The Supernatural Punishment Hypothesis

Part Of: Religion sequence
Followup To: The cognitive basis of religion
Content Summary: 2300 words, 23 min read


Last time, we discussed how various mindreading intuitions explain why religions overwhelmingly endorse thoughts of disembodied minds, the afterlife, etc. 

One noticeable absence in that discussion is morality. Religious dogma is highly concerned with morality, and religions often claim to have made their members better people. Is there some kind of necessary relationship between mind-body dualism and ethics? 

Today, I will present evidence suggesting that one particular aspect of theism, namely belief in supernatural monitoring & punishment, is responsible for most of the moral virtues seen in the religious. This is the supernatural punishment hypothesis.

Social Monitoring

Human beings possess norm psychology, enforced by gossip-mediated reputation and altruistic punishment. While we often internalize norms (especially the guilt response of the idiocentric), we are much more likely to engage in self-interested behavior if no one is watching. 

This is in fact the case. Anonymity significantly increases selfish behavior (Hoffman et al 1994). Playing economic games under low light also promotes selfishness (Zhong et al 2010); this darkness effect is statistically mediated by feelings of anonymity.

Self-awareness theory holds that people can oscillate between two different states of self-awareness. When people view themselves as a target of social scrutiny, they experience public self-awareness; in contrast, private self-awareness occurs when attention is directed inward. Reminders of social monitoring uniquely heightens public self-awareness. 

These effects aren’t subtle. Monitoring detection is absolutely essential to human social life. Our subconscious response to eyes remains strong even if we consciously know the eyes aren’t connected to minds. In a classic experiment, Bateson et al (2006) measured voluntary donations given to the office coffee fund. By simply altering a picture adjacent to the coffee maker (from flower pictures to eye pictures), prosocial donations increased when people were around pictures of eyes.

Watched people are nice people.

Supernatural Monitoring

Human social cognition produces intuitions about disembodied minds. Despite their immateriality, we relate to gods as we do other agents. Does the thought of God make us behave like we do when other humans watch us?

Yes. Supernatural monitoring is a special case of social monitoring. We can see this in e.g. the Dictator Game. In the game, one person is given $10, and must decide how much to give to the other player ($0 is maximally selfish, $5 is often considered more “fair”).

Both believers and atheists offer about $2 on their own accord. But, when thoughts of God are unconsciously primed, the offer of believers increases dramatically. 

If God-primes simply activated stereotypes of prosocial behavior (an ideomotor response), we would expect atheists to respond too. But the effect only works for those who believe God is watching them.

We can also see this supernatural monitoring effect in children. Piazza et al (2011) involved a game with an apparently easy way to cheat (detected via hidden camera). Children playing this game cheated much less when they were told an invisible agent, “Princess Alice” was sitting in a nearby chair.

Shariff et al (2015) performs a meta-analysis over 25 religious priming studies, and found that religious primes reliably elicit prosocial behavior.

Just like the presence of a video camera, experimental reminders of gods increase public self-awareness but not private self-awareness. For Christians reporting strong religious belief, the effect on public self-awareness of thinking about God is statistically indistinguishable from the effect of thinking about being judged by one’s peers (Gervais & Norenzayan 2012, Study 1). 

Feeling watched increases prosocial behavior, but it also leads people to put their best foot forward, even at the expense of honesty. Socially desirable responding, in particular, is a potentially useful way to test whether priming religious concepts triggers mind perception or merely makes people act in accordance with prosocial norms and stereotypes. If priming gods merely makes prosocial stereotypes and norms salient, then they should perhaps increase honesty (which translates into fewer socially desirable responses). On the other hand, if reminders of gods make people feel watched, then people should instead respond  in more socially desirable ways. Recent evidence supports the latter hypothesis. Believers exhibit significantly more socially desirable, dishonest responding after being primed with god concepts (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012, Study 3). 

Supernatural Punishment

Supernatural monitoring promotes religious prosociality. Why? Which specific elements within our religious ideas creates such an effect?

The stick looms larger than the carrot. Strong evidence suggests the threat of punishment is the theological element that does the heavy lifting. And this makes sense: in earthly settings, punishment is the lifeblood of intragroup cooperation.

Yilmaz & Bahcekapili (2016) and Shariff & Norenzayan (2011) found that, while belief in gods are largely irrelevant, priming beliefs in supernatural punishment causes lower individual rates of cheating. DeBono et al (2015) found a related effect: reminders of God’s forgiveness actually increases cheating behavior, relative to control conditions.

