How Individualism Promotes Generosity

A new study shows that, far from increasing selfishness, individualistic societies feature higher levels of altruism.


Many people take for granted the idea that individualism leads to selfishness. But  a new study, forthcoming in Psychological Science, concludes the opposite: more individualistic societies feature higher levels of altruistic generosity than more collectivist ones. Georgetown psychology and neuroscience Prof. Abigail Marsh, one of the authors of the study, summarizes the key findings in a recent New York Times op ed:

The United States is notable for its individualism. The results of several large surveys assessing the values held by the people of various nations consistently rank the United States as the world's most individualist country. Individualism, as defined by behavioral scientists, means valuing autonomy, self-expression and the pursuit of personal goals rather than prioritizing the interests of the group — be it family, community or country…

Everyone seems to agree that our individualism makes us self-centered or selfish, and to disagree only about how concerning that is.

But new research suggests the opposite: When comparing countries, my colleagues and I found that greater levels of individualism were linked to more generosity — not less….

For our research, we gathered data from 152 countries concerning seven distinct forms of altruism and generosity. The seven forms included three responses to survey questions administered by Gallup about giving money to charity, volunteering and helping strangers, and four pieces of objective data: per capita donations of blood, bone marrow and organs, and the humane treatment of nonhuman animals…

[E]ven after statistically controlling for wealth, health, education and other variables, we found that in more individualist countries like the Netherlands, Bhutan and the United States, people were more altruistic across our seven indicators than were people in more collectivist cultures — even wealthy ones…..

On average, people in more individualist countries donate more money, more blood, more bone marrow and more organs. They more often help others in need and treat nonhuman animals more humanely. If individualism were equivalent to selfishness, none of this would make sense.

While Marsh characterizes her group's findings as "surprising," they are in fact consistent with a variety of previous research finding that the United States and other relatively individualistic societies feature higher levels of charitable giving and other forms of generosity than more collectivist societies.

The idea that individualism (particularly the libertarian version thereof) promotes selfishness is both at odds with empirical evidence and often based on a false conflation of altruistic cooperation and government coercion.

Marsh suggests several reasons why, contrary to stereotype, individualism promotes generosity:

How does individualism manage to promote altruism? One possibility, supported by other research, is that people in individualist cultures generally report greater degrees of "thriving" and satisfaction of life goals — and as noted above, such subjective feelings are meaningfully correlated with greater amounts of altruism. (Indeed, research has shown that being altruistic, in turn, promotes greater feelings of personal well-being, creating a virtuous circle.)

Another possibility is that individualism boosts altruism by psychologically freeing people to pursue goals that they find meaningful — goals that can include things like alleviating suffering and caring for others, which studies suggest are widespread moral values.

A third possibility is that individualism promotes a more universalist outlook. In focusing on individual rights and welfare, it reduces the emphasis on groups — and the differences between "us" and "them" that notoriously erode generosity toward those outside one's own circle.

I would add that collectivist ideologies also tend to undermine generosity by fostering a "zero sum" mindset where that which benefits one group necessarily comes at the expense of others.

Sadly, liberal individualism is currently under attack by both the nationalist right and socialist and "identity politics" elements on the left. While these groups differ on many issues, they are united in their hostility to individualism and promotion of a zero-sum world view. The more these ideologies take hold, the more American individualism may erode — and generosity along with it.

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  1. Agreed, there is nothing more selfish than wanting to spend the fruit of another person’s labor. On that point libertarians, many conservatives, and the few remaining blue dog dems agree.

    But your lumping of nationalist libertarians with collectivists is misguided. In a perfect world no one would try to lord it over any other person or group, but we do not live in a perfect world. Nationalist libertarians realize we need government to protect our individual rights. If men well angels…and all that.

    The Declaration of Independence ought to be our guide. Most libertarians cite it for the protection of individual rights, but open borders libertarians ignore the Declaration’s recognition that in order to protect those rights it may be necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them. If we want to remain free we need to maintain a government that is conducive that end.

    Nationalist libertarians oppose open borders, but if they are thinking they will also oppose the concentration of power at the federal level. Collectivists and other extreme leftists champion open borders and a concentration of power at the federal level.

    Individual freedom protected by law produces prosperity, which in turn supports altruism. Collectivism produces scarcity and impoverishment which strains altruism.

  2. Simpler. Individualistic cultures value strivin’ and thrivin’. They are richer, have more excess wealth. They can afford generosity.

    1. Went to an expensive restaurant in Paris. Needed to pee. They had a hole in the ground. They could not afford a $100 toilet. The toilet at a McDonalds looks like heaven compared to that in that restaurant.

