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Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality

Nature volume 530, pages 327330 (18 February 2016) | Download Citation


Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded1,2. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups. To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms3,4. Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers5,6,7,8. We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship. Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists. Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.

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We thank everyone who participated in the study and our local assistants without whom this project would not have been possible. We acknowledge funding from a research grant, “The Emergence of Prosocial Religions” from the John Templeton Foundation, and the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC), funded by a generous partnership grant (895–2011–1009) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Q.D.A. is grateful for the support provided by a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, E.C. thanks the British Academy for Fellowship support, J.H. thanks the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research for support, A.N. thanks the James McKeen Cattell Foundation for sabbatical support, and B.G.P. thanks L. Loveridge and J. McCutcheon. We thank A. Baimel, A. Barnett, J. Bulbulia, N. Chan, M. Collard, T. Lai, J. Lanman, B. Milner, M. Muthukrishna, C. Placek, E. Slingerland, R. Sosis, H. Whitehouse and C. Xu.

Author information


  1. Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture, University of British Columbia, 1871 West Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z2, Canada

    • Benjamin Grant Purzycki
  2. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Solomon Laboratories, 3720 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104-6241, USA

    • Coren Apicella
  3. Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Human Sciences Building, 10 Symonds Street, Auckland 1010, New Zealand

    • Quentin D. Atkinson
  4. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Kahlaische Strasse 10, D-07745 Jena, Germany

    • Quentin D. Atkinson
  5. Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, 64 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PN, UK

    • Emma Cohen
  6. Wadham College, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PN, UK

    • Emma Cohen
  7. Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • Rita Anne McNamara
    • , Ara Norenzayan
    •  & Joseph Henrich
  8. Culture, and Development Laboratory, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station #A8000, Austin, Texas 78712-0187, USA

    • Aiyana K. Willard
  9. Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, 354 Mansfield Road, Unit 1176, Storrs, Connecticut 06029, USA

    • Dimitris Xygalatas
  10. Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 4, building 1483, DK-8000, Aarhus, Denmark

    • Dimitris Xygalatas
  11. LEVYNA, Masaryk University, Brno 60200, Czech Republic

    • Dimitris Xygalatas
  12. Department of Economics, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • Joseph Henrich
  13. Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Ave, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Joseph Henrich


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J.H., A.N. and B.G.P. conceived the study, prepared protocols, managed project communication and initiated manuscript preparation. C.A., Q.D.A., E.C., R.A.M., A.K.W., B.G.P. and D.X. collected data. B.G.P. conducted all analyses, made all graphs, Tables and illustrations. All authors participated in developing and refining protocols, experimental design and in manuscript preparation.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Benjamin Grant Purzycki or Joseph Henrich.

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