Helping strangers may be strange in most of the world

There has been a host of research and experiments (some reported on here and on the Saguaro website) about cooperation with strangers and punishing of defectors (cheaters) in order to restore the culture of cooperation.

A recent article by Benedikt Herrmann (University of Nottingham), Simon Gachter (economist at University of Nottingham in England) and Christian Thoni (University of St. Gallen in Switzerland) suggests that social scientists may have been skewed by where the research took place.  Most of the research on cooperation and altruism has occurred in indvidualistic societies, but most of the world’s people live in collectivistic societies.

Herrmann et al find (using data from the World Values Survey) that the more a country’s citizens support the rule of law and civic cooperation (disapproving of tax evasion, welfare abuse and fare-avoidance on public transport), the more positively they respond to being chastised by others for their stinginess.  In contrast, in more collectivist countries, there is less altruism displayed and social punishments (done to send a chastising signal against non-cooperation) are more likley to strike back in revenge than mend their scourgeful ways.

In collectivist societies that stress interdependence and pursuit of group goals, people cooperate with those inside their network (families and friends) but are less likely to cooperate with strangers.  Conversely, as Gachter explains “In modern, market-based [individualistic] societies, group boundaries aren’t very important…You have to be able to cooperate with unrelated strangers.”

The research makes me think that we may have certain set points that induce us to cooperate a certain amount with strangers.  Push us too hard to cooperate, and we wind up trusting strangers less to return to this set point.  Raise individuals in a more individualist society and they may be more expressly cooperative with strangers to get to this set point.  We found similar results with levels of bridging social capital in communities.  In places with greater diversity, it looked like people held back on making bridging social friends from what one would expect randomly;  put in more homogeneous settings, it looked like people went out of their way (relative to the numbers of people of other races) to form racially bridging friendships.

The paper “Antisocial Punishment Across Societies” available here.

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