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People mistakenly use karmic belief as a cue to predict others’ trustworthiness

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According to a new study published in the journal of Judgment and Decision Making, American Christians expect more trustworthiness from karma believers. However, this expectation did not match the actual behaviour of their interaction partners, suggesting that using karmic belief as a cue to predict trustworthiness is erroneous.

“I was personally curious about how expressing one’s belief in karma would influence how they are perceived by others because the research literature did not provide a clear answer to this question,” said study author How Hwee Ong, a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Psychology at Tilburg University. “On the one hand, previous research found that people who hold superstitious beliefs – which karmic belief is often seen as to be a form of – tend to be perceived more negatively (for example, Wang et al., 2014).”

“However, karmic belief differs from most other superstitious beliefs in that it revolves around the notion of justice being served. Thus, people may expect karma believers to be more likely to behave in a more moral manner to avoid karmic punishment or to reap karmic rewards. That prompted me (together with my collaborators) to conduct this study to examine if people expect those who believe in karma to be more or less trustworthy. Additionally, we also wanted to examine if people’s perception is an accurate reflection of reality.”

A total of 333 Christian U.S. Americans and 350 U.S Americans with varied beliefs in karma and Christianity participated in this research, assuming the role of trustor and trustee respectively. Participants indicated their belief in karma and Christianity.

In a “financially incentivized binary trust game”, the trustors made an “IN” or “OUT” decision. If the trustor opted out, both the trustor and trustee would receive small financial gains. If the trustor opted in and the trustee reciprocated, they would both receive a moderate financial gain. Lastly, if the trustor opted in and the trustee did not reciprocate, the trustee would receive a relatively large financial gain while the trustor would receive the worst outcome.

Trustors completed four rounds with different partners (Belief in Christianity: yes or no; belief in karma: yes or no). For each round, trustors indicated whether they expected their partner to reciprocate and their decision to opt in or out. A separate group of trustees with no information about the trustors played one round of the game as well.

“We found that participants expected individuals who believe in karma to behave in a more trustworthy manner and trusted these individuals more,” the researcher told PsyPost. “However, individuals who believe in karma did not actually behave in a more trustworthy manner.”

The discrepancy between the trustor’s expectations and the trustee’s decisions suggests using karmic belief as a cue for predictions about one’s trustworthiness is erroneous.

“In this study, participants making trustworthiness judgments were provided only with information about their partners’ belief in karma and belief in God. In many real-life situations, people have more information that they can rely on when making trustworthiness judgments (such as face, race, reputation). If and how belief in karma would continue to affect trustworthiness judgment in such ‘information rich’ situations remains an open question for future research,” the author said.

He added, “The study was conducted on American participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Thus, some caution needs to be exercised when generalizing our findings to other populations.”

Lastly, he noted “While we speculate that the reason why karma believers are trusted more is because they are expected to behave in a more trustworthy manner to avoid karmic punishment or to reap karmic rewards, this explanation has not been directly tested in our study.”

The study, “Belief in karma is associated with perceived (but not actual) trustworthiness”, was authored by How Hwee Ong, Anthony M. Evans, Rob M. A. Nelissen, and Ilja van Beest.

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