U.Va. Study: Golden Rule Has an Effect -- Depending on Who Lays Down the Law

October 25, 2010 — The Golden Rule: "Do to others what you would have them do to you," as Jesus said, or, "Hurt not others with what pains yourself," as the Buddha said.

Most religions have some version of the Golden Rule, that we should treat each other with compassion.

But how do people respond to this core precept of religion when contemplating people whom they may not approve? What do some heterosexuals have to say about homosexuals, even as they may claim to espouse the Golden Rule?

To test the question, psychology researchers at the University of Virginia conducted a survey of people's attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women after first reading two versions of the Golden Rule, the one attributed to Jesus and the one attributed to the Buddha.

"We wanted to understand whether subtly introducing the idea of the Golden Rule would influence how Buddhists and Christians said they felt toward gay people," said one of the study's investigators, Nicole M. Lindner, a doctoral candidate in psychology in U.Va.'s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

She and lead author Oth Vilaythong T., who, at the time of the study was an undergraduate psychology student at U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences (and is now a graduate student in psychology at York University), were attempting to see if there is any difference in attitudes, or biases toward homosexuals, when study participants were prompted to think momentarily about the idea of compassion as presented from two different religious traditions.

They found that among self-declared Christian participants, when the message of the Golden Rule was attributed to the Buddha, a leader from another religion, the participants reacted more negatively toward gays and lesbians, and tended to believe that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice.

"They seemed to interpret the Buddha's words as criticism, rather than as the Golden Rule message they were familiar with, and it slightly increased their negativity toward gay people, and a perception that homosexuality is a controllable behavior," Lindner said.

Lindner noted though that, because the message was from another religion's leader, the Christian study participants may have focused more on the source of the message than on the message itself.

"What we found is that even positive messages of tolerance could, in fact, produce greater bias if it comes from an out-group's leader, and therefore perceived as being critical rather than as being positive when coming from one's own religious leader," she said.

By contrast, the authors found that Buddhists had a more tolerant attitude toward homosexuals, on the whole, regardless of whether or not they were primed by the words of Jesus or the Buddha, and they tended not to view homosexuality as a choice.

"I think the finding says something about when making an appeal, when putting out a positive message of tolerance to a particular audience, such as Christians in this case, it's not just the message that matters, but also who speaks that message," Lindner said. "You will want the message to come from someone within the targeted group that they respect and trust."

The study appears in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Lindner's and Vilaythong's co-author on the study is Brian Nosek, a principal investigator with Project Implicit, a publicly accessible research and education website [link to: implicit.harvard.edu] at which visitors can complete an Implicit Association Test to measure potential biases. The test is available for a variety of topics involving gender, race, religion and politics.

Nosek and his colleagues at Harvard University and the University of Washington developed the Implicit Association Test to assess mental associations that may be different than what people know or say about themselves.
In Project Implicit's more than 10 years of existence, visitors from around the world have completed more than 10 million tests at the website. A dozen years of research and hundreds of published studies suggest that people have implicit belief systems that may contradict their declared beliefs. These implicit beliefs can affect people's actions and behaviors.