Risk aversion and religion


We use a dataset for a demographically representative sample of the Dutch population that contains a revealed preference risk attitude measure, as well as detailed information about participants’ religious background, to study three issues. First, we find strong confirmatory evidence that more religious people, as measured by church membership or attendance, are more risk averse with regard to financial risks. Second, we obtain some evidence that Protestants are more risk averse than Catholics in such tasks. Third, our data suggest that the link between risk aversion and religion is driven by social aspects of church membership, rather than by religious beliefs themselves.

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  1. 1.

    Combining large payoffs with a random selection of participants for real payment is often done in large-scale studies with the general public (e.g., von Gaudecker et al. 2011). The procedure leverages incentives, and avoids the potential problem of relatively linear utility for small payoffs when measuring risk attitude. While typically for the population as a whole no differences are observed between preferences elicited by different incentive methods (e.g. von Gaudecker et al. 2011; Noussair et al. 2013), in Section 2.2 we show that certain groups of the population may nevertheless be affected, for example due to specific religious doctrines.

  2. 2.

    More reporting errors for church attendance at age 15 than for current attendance, due for example to imperfect recall of one’s status at age 15, could lead to a downward bias in the direction of less significance in the coefficient.

  3. 3.

    In the next subsection we note that this effect might be caused by Protestants behaving in a more risk-averse manner in the real stakes than in the hypothetical conditions, and we discuss the possible implications of this finding.

  4. 4.

    Note, however, that the share of very active participants is small in both denominations.

  5. 5.

    In principle, the fact that only some individuals were selected for payment, and that in that event only one of the decisions they made was chosen for payment, meant that the choices that individuals faced were actually compound lotteries. Both the random payment of decision tasks and the random selection of individuals for payment are accepted techniques in experimental economics that do not induce systematic effects on decisions. However, if individuals make their decisions in consideration of the compound lotteries the randomization procedures induce, the choices are between positively skewed lotteries in the real stakes treatments. This positive skew is a feature that is also present in many activities that are considered as gambling, such as racetrack betting and playing the lottery, that Protestant doctrines typically discourage or forbid. Thus it is possible that differences between the behavior of members of different religious groups, or between decisions in the Real and Hypothetical treatments, could be due to an aversion to skewed lotteries, with this aversion possibly resulting from their similarity to proscribed gambling tasks.


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Stefan Trautmann and Gijs van de Kuilen’s research was supported by VENI grants from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). In this paper use is made of data of the LISS (Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social Sciences) panel administered by CentERdata (Tilburg University, The Netherlands).

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Charles N. Noussair.

Additional information

We thank Harris Schlesinger, Isaac Ehrlich, Christian Gollier, Han Bleichrodt and two anonymous referees for helpful comments.


Appendix A: Screenshot of risk attitude elicitation

Fig. 1

Screenshot of risk attitude elicitation

Appendix B: Relation to previous studies

Table 8 Features of prior empirical studies on religiosity and risk attitude

Appendix C: Risk aversion and organizational membership

In this appendix we test whether membership in non-religious organizations is positively correlated with risk aversion. We make use of a question available on the LISS panel, asking about membership in a wide range of organizations. We report results for the full sample, for the real and hypothetical stakes conditions separately, and for both sets of control variables used in the analysis in the main text. The results are in Table 8. The data replicate the finding that membership in religious organizations is positively correlated with risk aversion, especially in the real payment conditions. There is no across-the-board positive correlation between organizational membership and risk aversion. Membership in some organizations is unrelated to risk attitude, while in others it is negatively correlated.

Table 9 Risk aversion and organizational membership

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Noussair, C.N., Trautmann, S.T., van de Kuilen, G. et al. Risk aversion and religion. J Risk Uncertain 47, 165–183 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11166-013-9174-8

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  • Risk aversion
  • Religion
  • Catholicism
  • Protestantism

JEL Classifications

  • C91
  • C93
  • D81
  • Z12