Why People Exaggerate Religious Behavior

Social scientists have learned you can't always believe what people tell you. An analysis of 3 places in the Muslim world examines whether peoples' reports of religious behavior match what they do.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. Social scientists have learned over the years that they can't always trust what people tell them. Ask about their behavior and some people lie - even to themselves. You have to compare what people say to some measurement of what they actually do. That's what researchers did when looking at religious behavior in three parts of the Muslim world. Our colleague Steve Inskeep discussed this with NPR's Shankar Vedantam.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK. So what places are we talking about here?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: We're talking about Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey.

INSKEEP: OK.

VEDANTAM: These are very different places, as you know from your own reporting in Pakistan, Steve. Turkey is the most European and Pakistan is widely seen as the most religious. And the research comes to us via Phillip Brenner. He's a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He's conducted several studies that explore this contrast between what people say about themselves and their actual behavior.

One technique he uses is to track what people tell their diaries. It turns out if you ask people how often they exercise, for example, they'll tell you they exercise very often but...

INSKEEP: Oh, sure.

VEDANTAM: Right. But when you look at their diaries, people tell their diaries they exercise far less often than they tell pollsters. And it's the diary entries that match how often their gym membership cards get swiped.

INSKEEP: Now, here we're talking about religious behavior. What exactly was being measured in these three different places?

VEDANTAM: What he finds in these three different places is that people tend to be reporting that they pray more than they actually do. And this finding is very similar to the finding that Brenner made a couple of years ago when it comes to church attendance in the United States. And people in the United States say they go to church but large numbers actually don't.

And what's interesting is in both places the people who are over-reporting their religious behavior have something in common. Here's Brenner.

PHILIP BRENNER: The similarity between these two places is that it is the people who think that religion is important, it's important in their daily lives. Those are the people who are over-reporting. And those are the people who are over-reporting church attendance in the U.S. and those are the people who are over-reporting prayer in Turkey, Palestine and Pakistan.

INSKEEP: So we're talking about people who are effectively, if you ask how many times a week do you go to church or how many times a day does a Muslim pray - they're supposed to pray five times - the person will report their values or their aspirations. That's what they're saying. They're saying I wish I prayed five times a day.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Steve, and it's very insightful because that's exactly what Brenner is saying. He isn't interested in these discrepancies between self-reported behavior and actual behavior just to say nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, we caught you lying. He thinks that if we look at these discrepancies with curiosity rather than judgment, they can actually tell us something really interesting about these people. Here he is again.

BRENNER: These aren't really mistakes. They're motivated by something. And if we accept these errors as opportunities for understanding, in essence these respondents are telling us about themselves. They're telling us about what they value or perhaps who they want to be or who they think others want them to be.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's take the opportunity he's describing, Shankar. You've got studies of different people in different places, some Christian, some Muslim, and in every case you find certain types of people who are over-reporting their religious behavior. What can we learn from that?

VEDANTAM: Well, the simple thing we can say, Steve, is that maybe it's expected of people. In Pakistan, Turkey, and Palestine and in parts of the United States it's expected of you to be very religious, to pray very often, and so people are reporting it because that's just the social norm. Brenner thinks something interesting is going on here below the surface and he points to the fact that in Pakistan there is more over-reporting than in Turkey.

And Turkey is the most European of these three countries and this mirrors a larger pattern where we see much more over-reporting of religious behavior in the United States and far less in Europe. Brenner thinks what's happening in the United States and in these Muslim places is that there might be growing unease with secularization, that when people look out at their societies, they're uneasy with the fact not just that societies are becoming more secular than they were before, but they themselves might be becoming more secular than they used to be.

INSKEEP: Turkey is a place that has formally secularized for quite some time and so a lot of the population seems comfortable with that. Pakistan is going through more convulsions and questioning what the role of religion in society is. So you're suggesting that in Pakistan people are a little anxious and that gets reflected in their over-reporting of their religion.

VEDANTAM: Brenner's asking when do you tend to over-report something? You over-report it when you're anxious about wanting to appear a certain way when you really are not.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. Follow this program, as always, @morningedition, @nprinskeep and @nprgreene.

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