New research: Cultures that value individualism are more generous

(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Geert Hofstede was a social science professor who taught at a university in the Netherlands. He died in 2000 but the focus of his work was cross cultural studies. He developed a popular framework for looking at cultural differences known as the Hofstede model of national culture which ranked each country according to six dimensions.

There’s a list of all six here but one of those dimensions was individuality. And it turns out that if you look at the ranking of countries on the basis of individuality, the US is at the very top with an individualism score of 91 out of 100. Other countries at the top of the list are Australia, UK, Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy, Belgium, Denmark and France. Countries that score very low on this dimension include: Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia and Pakistan.

As this piece published today by the NY Times points out, not everyone agrees that individualism, exemplified by the idea of the American dream, is a good thing. In fact some argue that individualism makes people selfish. But this new research suggests that’s not the case.

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 (as gauged by the Animal Protection Index).

We found that countries that scored highly on one form of altruism tended to score highly on the others, too, suggesting that broad cultural factors were at play. When we looked for factors that were associated with altruism across nations, two in particular stood out: various measures of “flourishing” (including subjectively reported well-being and objective metrics of prosperity, literacy and longevity) and individualism…

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.

And it’s not just because people in individualistic countries tend to be wealthier. After “statistically controlling for wealth, health, education and other variables” the researchers found that countries like the Unites States and Netherlands were more altruistic than more collectivist countries like Ukraine and China.

The authors review three possible reasons or hypotheses for why individualistic nations might be more generous. One possibility is that people in these countries are more personally satisfied with their lives. Another possibility is that individualism frees more people to act on behalf of others. But the third possibility struck me as potentially significant at this moment in time: Individualism leads people to focus on universal rights and welfare rather than group dynamics.

The article’s author doesn’t say this but I will. Dividing people by race and treating those differences as essential to their individual identities, as many on the left seem eager to do these days, seems like a way to put the focus back on groups and inter-group dynamics rather than on universal values. And that seems like a way to short cut the kind of broad generosity the authors are talking about as a benefit of individualism.