By Medha Arora, Deputy Editor
Traditionally and even more so in modern society, charitable giving, volunteering and lending a helping hand, have been active and profound ingredients in social welfare. Not taking into account the principles of “impure altruism” and the egoism, sense of achievement or desire for public recognition that is often linked to prosocial behaviour, the act of giving is typically attributed to the benefit of the greater public, an indelible service to families, groups and communities.
When we imagine generous donors, charitable givers, volunteers and helpful strangers, they strike us as people who are self-sacrificing, dependable and upholders of community and kinship-characteristics that are deeply embedded in the culture of ‘collectivism’. In collectivist societies, valuing the needs of a group or community over the individual and the cherished notion of interdependence and harmony are highly prized. It seems perfectly natural to assume that collectivists, being pretty much born with qualities that add to social welfare, are leading donors. Now, if asked to disassociate the two, we’d find it absolutely absurd. Almost as absurd as denying the role of, say, money creation and inflation!
Even while we’re familiar with the glaring fact that the United States has been one of the most altruistic countries in the world, having donated $410 billion or 2.1% of its GDP in 2017 and consistently ranks highest on the World Giving Index (WGI), we face no trouble in dismissing the relation between prosocial behaviour and ‘individualism’. It’s barely even questionable considering that it is a culture that stresses upon the needs of the individual over a group or society as a whole and is often associated with greed and selfishness. In fact, theorists have even decried individualists as having “evil” tendencies, with their “narcissism”, “indifference” and “selfishness” as antithetical to community welfare and the “common good”.
Accompanied in the WGI list of top 10 most generous countries are New Zealand, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, all of which are some of the world’s most individualist countries.
It seems contradictory that high levels of giving and volunteering are associated with countries such as the United States and Canada due to their individualistic nature, right? Especially when particularly collectivist states like Japan, Venezuela and India don’t top the list? The following thought that ensues probably pegs down the high levels to the privilege of wealth and time that such countries hold as the most plausible explanation. However, that doesn’t explain patterns of everyday helping (habits such as volunteering and providing everyday help to strangers), which don’t require wealth!
Could it actually be true that cultural individualism has the potential to promote prosocial action and isn’t inherently antithetical to community welfare, as the popular notion suggests?
A study conducted by Kemmelmeier, Jambor, and Letner (2006) building on previous research by Allik & Realo (2004) on ‘Individualism-Collectivism and Social Capital’ found that individualism was positively related to higher levels of giving and volunteering across the United States, with a tendency to benefit strangers, reflecting engagement in the benefit of the community.
Mullen and Skitka (2009) found that people who grew up in a collectivistic society value generosity, giving and are more familiar to the idea of helping and caring for others, but it appears that this tendency is restricted to the members of the in-group-usually friends, family members and other close-knit relationships. The concept of in-group/out-group and their distinction is extremely prevalent here. On the contrary, people who grew up in individualistic societies tend to help more in cases of emergencies and towards strangers.
While it may also appear that the prosocial behaviour is undertaken to fuel one’s own individual interests such as feeling better about themselves, enacting strong values and convictions etc., as is backed by Clary and Snyder(1999), Kemmelmeier’s study is more consistent with Waterman (1981,1984) who championed the prosocial consequences of individualism. According to his reasoning, ‘not egotism but personal responsibility coupled with the desire to live one’s life as an ethical actor’ seems to be a key influence of individualism, providing the base for a prosocial orientation that is expressed as charitable giving and volunteering.
That being said, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that individualistic countries are more altruistic overall in comparison to collectivist states. It can be ascertained, however, that individualism in no way is an obstacle to public betterment, instead it has the potential to foster it and is certainly not antithetical to group and community welfare!
Kemmelmeier, M., Jambor, E. E., & Letner, J. (2006). Individualism and Good Works.
Allik, J., & Realo, A. (2004). Individualism-Collectivism and Social Capital