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Cross-Cultural Altruism

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Cross-Cultural Altruism

How a person behaves around others is determined by many different factors. One of particular interest is the examination of cross-cultural altruism as part of cultural norms. Do cultural norms affect how altruistic a person tends to be? If you’ve ever visited another country, you may have found that those who live there behave differently to those who live in your home country. Smiling at a stranger may be considered polite in one place but very odd in another.

Similarly, offering a helping hand is not always the natural thing to do.

Cross-cultural altruism: the Levine et al. (2001) contemporary study

Levine et al. (2001) conducted a contemporary study investigating helping behaviour or altruism across different countries and cultures.

What is the meaning of altruism?

Altruism: the act of helping others because you are concerned about them and genuinely want to help them. This concern is unselfish and does not require reciprocation in any form.

Cross-cultural altruism Helping others StudySmarterA person helping another on crutches walk down the street is an act of altruism, Flixr

There have been many studies comparing helping rates in different communities in a single country. These studies primarily investigated population size as a factor in helping behaviour, the hypothesis being that the larger a cities population, the larger the decrease in helping behaviour.

However, Levine et al. (2001) wanted to cross-culturally investigate other factors that may influence helping behaviour in a city.

  • The study had three aims:
    • To find out whether a city’s tendency to give non-emergency help to others is stable across situations over a wide range of cultures.
    • To find out if helping others varies cross-culturally.
    • To identify country-level variables that may relate to differences in helping.
  • Researchers investigated three factors to explain differences cross-culturally in helping behaviour:
    • Economic explanations: Countries with poorer economies leading to stressful living conditions may decrease helping behaviour. On the other hand, citizens in wealthier countries may need to be more individualistic and ignore traditional societal values, such as helping others.
    • Cultural values: Researchers looked at two cultural values; individualism vs collectivism and the concept of simpatia (in Spanish) or simpatico (in Portuguese). Simpatia or simpatico characterise Spanish and Latin American cultures. It refers to having a proactive concern for the social well-being of others. In this culture, it is a given to be friendly and helpful to strangers. They expected ‘simpatia’ cultures to be more altruistic than ‘non-simpatia’ cultures.
    • The pace of life: according to cognitive processing theories, a fast pace of life leads to a decrease in the likelihood of having time for social responsibilities, especially when it comes to helping strangers.

Method

Researchers tested three measures of helping in a large city in 23 countries. All had populations of more than 230,000.

Experimenters

All experimenters were male and of university age. One experimenter collected all the data for each city. To control for experimenter effects, apart from all experimenters being male, they all received a detailed information sheet and training in acting out the roles. They all practised their roles together. No verbal communication was required of the experimenters.

The three helping measures

  1. Dropped pen: Experimenters walked toward a single pedestrian coming in the opposite direction. When the experimenter reached into his pocket about 3 - 4.5 metres from the pedestrian and dropped a pen, seemingly unnoticed, he continued walking. Participants were considered helping if they shouted back to the experimenter that they had dropped the pen and/or picked up the pen and brought it to the experimenter. There were 214 males, and 210 women approached.
  2. Hurt leg: Experimenters walked with a limp and a leg brace. When they approached within 20 feet of a pedestrian, they appeared to drop a stack of magazines accidentally and unsuccessfully reached to pick them up. Helping was scored when participants offered to help and/or began to help without offering. A total of 253 men and 240 women were approached.
  3. Helping a blind person cross the street: Experimenters were dressed in black and carried a white cane for the blind. They played a blind person who needed help to cross the street. They stepped up to the street corner just before the light turned green, held up their cane, and waited for someone to offer help. An experiment ended after 60 seconds or when the light turned red, whichever came first. The experimenter then walked away from the corner. Researchers scored help if participants told the experimenter that the light was green.

Cross-Cultural Altruism Blind man StudySmarterA blind man with a walking stick, Flaticon

Results

The following table shows the percentage of helping in each city.

