Category Archives: My research

Malaysian Chinese Fortune Telling

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Personal experience has always inspired my research. The four years I spent working in Malaysia are no different. My first culture shock was being exposed to the grotesque racial stereotypes that Malaysians of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage peddle about each other quite openly (to experience this, all you need is to ride taxis there regularly). Malaysia is truly multicultural, but the dividing lines remain deep in all things except food. Required reading for any “expat” in Malaysia (a term seemingly reserved for white immigrants everywhere) was Tiziano Terzani’s remarkable A Fortune Teller Told Me, precisely because he illustrated the situation best:

The hotel’s owner and all the employees were Chinese. The only Malay was the doorman who carried the luggage of the guests who were also Chinese. After about two words of conversation he too started telling about the problem that divides Malaysia: race. `Look,’ he said with a sweeping wave of the hand. `The skyscrapers are Chinese, the market stalls are Chinese, the shops are Chinese, the supermarkets are Chinese … So tell me: is this Malaysia?’ Just then a motorcycle with a sidecar pulled up in front of the hotel. The rider took his helmet off and set to work. In the space of a few minutes he had turned the sidecar into a miniature restaurant […] The man was Chinese. Chinese were all the people I saw in the streets, busily running here and there with all sorts of errands. With such competition the poor Malay felt he would never get anywhere.

What is true in Malaysia holds for Southeast Asia generally: ethnic Chinese make up less than 10% of the total population of the region but own and control anything between half and three-quarters of the regional economy. Exact statistics on the fortunes of the Diaspora Chinese are hard to get hold of for obvious reasons: Chinese businesses tend to operate opaquely.

What could be the reason for the Overseas Chinese fortunes compared to other groups? Most social scientists accept that the biggest effective difference between peoples across the world lies more in their cultures than in their biologies. Ever since Max Weber many have therefore attributed the economic success of a people to the values they share. Weber thought that Protestantism, through frugality and hard work, was the engine of the success of Northern Europe and the USA.

The same logic was later applied to explain the rise of Japan and the Tiger nations (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong) after World War 2. Here the cultural explanation was (Neo-)Confucianism, in particular, its emphasis on frugality and, you guessed it, hard work. Ironically Weber himself, writing early in the 20th century, thought that Confucianism retarded the economies of the Far East. Nonetheless Confucian theories abounded in the latter part of the 20th century when globalisation made people in the West take note of other cultures. An endless stream of intercultural business manuals were the result.


Economists are instinctively sceptical of anecdotal accounts and storytelling and prefer the analysis of cold, hard data. If culture was measurable one could use sophisticated statistical methods to find out whether it explains economic success. In the last 25 or so years questionnaire surveys have indeed been developed painstakingly and deployed to figuratively and literally map the cultures of the world.

In our own research we wanted to see whether we could use these measurements to attribute the differences in the economic fortunes of the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia to the differences between their cultures. We uncovered a mixed bag of evidence. For one thing , despite their ostensibly  different cultures and religions,  Malays,  Indians and Chinese in Malaysia are no different in their adherence to “Confucian” values. To put it another way, what many think of as Chinese Confucianism (conformity, respect for elders, tradition, collectivism) is not uniquely Chinese but rather common to Asian cultures generally. Because these values do not differentiate Malaysian ethnic groups they cannot explain economic differences between them either. What we found instead is that the Malaysian Chinese differ from the other two groups in a deep-seated mistrust of the state and a belief in private entrepreneurship. Perhaps a reliance on their own kind explains something else we found: Malaysian Chinese were more cooperative within their own ethnic group than either Malays and Indians.

As tempting and colourful as they are, cultural explanations have had their fair share of criticism. One is cultural determinism, a tendency to overlook other explanations such as the resources different peoples have due to their physical environments or institutions. Also, researchers sometimes use cultural explanations as a catch-all when all else fails, much in the same way as religion is often used. Cultural explanations are malleable and can be made to fit any fact until they lose scientific value (Karl Popper called this unfalsifiability). Another is a chicken-and-egg problem: are the values we observe the result or the cause of economic success? Perhaps changing economic fortunes cause and necessitate  value change.

