By Derk Renwick
Graduating senior Ashley Talberg worked with faculty from across the College of Liberal Arts while researching the effect religious belief has on game theory. She learned that there is a connection between trust and religious belief, regardless of religious affiliation.
Where did you get the idea for your research project?
I took a course with Professor Oliver Nicholson on the beginning of the Christian movment (RELS 3541: The Age of St. Augustine of Hippo) and began to wonder what it was about religious belief that inspired martyrdom.
At the time I was working as an undergraduate research assistant in Professor Angus MacDonald III's TRiCAM laboratory, which is a part of the psychology department's Research Experience Program (REP). I was entering and analyzing data for the Minnesota Trust Game, previously developed by University of Minnesota economics professor Aldo Rustichini, Professor McDonald, and Melissa Johnson, which analyses the initial task comprehension of patients with schizophrenia. I began to think about what would happen if subjects were given specific religious-based information about their anonymously paired partners.
How does your research differ from other projects that consider religion and game theory?
My initial research led me to an article by Tan and Vogel, "Religion and Trust: An Experimental Study," which studied how a person's score on a religiosity test predicted their level of trust toward others. Tan and Vogel found that religious players were more trusting of their partners if that partner also had a high religiosity score.
Our research differs in that (a) it considers all religious affiliations and (b) it proposes a specific aspect of religious belief as the cause of trusting behavior. First, we solicited participation from members of various religious traditions and then we gave them two pieces of information about their anonymous partner: (1) religious affiliation and (2) whether or not the partner believed in divine justice.
What is the most important information you learned from your research?
The most important information we learned is that belief in divine justice, or divine consequences based on present actions, does indeed inspire trusting behavior.
How did you learn about opportunities to work closely with faculty?
I learned about working with faculty from my psychology advisor, Therese DeVine. I enjoyed working with Professor MacDonald in the past and approached him about registering as a REP research assistant in his lab. I was able to earn class credit and work closely with other researchers, including Melissa Johnson, a graduate student colleague, who encourged me to ask Professor MacDonald to support a project that combined religion and the Minnesota Trust Game. He agreed to sponsor the research but recommended that I find a second advisor to support the religious aspect of the project.
Jeanne Kilde recommended sociology Professor Penny Edgell, whose own research demonstrated that atheists are the least trusted religious group in America. By the end of the project I had more help than I ever anticipated, including support from Social Behavioral Sciences Laboratory technicians and psychology faculty who allowed me to visit their classrooms and solicit volounteers.
Does your research have potential application outside of academia?
I do feel that my research has the potential to make an impact on the public sphere because it demonstrates trusting behavior on an economic level. Determination of the factors that elicit trusting behavior is important because it occurs all the time in social settings.
What experiences influenced your decision to minor in religious studies?
I chose to minor in religious studies because of my experience on this project. Religion is very important to many people and, as a psychologist, I will be a more productive researcher with an understanding of religious diversity.
How will you use what you've learned from your research in the future?
In the future I hope to run additional studies on trust and religious belief and perhaps one day publish my work. In the meantime, I plan to build on the knowledge and experience I've gained from this project in graduate school.