More Individualism Means More Altruism

"There may be no inherent conflict between doing well and doing good".


The countries with more individualistic values are also the countries with higher levels of altruism, according to an upcoming study in the journal Psychological Science. A team of psychologists from Georgetown and Harvard reached this conclusion after parsing data from around the world on subjective well-being, individualist versus collectivist cultural values, and various measures of altruism, ranging from charitable giving to helping strangers to living organ donations to the humane treatment of animals.

The researchers include the latest data (from 2019) in the Charities Aid Foundation's annual World Giving Index, which surveys people across the globe asking them if in the past month they had helped a stranger, donated money to a charity, or volunteered time to an organization. "The United States of America is the world's most generous country over the last 10 years," the 2019 report notes. Others in the top 10 include are Myanmar, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

China ranks as the world's least generous country. Others in the bottom 10 include Greece, Yemen, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Russia.

The researchers then correlate altruistic tendencies with six measures of national cultural differences devised by the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede and his associates. One of these measures is individualism, which expresses the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. "In Individualist societies people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies people belong to 'in groups' that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty," observes Hofstede's consultancy firm Hofstede Insights. The United States scores highest on individualism, followed by Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. China's rank is toward the bottom.

The researchers find that "the variable most consistently associated with altruism at both the individual and geographical level is subjective well-being (SWB)." They also note that "individualist cultural values reliably predict increased national-level SWB." In other words, individualist values tend to enhance subjective well-being, which in turn promotes altruistic behavior.

Subjective thriving is measured by asking respondents to rate their current and anticipated (next five years) life satisfaction on a ladder scale, with zero representing the worst possible life and 10 being the best possible life.

The researchers find that higher individualism enhances subjective well-being by promoting engagement in intrinsically meaningful behaviors, including those that improve the well-being of others. In addition, they suggest that individualism prompts people to look beyond their tribes and tribal values and promotes a more cosmopolitan outlook that encourages people to take into account the needs of and offer help to out-group strangers.

"To the extent a robust positive geographic relationship between individualism and altruism appears counterintuitive, it may reflect the common conflation of individualism with selfishness," note the authors. "However, present results together with previous work may resolve this apparent paradox, in that individualist cultural values are reliably associated with SWB, which promotes altruism." Thus the researchers report that their "findings offer reassurance that there may be no inherent conflict between doing well and doing good."

Georgetown researcher Abigail Marsh, summarizing her and her colleagues' research in a New York Times op-ed, observes that political liberals "often express concern that individualism begets selfishness, but they may not realize that individualism actually promotes the values they most prize, as opposed to more traditional 'binding' values like obedience to authority and in-group loyalty."

One unfortunate upshot is that the tribalist collectivism inherent in contemporary progressives' obsession with identity politics will result in less rather than more altruism in the United States.