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Not Only the Message, But the Qualities of the Messenger

September 17, 2010

Recently, some psychologists in Toronto performed a very interesting study in which they tried to measure the responses of a group of Christians and a group of Buddhists to both Christian and Buddhist versions of the golden rule. You can read all about the study here. For me, this is the interesting bit:

There’s a lot of evidence that criticism coming from someone outside the group doesn’t mollify, but rather hardens attitudes. They suspect that the Christians in this sample took the Buddhist Golden Rule to be an implicit criticism of their intolerance, despite its upfront message of tolerance. And the Christians reacted by ratcheting up their intolerance…

The effect on Christians has important implications for the ideal of religious tolerance. Although we are frequently told that religions can co-exist peacefully, it’s hard to see that happening when even messages of peace and tolerance from one religious group to another can actually serve to increase intolerance.

As the psychologists who conducted the study wrote:

The results suggest that when a tolerant message comes from a religious outgroup figure, it does not increase but instead may decrease tolerance toward another outgroup … Although the Golden Rule has an important influence on religious believers, its message of compassion may backfire if it is seen as coming from an outgroup source. This suggests that it is not just the message, but also the qualities of the messenger, that will determine the effectiveness of appeals for tolerance.

One Comment leave one →
  1. DrewM permalink
    September 17, 2010 6:30 pm

    As is common with social scientific studies, the effect here is real but the interpretation of the researchers is a bit off. I will try to limit the jargon in my criticism

    The interpretive sleight of hand comes in the labeling of the groups and the treatments. Groups are picked: Christians and Buddhists, and then phrases are supposedly chosen based on their source. So there is a “Christian phrase” and a “Buddhist phrase.”

    But the problem is that there is no guarantee that these phrases were strictly chosen for their “source.” The researchers did not draw at random from a book for Christian phrases and a book of Buddhist phrases. Because of this, they very easily, and I would suggest quite likely, chose the Christian phrase to be exceedingly innocuous such that no one would object to it, and chose the Buddhist phrase to be exceedingly irritating such that anyone, except those who were very familiar with it from specific contexts, would object to it.

    This biased selection is disguised by the claim that both phrases are “equivalent” of the Golden Rule. That is, they suggest that they chose the phrases to match the Golden Rule, rather than with a bias for one to be soothing and the other more inflammatory. But psychologists know that phrasing matters, that is, there is no such thing as an “equivalent statement” in different words from the point of view of the human mind. Equivalence is purely a logical idea.

    The fair way to test this would be to:
    a) Expose the primes to a group that is familiar with neither, such individuals from cultures that were not likely to have been exposed to either phrase.
    b) prime people with individual words from the phrases separately. Let Buddhists and Christians see these words without any context and see if their reactions are still different.

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