Gods are watching and so what? Moralistic supernatural punishment across 15 cultures

Theiss Bendixen, Aaron D. Lightner, Coren Apicella, Quentin Atkinson, Alexander Bolyanatz, Emma Cohen, Carla Handley, Joseph Henrich, Eva Kundtová Klocová, Carolyn Lesorogol, Sarah Mathew, Rita A. McNamara, Cristina Moya, Ara Norenzayan, Caitlyn Placek, Montserrat Soler, Tom Vardy, Jonathan Weigel, Aiyana K. Willard, Dimitris XygalatasMartin Lang, Benjamin Grant Purzycki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Psychological and cultural evolutionary accounts of human sociality propose that beliefs in punitive and monitoring gods that care about moral norms facilitate cooperation. While there is some evidence to suggest that belief in supernatural punishment and monitoring generally induce cooperative behaviour, the effect of a deity's explicitly postulated moral concerns on cooperation remains unclear. Here, we report a pre-registered set of analyses to assess whether perceiving a locally relevant deity as moralistic predicts cooperative play in two permutations of two economic games using data from up to 15 diverse field sites. Across games, results suggest that gods' moral concerns do not play a direct, cross-culturally reliable role in motivating cooperative behaviour. The study contributes substantially to the current literature by testing a central hypothesis in the evolutionary and cognitive science of religion with a large and culturally diverse dataset using behavioural and ethnographically rich methods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere18
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
StatePublished - May 12 2023


  • Behavioural economics
  • cognitive anthropology
  • cultural evolutionary psychology
  • evolutionary and cognitive science of religion
  • free-list

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Applied Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'Gods are watching and so what? Moralistic supernatural punishment across 15 cultures'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this