Psychologists have long known that people tend to favor their own group over others, a social phenomenon known as ingroup bias. But new research provides evidence that atheists are motivated to buck this trend in an attempt to override the stereotype that they are immoral.

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Psychology researchers from Ohio University found that Christians demonstrated an ingroup bias towards other Christians in an economic game but atheists did not have an ingroup bias towards other atheists. The study was published online July 10 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“The rise of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ about a decade ago coupled with the ongoing ‘culture wars’ between religious and secular groups in the United States has led atheists as a population to gain an unprecedented level of visibility in this country in recent years, even as their prevalence has only incrementally increased. This has sparked a particular interest in anti-atheist prejudice research in social psychology,” explained study author Colleen Cowgill, a PhD student.

“From this previous research, we know that the general population in America tends to stereotype atheists as being immoral and untrustworthy – a reputation that many atheists understandably find distressing. My primary interest was in how atheists themselves respond to these negative stereotypes.”

“Psychological research has demonstrated repeatedly that individuals facing negative stereotypes are not passive observers of this social landscape, but rather are impacted and react in a dynamic way to negative group-level judgments important to their identities,” Cowgill told PsyPost. “One example of this is stereotype threat, or the phenomenon wherein negative stereotypes about a group’s performance on a particular task can lead to decreased performance for individuals who belong to that group, regardless of their actual ability.

“The psychological stress of fearing that your performance may confirm a negative stereotype about your group serves to limit the cognitive resources you have available for performing well on the task. Another example of this is people’s response to what is termed ‘identity threat,’ or the threat of being disparaged or discriminated against due to one’s group membership. We often see that negative stereotypes about a group can lead members of that group to behave in compensatory ways that ostensibly seek to disconfirm that stereotype, such as when American immigrants strive to emphasize their American identity when it is threatened.”

“This was the rationale behind my hypotheses stating that atheists’ behavior toward Christians in economic games might be different from Christians’ behavior toward atheists in economic games,” Cowgill said. “In the same way that many White Americans are often stereotyped as racist and have consequently been shown by research to be particularly motivated to be liked by Black Americans during interracial interactions, I thought that atheists would be uniquely motivated to disconfirm negative stereotypes about their amorality or untrustworthy nature during interactions with Christians.”

“I chose to operationalize this through an economic game because I thought it would be an ideal paradigm to capture constructs like ‘generosity’ and ‘fairness,’ which can directly relate to ideas of morality and trustworthiness. Indeed, we found in multiple studies that our atheist participants behaved more fairly towards partners they believed were Christians than our Christians participants behaved towards partners they believed were atheists, which are results that appear to support the original hypotheses.”

“These effects disappeared when the participant’s own religious identity was concealed. Under those conditions, atheists and Christians demonstrated the same typically observed in-group bias, which rules out the possibility that the results could be entirely explained due to discrimination on the part of the Christians.”

The economic game was a modified version of the Dictator Game, in which one person (the dictator) is asked to share a monetary reward with another person who can only passively accept what is offered.

A pilot study with 205 participants revealed that people believed atheists would treat Christians unfairly. But three experiments, which included nearly 1,200 U.S. residents, found almost the opposite was true.

“I think that the average person should understand how the stereotypes saturating our society can create a variety of underlying subtexts during interactions between individuals, often leading people to maintain differential goals when they communicate and cooperate,” Cowgill remarked.

“Oftentimes, we’re not even directly aware of these dynamics. We absorb what our society reflects to us about how to perceive groups of people, how to perceive ourselves, and how others view us, then we carry these expectations with us into our everyday interactions, leading to myriad unexpected outcomes both positive and negative.”

When everyone’s religious affiliation was disclosed, Christian participants offered more money to fellow Christians than to atheists. However, this ingroup bias was not observed among atheist participants, who gave equally to atheists and Christians.

When their own religious identity was concealed from the other participants, however, atheists gave more money to their fellow atheists than to Christians. Presumably, they were less motivated to counter the stereotype that they were immoral. The behavior of Christians was unchanged.

“In this case, atheists appear to have been motivated by negative stereotypes to behave more prosocially. Although that may seem like a net positive, the mechanisms at work here may carry some more troublesome implications,” Cowgill told PsyPost.

“For instance, on a more speculative note, I think it is quite telling that atheists are perhaps so acutely aware of negative stereotypes about themselves that there are observable differences in their behavior as compared with Christians in even this small, low-stakes type of interaction. Arguably, they are on some level aware of a pretty serious stigma about their identity.”

“Might that stigma consciousness create obstacles for a talented atheist interested in doing something like running for political office or spearheading a charitable organization — endeavors that could be said to require a trustworthy reputation?” Cowgill wondered. “It’s hard to say, but I think research like this in the aggregate begins to build a case that there may be these kinds of hidden costs to the prevalent, unchallenged negative stereotyping in our society.”

Like all research, the current study has some limitations.

“It’s always worthwhile to keep in mind that the differences in behavior observed here between Christians and atheists, while unlikely due to chance given the number of participants and replications, may be explained by some alternative narrative the researchers have overlooked,” Cowgill said. “We did our best to rule out alternative explanations, such as that atheists were simply being discriminated against by Christians, but of course complete certainty can never be achieved.”

Some have also raised questions about whether atheists really consider themselves as part of a cohesive group.

“I think future work should continue to explore how atheists, agnostics, or religious minorities, such as Muslims, are impacted and respond to negative stereotypes or even outright discrimination towards their groups,” Cowgill said. “It seems likely that these findings would extend to other groups stereotyped as untrustworthy such that those groups would be motivated to ‘advertise’ their altruism, fairness, compassion, or overall level of morality.”

“Future work should also look at the some of the downsides to awareness of these negative stereotypes about one’s group. Do atheists demonstrate stereotype threat effects in tasks described as being related to moral competence? Does stigma consciousness limit atheists or religious minorities in a significant way or lead to negative health outcomes? All of these questions remain largely unexplored or in need of more in-depth research.”

The study, “Generous heathens? Reputational concerns and atheists’ behavior toward Christians in economic games“, was also co-authored by Kimberly Rios and Ain Simpson.