A new paper from NBER tests Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic, and other hypothesis about whether religious affiliation affects economic behavior:
We find that Protestantism increases contributions to public goods. Catholicism decreases contributions to public goods, decreases expectations of others’ contributions to public goods, and decreases risk aversion. Judaism increases worker reciprocity in a bilateral labor market gift-exchange game. We find no evidence of religious identity effects on disutility of work effort, discount rates, or generosity in a dictator game.
The authors sought to create exogenous variation in religious identity using a laboratory experiment:
The priming instrument… is a sentence-unscrambling task where subjects are asked to drop the irrelevant word in a five-word group and rearrange the remainder to form a four-word sentence. For example, “yesterday it finished track he” becomes “he finished it yesterday.” Each subject unscrambles ten sentences.
The sentences vary depending on whether the subject is in the religion-salient condition or the control condition. Five of the sentences unscrambled by religion-salient subjects contain religious content. These five sentences are: “she felt the spirit,” “the dessert was divine,” “give thanks to God,” “the book was sacred,” and “prophets reveal the future.” None of the control subjects’ sentences contain religious content.
How valid is this instrument? One worrying result is that the authors fail to replicate an experiment done by the originator of this particular priming instrument. So Caveat lector, but still, interesting results and approach.