbols prompted powerful feelings of trust, not only among fellow Christians but also among secular students and members of other religions. The presence of a cross doubled the money that non-Christians were willing to offer someone in the trust game, while the Ash Wednesday cross increased their investment by 38.5%.

Other recent studies show that the effect is the same for any religious practice that imposes a cost on the appearance, comfort or finances of believers, or that restricts their diet or sexual behavior. Whether they are Muslims, Jews or Hindus, such displays of devotion burnish the reputations of the observant.

In a fascinating study of Hindu and Christian villagers in South India, published this year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, the anthropologist Eleanor Power found that local religious rituals greatly enhanced a participant’s standing in the community. For both Catholics and Hindus, these included onerous pilgrimages; Hindu rituals included walking across burning coals and being suspended by hooks in one’s skin. Participation in these widely accepted demonstrations of devotion also predicted which individuals had pivotal roles in local social networks.

“People are more likely to go to you for support if you undertake such religious acts,” said Dr. Power of the nonprofit Santa Fe Institute. She had access to temple records showing who paid religious fees and joined pilgrimages and processions, along with villagers’ evaluations of their peers and their status in the community. “People will rate you as having a good work ethic, giving good advice and being more generous if you worship regularly and do firewalking or other costly acts,” Dr. Power told me.

Such religious displays make us more likely to turn to these people for leadership. Today’s presidential contenders would perhaps benefit from a greater show of reverence. The harder they work to convey that they believe in something greater than themselves, the more credible they will be to voters.

By Susan Pinker in the Wall Street Journal