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July 25, 2003 Press Contact: William Harms
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Americans practice what they hear preached: Going to services leads to more charity, University of Chicago study shows


Additional Contacts:
Julie Antelman

Tom W. Smith


Correlation between church attendance and number of good deeds per year

Correlation between religiousness and number of good deeds per year

Gender-based empathy disparities

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Americans on average give selflessly of themselves at least 109 times a year, with religiousness being the strongest determinant of how often people reach out to help, according to a study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

In the first national survey of altruism and empathy ever conducted, NORC found that while people who never attend religious services perform on average 96 acts of helping others, people who attended services weekly and take part in other religious activities report performing 128 acts of kindness.

The study asked about 15 different acts of altruism, such as talking with someone who is depressed, helping with housework, giving up a seat to a stranger, giving money to a charity, volunteering, helping someone find a job, or helping in another way, such as lending money. The connection between religious observance and charitable behavior was consistent across religious groups in the study, “Altruism in Contemporary America: A Report from the National Altruism Study.”

Before he began the study, author Tom W. Smith, Director of the General Social Survey at NORC, expected to find that people who are more socially involved, as well as those who support spending on social welfare programs, would be more likely than others to be altruistic. Those attitudes made little difference, however, in predicting who would be more charitable.

“The connection between good deeds and religion probably indicates that people are reflecting the religious teachings of charity that are central beliefs of most major religions,” Smith said. “For most religions, an important part of the belief system is an admonition to love other people and to do good deeds. The people who attend weekly services hear that quite a lot.

“Also, people in a religious congregation are nested in a community that provides them with opportunities to do good deeds and reach out to others,” he said.

Altruistic values promote actions that consider another person’s needs rather than one’s own. Those deeds provide benefits to the recipient, but no benefit to the person doing the good deed, and they may even generate costs for that person.

The report found that acts of kindness consistently increased with the number of times people attended religious services. Other measures on the survey also underlined the role of religion in promoting altruism. People with strong religious faith and who prayed daily were more likely to help others.

The altruism research, which was conducted in 2002 as part of NORC’s General Social Survey, asked people about their feelings on a wide measure of empathetic values, such as having tender feelings towards others, being disturbed by other people’s misfortunes, and wanting to protect people who are vulnerable.

On many attitudes and values the General Social Survey shows little difference in the views of men and women. However, the altruism research showed a large difference between men and women on questions related to empathy, with women being much more empathetic. For example, while 46 percent of the women in the survey reported findings other people’s misfortunes to be disturbing, only 25 percent of the men shared that perspective, Smith found.

The questions about altruism were supported by the Fetzer Institute as part of the General Social Survey, an in-person survey of a representative sample of Americans 18 and older. It is conducted every one to two years with support from the National Science Foundation. The altruism questions were asked of 1,366 people.
Last modified at 01:55 PM CST on Friday, September 12, 2003.

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