Recent news stories ratify the well-recognized fact that social groups seek identity reinforcement; and subtle changes in context sometimes cause significant behavior modification.

            Results of a psychological study published this month at the University of British Columbia (“UBC”) confirm the phenomenon of religious prosociality, which is “the hypothesis that religions facilitate costly behaviors that benefit other people”. Science 3 October 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5898, pp. 58 – 62. UBC social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff conclude that people are more likely to help others if they anticipate credit from their peers or if they are subtly reminded that God is watching.             
           Without one of these motivators, a religious person is no more likely to engage in pro-social behavior than the non-religious

            Thus, the authors contend, a universal god may serve as an “outsourcing” of social policing, making possible large, stable and cooperative societies with a cultural heritage.  At the same time, they continue, modern secular societies have developed legal and surveillance systems to perform the same function. Finally, the authors point out that the religious do not have a monopoly on altruistic behavior.

            The surprising aspect of the study — to me — is that religiosity alone was not found to create an internalized, self-actuated moral impetus for honesty and selfless conduct.


            Social policing is a social adhesive; it rewards loyalty, strengthens group identity and excludes non-conformists.  We all define our particular group memberships in some way with what are called norms.

            Certain groups enforce their norms on outsiders with deadly force: The attacks on Christians in Mosul, Iraq; and the forced religious conversion of Christians in eastern Orissa State, India, by Hindus are extreme examples of religious prosociality; while the lynch-mob style killing of an immigrant African Black in Milan, Italy, appears to be a virulent form of racial prosociality. All three incidents are social policing; they are reported in the first section of the New York Times (October 13, 2008). The Indian example appears on the front page.


            One subtle manifestation of racial prosociality is the “Bradley Effect”; which has become a hot topic among political scientists and pollsters in the United States. The Bradley Effect is electoral prosociality. This voting behavior was first studied in the aftermath of Tom Bradley’s mayoral campaign in Los Angeles.

            Today, the concept refers to an eligible voter reporting one thing to a pollster about Senator Barack Obama but doing something different on election day based upon the perceived race of the pollster, their own community and individual racial identity, and the race of Senator Obama. Newsweek has the best report on current speculation about the Bradley Effect and the Reverse Bradley Effect.


            Another subtle manifestation of racial prosociality is the high incidence of Black convicts — as opposed to Whites – later proven innocent by DNA evidence. In the  Dallas Morning News,

Steve McGonigle and Jennifer Emily present the findings of their DNA Exoneration Study (October 12, 2008). Based on their research, 68% (13 out of 19) of the defendants wrongfully convicted  were Black; 95% (18 out of 19) were convicted based on an eyewitness; and 62% (8 out of 13) were misidentified by someone of a different race.  None of the nineteen had DNA evidence available to them at the time of trial.

            More generally, “Misidentifications have been cited as a key factor in an estimated 75 percent of the 220 wrongful convictions exposed by DNA testing nationwide since 1989.” Id.

            Craig Watkins became the first black district attorney in Texas in 2007. Ken Brooks, the felony trial chief in Watkins’ office, told the Morning News: “Eyewitness testimony is the crack cocaine of the criminal justice system… If the witness said they saw it, they saw it."

            The report by McGonigle and Emily identifies ten (10) factors contributing to innocent people being convicted by an eyewitnesses during a police lineup:

            1.         Body language of the detective;

            2.         Instructions to the witness;

            3.         Officer feedback upon photo selection;

            4.         Tendency of witnesses to feel “locked-in” to an initial impression;

            5.         Photo manipulation including height lines behind the suspect or a placard in front of the suspect (making them appear to be a criminal), height distortion, and the obscuring of physical characteristics like scars.

            6.         Police lacked a written lineup-ID policy;

            7.         All photos were shown at once instead of sequentially, resulting in more false positives;

            8.         “Confirmation bias” resulting from the eyewitness seeing the defendant multiple times before trial;

            9.         If a witness appeared certain about an ID, judges accepted the testimony regardless of errors in the lineup procedure;

            10.       Prosecutors and police favored eyewitness ID’s over alibi witnesses; because naming a defendant allowed cases to proceed to trial, improved closure statistics and increased funding.

            This list does not include racial prejudice — the tendency of a crime victim to identify a Black perpetrator more readily than a White.


            Religious, electoral and racial prosociality are ways in which members of social groups strengthen their ties to each other, refine their identity, and measure the self-worth of both the collective and the individual. In certain circumstances, as the recent UBC psychology experiment, news stories and statistical research have shown; discrete situational triggers are capable of modifying human conduct in ways that may promote empathy, inject bias or worse.