At the national scale, after controlling for relevant variables such as GDP and education, belief in hell is strongly associated with lower crime rates (Shariff & Rhemtulla 2012). But such beliefs also come at a price. Belief in hell is also associated with lower overall life satisfaction and day-to-day measures of wellbeing (Shariff & Aknin 2014). 

If hell is the necessary ingredient for good behavior, why believe in heaven? While hell might be better at getting people to be good, heaven is better at making them feel good. Heaven will get you in the door, hell will ensure the door is repaired in a timely fashion.

Facultative Prosociality

Most of the individual-level causal evidence above is based on priming studies. These studies are quite robust, as revealed in meta-analyses such as Shariff et al (2015).

But what about when believers aren’t reminded of their faith? Do they consistently act better than nonbelievers? Is prosociality a personality trait, strengthened by religious praxis?

The answer is complicated. But there is some reason to think, at least in WEIRD nations, belief doesn’t increase moral behavior. 

First, consider cheating. Are religious people less likely to cheat? Smith et al (1975) describes how research has consistently failed to find any substantial difference based on religiosity.

Second, consider altruism. The Parable of the Good Samaritan describes people passing by an injured person in need; helping – even when it is inconvenient – seems a useful way to operationalize altruism. But when Darley & Batons (1973) recreated a modern-day Good Samaritan scenario, religious people were no more likely to help! In fact, the only two variables that predicted helping were sex (females show a higher frequency of altruistic behavior) and situational factors (people told to hurry were much less likely to help). 

Religion does produce prosocial behavior, as explained by the supernatural punishment hypothesis. But in WEIRD nations, it seems this prosociality is restricted to times when believers are reminded of their faith. For Christians, this explains the Sunday effect

  • Malhotra (2010) found that Christians are much more likely to give to charity on Sundays.
  • Edelman (2009) found that, while Christians use as much porn as non-Christians, they use less on Sundays (compensating later in the week).

This effect generalizes to other faiths:

  • Duhaine (2015) found that Moslems are much more likely to give to charity when asked during a call to prayer.
  • Xygalatas (2013) found that Hindus are much less likely to act selfishly in an economic game conducted within a temple.

What good is facultative (situation-dependent) prosociality? Consider this quote from Henrich (2020).

A far more important source of divine punishment arose from the violation of sacred oaths taken in the name of particular gods while signing commercial contracts, making sales, or assuming public offices. In Athens, as in many parts of the Greek world, the marketplace was filled with altars to various gods. Merchants were required to swear sacred oaths before these altars to affirm the authenticity and quality of their goods. Athenians’ intense reliance on the gods, and on such oaths, may help explain their enduring reputation for trustworthiness in both business and treaty-making. 

Religion is more in the situation than in the person.

In Gods We Trust

Religion is a team sport. Enhanced individual prosociality should have group-level consequences. 

Recall our previous discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. While that particular payoff structure may not be representative of human social dynamics (Hawk-Dove and Biological Markets are more incisive), the general point holds: cooperation is the most important challenge of human social life

If religion promotes cooperation, that’s one thing. But if cooperators manage to find each other (costly and/or credible signals) and prefer interactions with one another (trust), then their groups will reap the rewards. You can see this principle illustrated in spatial evolutionary games:

Note that cooperators can only seek each other in relationally mobile (i.e., individualistic) societies. Using trust signals to engage with cooperators is less relevant in collectivist societies, which employs reputation (Sosis 2005).

There exist two ways to operationalize trust:

  1. Attitudinal trust is an attitude of confidence in the reliability of another person or institution. 
  2. Behavioral trust is a costly and risky investment in a person or entity, with the future expectation of cooperation. 

Attitudinal trust for religious participants is well attested. A worldwide survey of 81 countries representing 85 percent of the world’s population, conducted between 1999 and 2002 found that almost two-thirds of all participants said they trust religion, compared to only half who trust their government, and only about one-third who trust political parties.

The religious also elicit strong levels of behavioral trust (Tan & Vogel 2008):

  1. More money was forwarded to responders perceived to be religious. 
  2. While believers strongly trusted their own kind, nonbelievers were either, if anything, mildly trusting of believers.
  3. Believers were in fact more likely to cooperate.