A further issue with cultural theories is that people’s values are generally modest predictors of their behaviour: we often don’t practice what we preach. Perhaps a different cultural stereotype about the Chinese explains the popularity of Chinese culture theories. Western researchers interviewing Chinese businesspeople about the reasons behind their success may have overlooked an important fact: for the Chinese, pride in traditional culture is a cultural norm. Little wonder they offered it as an explanation even if it had no part in their success. Ambrose King and Michael Godley called this rationalistic traditionalism: a‘‘new kind of Chinese’’ with an ‘‘amazing willingness to split their personalities’’ and a ‘‘remarkable ability to move in and out of the two traditions’’. I, for one, also witnessed what Gordon Redding described:

One observes a present-day high-tech office full of well-qualified and highly efficient operatives of modern office equipment going through a feng-shui ritual to appease the spirits which control the fortune of the location.

There are cultural differences for sure, but it is hard to tell conclusively how and whether they explain the economic reality of the Chinese economic dominance in Southeast Asia. The Chinese to me remain, as in the cliché, inscrutable. And this even though some of my best friends are ethnic Chinese.


The Blair Faith Project

The former UK prime minister Tony Blair remains a controversial figure almost ten years after he left office, not least because of his role as one of the architects of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003. Improbably, Blair began his political retirement by repositioning himself as a peacemaker. He served as envoy of the so-called Quartet to bring peace to the Middle East. He also founded the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to promote inter-religious dialogue and converted to Catholicism.


These ostensible contradictions made many wonder about Tony Blair’s stance towards religion. While in office, his press secretary Alastair Campbell famously stopped an interview with the Prime Minister stating, “We don’t do God”. Out of office Blair has more scope to express his personal views. In 2012 he resurfaced into the spotlight as a panelist at the Westminster Faith Debates with some insightful remarks regarding his personal faith and its role in his political decision making. We learned he never prayed with George W. Bush (as rumoured) but did pray alone before taking momentous decisions on UK military actions. I was part of the audience of (with?) Tony Blair that night and was particularly struck by two of his observations:


What I notice in the world today is two types of religious feeling … One is a religious feeling where your faith drives you to acts of compassion in the service of others and you see that across all the faiths, and the other is a feeling where faith becomes a badge of identity almost in exclusion to others.

Some background: The Westminster Faith Debates were organised by Professor Linda Woodhead as part of the Religion & Society research programme funded by the UK’s  Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and Lancaster University. I was part of one of the  projects funded by the programme. In our study we used experiments to examine the effects of two different dimensions of religion on a person’s social behaviour: the role of individual religious values or `religiosity’, and the role of someone’s particular religious group affiliation. In short, the way someone treats others may depend on how strongly religious the person is, but also on whether these others are of the same or of a different religious community. We found, as Blair suggested, these two dimensions of an individual’s religion have their own effects. Later in the debate Blair made another telling remark:

I find a connection with people who are of faith, even though a different faith to my own, precisely because there is a certain space, intellectually, philosophically and emotionally, that we can congregate around.

I call this the Blair Hypothesis: essentially he suggested that one’s religiosity in itself can be a group identity, irrespective of which religious faith one belongs to. It suggests that highly religious people from two different religious groups may have more in common than do a staunch believer and a mere passenger within the same religion. We tested the Blair hypothesis in our experiment and found support: more religious participants of any religious denomination believed more strongly (than less religious ones) that highly religious others of any religious group can be trusted. In short, there is stronger trust among highly religious people no matter what particular faith groups they belong to.

Our paper has a number of other results, such that more religious people tend to attach more significance to what social groups others belong to: more highly religious people discriminate more against those of other social groups and also show greater favouritism towards those of the same faith. Surprisingly, neither our  own nor other people’s study find support that religiosity in its own right makes people kinder towards others, like the proverbial Good Samaritan.

Experimenting with the Intentional Stance

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Why do people leave a tip on the table even if they leave a restaurant unnoticed, in a place they will never visit again with no further interactions with the restaurant and its staff?