      It is better to be a poor person in the US, outside the Dem shithole hellscapes, than a rich person in more collectivist, more communitarian Europe. As a homeless guy, I go to a clinic and get the same cancer care as a Saudi Prince traveling here. Under Euro Commie Care, I just die. As a homeless guy outside the shithole Dem jurisdiction, I get the luxury of space. Heck, I get to pee in a toilet, and to poop on it, not afraid to fall and have to be extricated by the fire department from a hole in the ground.

    2. Actually, the facts do not bear this out. Nicholas Kristof summarized the research (and the reluctance of the liberal researchers to believe the results) in a 2008 Seattle Times article entitled, “Conservatives are more giving than liberals”

      He noted research demonstrated “Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for government programs to help the neediest people at home and abroad. Yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.” Further, this held true in non-monetary generosity (e.g., donating blood).

      1. Is giving money to the symphony — in exchange for entertainment — a charitable donation? Is buying a ticket to see the Rolling Stones any less a charitable donation?

        Is giving money to the Catholic Church — in exchange for entertainment — a charitable donation? Is buying a ticket to see Dave Chappelle any less a charitable donation?

        Let’s see the definitions before reaching any conclusions — or developing any useful assertions — concerning generosity.

  3. Controlled for “wealth, health, education and other variables.” Yeah, wealth, health, and education are the most relevant variables. Sure they are, at least within the materialist ideology.

    1. I will have a better life on $100000 anywhere in America than on $million in any Dem jurisdiction. Even on $billion in San Fran, I live in the 19th century with poop on the street and typhus all around. I am not even allowed to complain without getting bashed and cancelled. All PC is case. Thank the lawyer for the hell where the rich reside.

      1. Near Carnegie Hall, Central Park West with its $100 million condos. Thank the scumbag lawyer profession for making life unlivable at any salary. These billionaires will be stepping over poop, dead addicts. Their children will be accosted by rapists, as they go play in the Park. They will be stabbed and pushed into traffic for no apparent reason by paranoid people. I will be starting a lucrative, tax free panhandling business, right there. I estimate $100K working half time. “Hi, my name is Michael. I have autism. I am stranded here. I need $99 for a ticket home to Connecticut.” Dem women stood in line to donate. One stopped me from calling the cops.

          1. Those children will have nannies. Those beautiful, white, Swedish nannies will be raped before the children are, by aggressive, super-predator, diverse career criminals, high on meth or on Muscatel. Blacks rape 35000 white women a year. Whites rape no black women a year. Too scary. Thank the pro-criminal, scumbag, lawyer profession for the rapes of white women each year.

  4. You’re citing the New York Times for these facts? A “not trustworthy news source”? And not even a news article, an Op-Ed piece?

  5. There was a similar study looking at the relationship between political orientation and generosity and religion and generosity. As I recall political conservatism and religious practice correlated with things like giving blood, volunteering and at school, and the amount given to charity. I wonder what is more important? Religious individualism (i.e., Jesus is my personal Savior), political individualism (libertarian or conservative-libertarian fusion), or if there is some more fundamental trait that also scales with individualism?

    1. I am a CPA with a tax practice.

      My observation is that the conservative clients tend to donate to local charities, such as local food bank, local homeless shelter, women’s shelter, private school, local church , for the most part organizations with high expenditures going directly to those with needs.

      Whereas , my liberal/progressive clients tend to donate to either large national organizations with high administrative expenses, or advocacy type groups – basically organizations that low expenditures that actually provide any benefits to those in need.

      1. Churches are freeloading organizations more than charitable organizations.

        1. so are most of the Arts, Symphonies, etc

          but what does that have to do with conservatives donating significantly more to charitable organizations that actually serve the needy vs liberals who donate to organizations that have low expenditures that actually help and/or assist the needy.

  6. This seems an odd post to write. And on a larger note, the entire methodology seems suspect.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love the US, and I love our individualistic society. And I do believe that the US is a very giving country, on multiple fronts. But the logic in this type of “ranking” system seems suspect. The biggest issue, in my mind, is this methodology likely mischaracterizes “giving” in more collectivist societies. Lets give a sample example to make the point.

    -Take two countries, “Individualistic” and “Collectivist”. Take 4 people in each countries…son A and grandparent A and son B and grandparent B.
    -In the individualistic country, all people live apart. Son A helps our grandparent B on occasion, Son B helps our grandparent A on occasion. This is counted as “giving” or “charity”.
    -In the collectivist society, Son A lives near or with Grandparent A. Son B lives near or with grandparent B. When Son A helps out grandparent A, this is counted as just being part of the collectivist society. When Son B helps our grandparent B, this is counted as just being part of the collectivist society. This help isn’t counted as “giving” or “charity”
    -So, despite the same amount of overall charity or giving, because of how the characterization is made, the “individualistic” society looks to be far more charitable.

  7. Libertarianism is such a peculiar ideology that this study says nothing about it. Most individualists and most Americans are not Libertarians. Libertarians are happy to make everyone worse off, if it helps their ideological goals.

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