Rewarding the good and punishing the bad: The role of karma and afterlife beliefs in shaping moral norms

Aiyana K. Willard, Adam Baimel, Hugh Turpin, Jonathan Jong, Harvey Whitehouse

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    39 Citations (Scopus)
    160 Downloads (Pure)


    Moralizing religions encourage people to anticipate supernatural punishments for violating moral norms, even in anonymous interactions. This is thought to be one way large-scale societies have solved cooperative dilemmas. Previous research has overwhelmingly focused on the effects of moralizing gods, and has yet to thoroughly examine other religious moralizing systems, such as karma, to which more than a billion people subscribe worldwide. In two pre-registered studies conducted with Chinese Singaporeans, we compared the moralizing effects of karma and afterlife beliefs of Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, and the non-religious. In Study 1 (N = 582), we found that Buddhists and Taoists (karmic religions) judge individual actions as having greater consequences in this life and the next, compared to Christians. Pointing to the specific role of karma beliefs in these judgements, these effects were replicated in comparisons of participants from the non-karmic religions/groups (Christian and non-religious) who did or did not endorse karma belief. Study 2 (N = 830) exploited religious syncretism in this population by reminding participants about either moral afterlife beliefs (reincarnation or heaven/hell), ancestor veneration beliefs, or neither, before assessing norms of generosity in a series of hypothetical dictator games. When reminded of their ancestor veneration beliefs, Buddhists and Taoists (but not Christians) endorsed parochial prosocial norms, expressing willingness to give more to their family and religious group than did those in the control condition. Moral afterlife beliefs increased generosity to strangers for all groups. Taken together, these results provide evidence that different religious beliefs can foster and maintain different prosocial and cooperative norms.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)385-396
    Number of pages12
    JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
    Issue number5
    Early online date14 Jul 2020
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020

    Bibliographical note

    © 2020 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Inc. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
    • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
    • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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