One reason lies in social preferences, such as an altruistic desire to reward a waiter who gave good service.  Economists tend to distinguish pure altruism (acting only out of concern for others) and impure altruism (acting out of the “warm glow” feeling none gets out of being charitable). In practice both motivations are at work together when, for example, one gives to charity. You may desire to help others but also enjoy feeling good about yourself for having done so. Social preferences have been widely studied by economists.

A different possible motivation behind tipping in the example above (and many similar cases) is “perceived intentionality”, our awareness of the waiter being a purposeful, intentional human being rather than a robot, irrespective of our motivation to reward him. When the other party has intentions we tend to treat it differently from unintentional forces, such as nature or machines. The restaurant guest who leaves without tipping feels shame when contemplating the waiter’s later disapproving reaction. Jean-Paul Sartre described this as “the gaze”: hell indeed is other people.

I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole […] But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me […] I see myself because someone sees me […] Shame is by nature recognition. I recognise that I am as the Other sees me […] thus shame is shame of oneself before Others.
Jean-Paul Satre, Being and Nothingness

In our recently published experiment we wanted to tell apart social preferences and perceived intentionality in situations where our participants made decisions that affected others. In the experiment our participants could act either kindly or nastily in strategic games against three kinds of “others”: (1) human others who received money when participants played kindly, (2) human others who did not receive any money either way and (3) computer programs. The difference in the way participants treat (1) and (2) is down to social preferences, the difference between (2) and (3) is due to perceived intentionality. We used this latter difference to show that people act to avoid the disapproval of others irrespective of social preferences. They treat humans in (2) more kindly than computers in (3) presumably to avoid raising the humans’ ire (computers do not receive much sympathy from anyone although I have seen otherwise rational people argue and fight with them). We thus find evidence for disapproval avoidance: Our conclusion is that “a guest may tip the waiter not (only) out of concern for his income but to avoid the psychological cost of contemplating his resentment.” Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this  the Intentional Stance.

This idea also explains findings in other experiments where simply presenting an image of eyes makes participants more pro-social, for instance in putting money in a donation box:


(There are apparently people immune to the gaze. Oxford don (and later Vice Chancellor) Maurice Bowra covered only his face when spotted sunbathing in the nude by a group of female students saying, “in Oxford I am known by my face”.)

The Role of Religion in 21st Century Britain: The Preaching and the Practice

Tony Blair recently attempted his comeback to UK public life appearing at the Westminster Faith debates together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other top UK religious leaders in attendance. Since Blair now does “do” religion after all, we learned that while he made his staffers (religious or not) pray with Salvation Army lobbyists, he apparently did not pray with George W. Bush over the Iraq War.

Whether they did or not, the religious affinity between the two men apparent only now gives a whole new meaning to the UK’s special relationship with the USA. When walking in Memphis, as the song says, a stranger might ask you whether or not you are a Christian child, or you might be invited to say the grace at dinner (in London it would already cause alarm to be talked to by a stranger at all). There is an unquestioning and unselfconscious assumption among many Americans that the unwitting visitor belongs to the same particular brand of religion, or indeed to any faith. Conversely it amazes many Europeans that the outlandish beliefs of a Tom Cruise or Mitt Romney have done little to diminish their public credibility stateside. All this is particularly odd if you associate any Evangelical outlook, so ubiquitous in America, as anathema to the kind of enquiring mindset that creates the wonders of modern technology culminating in the iPad.

American faith has not waned over the last 40 or so years. In surveys between and half and two-thirds of Americans confess to be “highly religious” or that religion is “very important” in their lives, twice as many as Germans. Between 40 and 85% of Swedes are estimated to be non-religious. In Europe religion creates much greater public controversy. Here, debates rage within religions, for instance over gay marriage and the ordination of women priests, and between them, such as the banning of the Muslim veil in France or the extension of Sharia law demanded for certain communities. The late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have led the atheist charge against what they see as the increasing encroachment of religion into public life. Religion is also a fault line of an international “clash of cultures” between countries and regions of the different major religions.

Who are the religious?

All these issues raise important questions about the role of religion and religious people in public life of 21st century Britain which the Westminster faith debates intended to address. The final installment was co-organised by Blair’s own Faith Foundation and the Religion & Society programme of government-funded research into religion and public life. Does social science have anything new to say about religion that justifies public expense? It turns out that it does, and what it says is surprising. In one of the many research projects of the programme, we used a combination of tools from psychology and economics to look at the effect of people’s individual religion on their social behaviour.

