“I Know What You Did Last Sunday”

by Jessie Roberts


That’s the clever title of a new study that reveals Americans exaggerate how often they go to church:

The study, by the Public Religion Research Institute, used an intriguing method to try to measure exaggeration: It asked the same set of questions in telephone interviews, and in an online survey, and compared the results. Researchers say that online surveys, with their lack of human questioners, significantly reduce “social desirability bias” in polling — the tendency of people to exaggerate behaviors that they think will impress others. In this study, the group that took the online surveys reported much lower levels of worship attendance than those interviewed by telephone.

Jessica Schulberg elaborates on the study’s sneaky methodology:

Why the difference in results?

Talking to another human, even an anonymous one, can cause respondents to exaggerate the truth. “It is a rather unconscious cognitive bias,” says John R. Shook, a professor in the Science and the Public EdM online program at the University of Buffalo. “Even if you talk to a live human voice, someone you will never see, someone in Zaire, the brain rationalizes and tries to present itself in the most positive light possible. You can’t help it.”

But it seems that when it comes to worship attendance, liberals are more inclined to do so. PRRI found that over the phone, only 27 percent of self-identified liberals admitted that religion is not important to them; the number jumped to 40 percent of liberals who responded to an online questionnaire. Conservatives were much more consistent: Only 4 percent of telephone respondents and 6 percent of online respondents said the same.

Last month, Brandon Ambrosino looked at an earlier study that suggested people overreport their actual religious practices. He pondered their motives:

According to [researcher Philip] Brenner, overreporting Muslims and Christians are not maliciously lying on surveys — they’re mishearing the question. Here’s Brenner:

“Like the overreporting of church attendance in North America, the overreporting of prayer in the Muslim world is strongly associated with the individual’s sense of what is central to his or her self-concept. The respondent interprets the conventional survey question about prayer pragmatically rather than semantically, allowing the question to become one about the respondent’s identity, rather than actual behavior.”

In other words, when a religious person is asked, “Do you do religious stuff?” the question she actually hears is, “Are you the kind of person who does religious stuff?” If [Brenner’s] research is any indication, lots of people in North America and the Middle East perceive themselves as the kind of people who do religious stuff — even when they’re not actually doing anything.