Anti-Atheist Prejudice

Consider the Traveling Salesman problem:

Max Weber was sitting next to a traveling salesman when the conversation turned to religion. In a now famous quote, the man said: “Sir for my part everybody may believe or not believe as he pleases; but if I saw a farmer or a businessman not belonging to any church at all, I wouldn’t trust him with fifty cents. Why pay me, if he doesn’t believe in anything? 

Social scientists have long noted that Americans are less accepting of atheists than of any other groups, and by a wide margin. This anti-atheist prejudice is widely expressed internationally, but it of course varies by country. Consider that only one US legislator has come out as atheist:

On March 2, 2007, long-time congressman Pete Stark, Democrat from California, made history. He did not author a far-reaching legislation that created jobs, cleaned the air, or shaped foreign policy. He was simply the first member of the US Congress to come out as an atheist. In 2012, Stark lost to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell Jr., who publicly attacked Stark’s atheism. 

My first impulse was to attribute anti-atheist prejudice to a generic stereotyping mechanism. But if you examine its characteristics in detail, it turns out to behave quite different from other stigmas:

The supernatural punishment hypothesis is able to explain this rather peculiar psychological profile.

If sincere belief in a morally concerned deity serves as a reliable cooperative signal, it follows that those who explicitly deny the existence of God are inadvertently sending the wrong signal: they are being perceived as subversive non-cooperators by the religious. 

I’ll close by noting that there are three known ways to reduce anti-atheist prejudice:

  1. Exposure to or reminders of strong institutions that create prosocial norms
  2. Exposure to or reminders of atheists’ prevalence 
  3. The decline of religiosity in a given society


Today, we covered five topics:

  1. Social monitoring: Watched people are nice people
  2. Supernatural monitoring: God is watching you.
  3. Supernatural punishment: Hell is stronger than heaven
  4. Facultative prosociality: Religion is more in the situation than in the person.
  5. In Gods We Trust: Trust people who trust in god.

To be clear, supernatural monitoring is not the only source of prosociality in religion. Self-control (McCullough & Willoughby 2009) is an extremely important factor, for example. The supernatural punishment hypothesis merely posits that this intuitive mechanism is a) specific to believers, and b) intuitively held & deeply powerful. 

Until next time.


Social monitoring

  • Bateson et al (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting.
  • Hoffman et al (1994). Preferences, property rights, and anonymity in bargaining games.
  • Zhong et al (2010). A good lamp is the best police: Darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior

Supernatural Monitoring

  • Atkinson & Beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation
  • Gervais & Norenzayan (2012). Like a camera in the sky? Thinking about God increases public self-awareness and socially desirable responding
  • Piazza et al (2011). “Princess Alice is watching you”: Children’s belief in an invisible person inhibits cheating.
  • Shariff et al (2015). Religious Priming: A meta-analysis with a focus on religious prosociality.

Situational Prosociality & Sunday Effect

  • Darley & Batons (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior
  • Edelman (2009). Red light states: who buys online adult entertainment?
  • Henrich (2020). The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
  • Malhotra (2008). Are religious people nicer? Religious salience and the “Sunday effect” on prosocial behavior.
  • Shariff (2015). Does religion increase moral behavior? 
  • Smith et al (1975). Faith Without Works: Jesus People, Resistance to Temptation, and Altruism 
  • Duhaime (2015). Is the call to prayer a call to cooperate? A field experiment on the impact of religious salience on prosocial behavior

Hell is Stronger than Heaven

  • DeBono et al (2017). Forgive us our trespasses: Priming a forgiving (but not a punishing) god increases unethical behavior
  • Shariff & Rhemtulla (2012). Divergent effects on belief in heaven and hell on national crime rates.
  • Shariff & Aknin (2014). The Emotional Toll of Hell: Cross-National and Experimental Evidence for the Negative Well-Being Effects of Hell Beliefs
  • Shariff & Norenzayan (2011). Mean gods make good people: Different views of god predict cheating behavior
  • Yilmaz & Bahcekapili (2016). Supernatural and secular monitors promote human cooperation only if they remind of punishment

Trust & Anti-Atheist Prejudice

  • Sosis (2005).  Does Religion Promote Trust? The Role of Signaling, Reputation, and Punishment
  • Shigaki et al (2012). Referring to the social performance promotes cooperation in spatial prisoner’s dilemma games
  • Tan & Vogel (2008). Religion and Trust: An Experimental Study


  • McCullough & Willoughby (2009). Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations, and Implications

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s