A basic scene-setting issue concerns who the religious are. It may seem to religious people themselves that the grasping of a universal truth, like gravity, should not discriminate between individuals or societies. However, the vastly different role religion plays in the lives of different countries and different kinds of people suggests systematic social and psychological factors at work. Is there such a thing as a particular religious personality? Unsurprisingly, upbringing and education play an important part. We also know that women are more religious in most respects that researchers have looked at. The classic major personality traits are only weakly linked to religiosity. However, at more specific levels, there is evidence that more religious people generally are more suggestible and and conforming, especially to authority, and less individualistic. The more religious also have a stronger sense of guilt and lower self-esteem, tend to be less creative and score less well on standard IQ as well as school tests. Despite common misconceptions, successful scientists are generally less likely to be religious. Three-quarters of members of the elite U.S. National Academy of Sciences have a personal disbelief in God, up from one half at the beginning of the 20th century. Albert Einstein, despite the much-touted quote about God not playing dice, was not religious in any standard conception. On political matters, religious people tend to be more conservative, right-wing, ethnocentric and prejudiced. There is even mounting evidence of a “religious gene” that some people have and some do not.

Do they practice what they preach or walk nowhere among the gentiles?

This somewhat unflattering and perhaps unkind portrait of the typical religious person is blurred by difficulties in accurately measuring religiosity, which is a surprisingly multi-faceted concept. A key distinction is between the devout for social reasons and those seeking genuine spiritual enlightenment. There is also the fact that the relationship between religion and attitudinal characteristics has a chicken-and-egg quality to it. Psychologists measure the strength of someone’s religious sentiment by a battery of questions about what and how strongly they believe, the impact of religion on everyday life and the frequency and intensity of religious practice. Despite the tricky issues, we do have sophisticated means of establishing how reliable measures are and tend to discard or improve those that are not. The religiosity measures psychologists have developed work well and suggest, when tested on their academic peers, that engineers are among the most religious academics; psychologists themselves are among the least (in this study, philosophers couldn’t understand or answer the questions).

If we accept these measurements of religiosity, they present a way of assessing one potential role of religion in public life, i.e. whether religious people are in some social sense “better” than others. This involves another hurdle for the scientist, which is to measure pro-social or ethical behaviour in real people and without somehow alerting them to what we’re interested in. Such suspicions can make people self-conscious, trying to please the person asking the questions or satisfying a positive self image. Our own research as part of the Religion & Society programme involved different “games” where people make decisions to allocate real money between themselves and others. People’s financial decisions are a good indicator of how much they care about themselves compared to others, and how much risk and trust they are willing to expose themselves to. Such decisions also reflect real behaviour as everyone gets to keep the money allocated. Subjects in these experiments “put their money where their mouth is”.

An example is the “trust game”. The first person gets £10 and can send any part to another (who they do not see or know). What they sent is tripled before the second person receives it, who then sends any part of it back. Each player gets the max if everything is sent and half returned. But because the second person has no reason to send anything back, the first one should keep everything. The game measures trust in how much the first person sends, and trustworthiness in how much the second one returns. Trust is a key lubricant of social and economic life; hardly an interaction works well without it.

What do we learn from experiments with this game and others about the social behaviour of religious people? The evidence is sobering. A whole host of studies including our own show that more religious people are no more altruistic, honest or cooperative towards others, do not trust more and are no more trustworthy if trust is invested in them. For example, we found repeatedly that more religious people do not send more nor return more in the trust game. One might object that religion doesn’t necessarily imply trust or cooperation; some religious teachings warn about the inherent sinfulness of man or guard against people of other faiths. We might also suspect that religious charity takes place mainly inside the confines of religious communities. Perhaps, as Christians often point out, faith involves the aspiration to good rather than an unfaltering adherence to it. On the other hand, it seems that the charity in “love thy neighbor” and “turning the other cheek” should have some impact on the devotee’s everyday behaviour that can be detected either in this game or others. There is no evidence that they do. The role of religion is public life is therefore unlikely to come from instilling more pro-social behaviour.

