A new study published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality has found that highly religious people tend to be perceived as more empathic compared to less religious people.
“Psychological research has shown that religious people report higher levels of emotional empathy. These empirical findings are also consistent with moral prescriptions of various religions, which typically advocate love and cooperation,” explained study author Paweł Łowicki, a PhD candidate at the University of Warsaw in Poland.
“However, it is also well known that religions can have some negative social consequences, including prejudice or aggression. The question that arises, then, is whether more religious people are truly more empathic? Or is it, as some suggested, merely some sort of self-delusion or self-presentation of believers?”
In the study, 236 adults indicated how religious they considered themselves to be and completed a measure of empathy called the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. A close acquaintance of each participant, such as a partner, friend, or relative, then assessed their religiosity and empathy as well.
“This way we obtained two independent sources of information regarding our primary participants’ characteristics,” Łowicki explained.
In line with previous research, religious individuals reported higher levels of empathic concern compared to less religious individuals. But more religious individuals were also perceived as more empathic by their close acquaintances, indicating their self-assessment was not purely self-serving.
“The take-home message of this research is that religious people not only report higher empathy themselves but are also perceived as more empathic by their friends and relatives. This result pertains specifically to other-oriented feelings of compassion and sympathy experienced in response to observed suffering of other people,” Łowicki told PsyPost.
The researchers controlled for gender, age, and social desirability bias — meaning the tendency to describe oneself in a way that will be viewed favorably by others. But the study still includes some limitations.
“The most important caveat is that close acquaintances of our primary participants might be also somehow biased in their judgments. For instance, they might have a stereotype of religious people that implies higher compassion, and therefore they might be more likely to view their religious friends as more empathic,” Łowicki said.
“In other words, although we have two independent sources of information confirming the positive link between empathy and religion, both of them are subjective and possibly prone to certain distortions. A desirable future direction, therefore, could be to examine more objective measures of empathic response, such as psychophysiological indices of compassion in more (and less) religious people.”
“Another interesting direction might be to test if religious compassion is limited to in-group members or whether it can operate across religious affiliations,” Łowicki added.
The study, “Religiousness Is Associated With Higher Empathic Concern—Evidence From Self- and Other-Ratings“, was authored by Paweł Łowicki and Marcin Zajenkowski.