Tell Your Students That if They Cheat, God Will Smite Them

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God.

Is God:
A) punitive, angry, and vengeful?
B) warm, loving, and forgiving?

OK, folks, pencils down. Now, if you chose B, you probably cheated your way through college.

Two psychology researchers — Azim F. Shariff, at the University of Oregon,  and Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia — found in a pair of studies that students who believe that God is kind and gentle are more likely to cheat on tests.

In the first study, 61 undergraduates were asked to take a mathematics test on a computer that contained a software glitch. If they failed to press the space bar immediately after reading each problem, the glitch would cause the correct answer to appear on the screen and that just wouldn’t be fair. After taking the test, the students were asked about their perceptions of God.

Of course the sneaky researchers — believers in a benevolent God, no doubt — had peeked to see who had used the space bar and who hadn’t. While they found no differences between self-described believers and non-believers, the psychologists discovered that the students who think of God as angry and punitive were significantly less likely to have cheated.

In the second study, which was crafted to remove potential variables like personality and religious affiliation, 39 undergraduates answered questions about a number of topics, including their views on God. Several days later, they took the same math test on a computer with the same “software glitch” and posted the same results as the earlier study: The ones who believed in a loving God were more likely to have cheated.

“Taken together, our findings demonstrate, at least in some preliminary way, that religious beliefs do have an effect on moral behavior, but what matters more than whether you believe in a god is what kind of god you believe in,” Mr. Shariff said. “There is a relationship: Believing in a mean god, a punishing one, does contribute to cheating behavior. Believing in a loving, forgiving god seems to have an opposite effect.”

Mr. Shariff invoked the “supernatural punishment hypothesis” in describing his study, which was reported in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.

Perhaps if more students could see their cheating classmates struck by lightning, academic dishonesty would be a thing of the past.  —Don Troop

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