These games can also be used to examine what happens when religious people knowingly interact with others of a different or of no faith. Suddenly a person’s religiosity starts to explain their behaviour. We find that religious people are indeed more trusting and trustworthy when the other person in the game is also religious or of the same religion. This is true not just for Christians; we played the same games with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in the UK and other countries and made the same finding. Religion does not seem to affect what people do in general terms, but how they relate to others. In social psychology, this is called the intergroup effect: people tend to be more social towards others in their “ingroup” in terms of nationality, language, ethnicity or, in some experiments, completely arbitrary and manufactured commonalities. Religious denomination and even the level of religiosity seem to join the long list of factors that divide people and group them into tribes. There are echoes of this in a statement made by Tony Blair at the Religion & Society debate: “I find a connection with people who are of faith, even though they’re of a different faith to my own, precisely because there is a certain space, philosophically and emotionally, you can congregate around.” Presumably like George W. Bush.

The role of religion in public life

A large part of the public debate over religion between atheists and religious people has focused on theological arguments about the existence of God and the relationship between science and religion. This is a blind alley for those worried about the increasing encroachment of religion in public life. In contrast to agnosticism, simplistic atheism is no more compatible with scientific reasoning that evangelical religion. But it’s also missing the point of faith. If there were scientific certainty, there would be no need for belief. No one “believes” in gravity. In that sense, atheists are believers of another kind and their fervor is open to almost the same criticism leveled against evangelicals.

The Westminster faith debates and the Religion & Society programme put a slightly different but timely accent on the public role of religion in 21st century British society. The findings of psychologists and economists illustrate why religion is not (only) a matter of deliberate choice or scientific truth: people are religious or atheistic for a number of reasons other than theology such as personal circumstances, background or even the accident of genetic predisposition. This partly explains the continuing survival of faith in the age of science and technology: some people happen to have it, some need it or find it helpful. This cautions all participants in the increasingly acrimonious discourse to exercise humility and empathy.

But this argument against the atheists’ fervor also gives legitimacy to their worries about the role of religion on public life. Many people do not need to or cannot create belief where there is a vacuum of scientific fact. For many it is unthinkable to voluntarily base one’s lifestyle and most important decisions on speculation about the unknowable. Whether or not the human capacity for religious sentiment and solace should be considered a blessing is a mute point. The intimately personal side to religious belief provides a natural limit to the legitimacy of promoting it through state institutions. Precisely because some of us are almost accidentally religious, others are not so and cannot be. Even more so for the creed some people happen to be part of. For this reason those of no belief have every reason to demand religion not become in any way an officially-endorsed part of our national institutions.

This is true especially in view of the finding in our studies that religious creed and even religiosity can be divisive forces towards social segmentation. We need to guard against religion being misused as a vehicle to support the natural human tendency to form tribes. The debates over of the role of religion are not helping here through drawing false dichotomies. At the debate, Tony Blair and Rowan Williams were asked whether or not Islam is a religion of peace. You don’t have to be a scientist to point out that this depends on which Islam is meant here. Likewise, for some you are a “Christian child” only if you believe a donkey can be made to talk or that after the crucifixion, the dead saints arose from their graves and walked, three days later, to Jerusalem. However if you concede literal truth in the bible then it’s not clear at which incredible passage the liberty of interpretation must stop to still be a Christian. Pretending there is a single, monolithic Islam or Christianity (even just in the present day) is unhelpful and wrong. For any religion, the interpretations and practices abound in such a way as to make the question nonsensical. Every religion is multi-faceted in terms of different articles of faith or levels of practice and experience such that it is impossible to make an indisputable classification. The same is true more generally for belief in God. All the more reason to make personal faith a private matter and leave to Caesar (only) what is in Caesar’s rightful domain. As Frederic II, the self-declared first servant of his own state of Prussia proclaimed in the 18th century, let everyone be blessed after their own fashion.

A longer account of the research findings behind the opinions expressed here is contained in the author’s article “The Experimental Economics of Religion” in The Journal of Economic Surveys published by Blackwell.