Catholic guilt? Recall of confession promotes prosocial behaviour.

Ryan McKay, Jenna Herold, Harvey Whitehouse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent studies indicate that prosocial behavior is more likely when one feels guilty, or when one’s moral ledger has a negative balance. In light of such studies, we wondered whether religious rituals of atonement and absolution are, from the perspective of religious groups, counterproductive mechanisms for addressing the moral transgressions of group members. If sin is a form of capital, might absolution rituals squander that capital? We found that Catholic participants who recalled committing a sin from their past and then recalled being absolved of the sin donated much more money to the church than those who had recalled committing the sin but not yet recalled being absolved of it. This effect was more pronounced the more participants believed in divine judgment and the more that they engaged in religious activities such as reading the bible or praying. Our findings indicate that the Catholic ritual of confession is an effective means of promoting commitment to the church. These results complement a cultural evolutionary approach to religious prosociality, whereby religious practices evolve to the extent that they contribute to high levels of cooperation in religious groups.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-209
JournalReligion, Brain & Behavior
Issue number3
Early online date6 Dec 2012
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013

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