Blind person
Dropped pen
Hurt leg
Rank
City
Overall helping %
Rank
%
Rank
%
Rank
%
1
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
93.33
1
100
1
100
4
80
2
San Jose, Costa Rica
91.33
1
100
7
79
1
95
3
Lilongwe, Malawi
86
1
100
2
93
13
65
4
Calcutta, India
82.67
6
92
16
63
2
93
5
Vienna, Austria
81
12
75
6
88
4
80
6
Madrid, Spain
79.33
1
100
9
75
14
63
7
Copenhagen, Denmark
77.67
15
67
4
89
8
77
8
Shanghai, China
76.67
17
63
9
75
3
92
9
Mexico City, Mexico
75.67
6
92
17
55
4
80
10
San Salvador, El Salvador
74.67
6
92
4
89
20
43
11
Prague, Czech Republic
75
1
100
17
55
9
70
12
Stockholm, Sweden
72
18
58
3
92
11
66
13
Budapest, Hungary
71
15
67
8
76
9
70
14
Bucharest, Romania
68.67
6
92
14
66
19
48
15
Tel Aviv, Israel
68
10
83
13
67
16
54
16
Rome, Italy
63.33
12
75
21
35
4
80
17
Bangkok, Thailand
61
23
42
9
75
11
66
18
Taipei, Taiwan
59
21
50
15
65
15
62
19
Sofia, Bulgaria
57
11
80
12
69
23
22
20
Amsterdam, Netherlands
53.67
18
58
19
54
17
49
21
Singapore, Singapore
48
21
50
20
45
17
49
22
New York, United States
44.67
12
75
22
31
22
28
23
Kuala Lampur, Malaysia
40.33
20
54
23
66
21
41

The researchers found that economic productivity was the only variable associated with helping behaviour. People tended to help more in countries that had poorer economies. Also, ‘simpatia’ countries were more helpful than non-simpatia countries.

Conclusions

Helping behaviour varies cross-culturally. Countries that have poorer economies may also have a more traditional value system that includes guidelines such as helping strangers. Latin American countries and Spain were more helpful due to the culture of simpatia. Individualism or collectivism made no difference to helping behaviour.

Cross-cultural altruism [+] one world different cultures [+] StudySmarterCultures of the world, commons.wikimedia.org

Evaluation

There were both strengths and weaknesses to the Levine et al. study.

Strengths

  • The results of this study are generalisable due to the large number of countries and participants tested.

Weaknesses

  • Due to many experimenters, it is hard to be sure if all procedures were standardised or if there were any experimenter effects.

  • This was a correlational study, so although researchers found a link between poorer economies/simpatia culture, they could not establish cause and effect.

  • As they collected no qualitative data, we cannot find out why people help.


Cross-Cultural Altruism - Key takeaways

  • Levine et al. (2001) conducted a study investigating helping behaviour or altruism across different countries and cultures.
  • The factors investigated to explain differences in helping behaviour were economic explanations, cultural values (individualism vs collectivism, ‘simpatia’), pace of life.
  • Experimenters collected data in 23 countries. All experimenters were male and of university age. The three helping measures were: dropping the pen, hurting leg, helping a blind person cross the road.
  • The researchers found that economic productivity was the only variable associated with helping behaviour. People tended to help more in countries that had poorer economies. Also, ‘simpatia’ countries were more helpful than ‘non-simpatia’ countries.
  • The conclusion was that helping behaviour varies cross-culturally. Countries with poorer economies may also have a more traditional value system that includes guidelines such as helping strangers. Latin American countries and Spain were more helpful due to the culture of ‘simpatia’. Individualism or collectivism made no difference to helping behaviour.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cross-Cultural Altruism

Culture affects altruism when it is a standard dictated by society. The point is that we learn to be altruistic because of the culture in which we were raised. We may be more altruistic because of the beliefs we grow up with than because of our genes.

Levine et al. conducted their study in 23 countries.

A cross-cultural example is embracing or hugging someone when you see them. In the West, this is a common way to act. However, in East Asian countries it is not something they are accustomed to. 

Levine et al. (2001) conducted a contemporary study investigating helping behaviour or altruism across different countries and cultures. They measured helping behaviours in 23 countries and found that 

helping behaviour differed depending on economic productivity. People tended to help more in countries that had poorer economies. Also, 'simpatia' countries (a characteristic of Spanish and Latin American cultures, proactive warmth and concern for others) were more helpful than ‘non-simpatia’ countries.

Final Cross-Cultural Altruism Quiz

Question

What is altruism?

Show answer

Answer

The act of helping others because you are concerned about them and truly want to help them. This concern is unselfish and does not require reciprocation in any form.

Show question

Question

What did Levine et al. (2001) want to investigate?

Show answer

Answer

They wanted to cross-culturally investigate factors that may influence helping behaviour in a city. 

Show question

Question

What were the cultural values the study looked at?


Show answer

Answer

Individualism vs collectivism and ‘simpatia’.

Show question

Question

How many countries was the study conducted in?

Show answer

Answer

18.

Show question

Question

How did the study try to control for experimenter effects?

Show answer

Answer

All experimenters were male. They received a detailed information sheet and training in acting out the roles. They all practised their parts together. No verbal communication was required of the experimenters.

Show question

Question

What were the three helping measures used in the study?

Show answer

Answer

The three helping measures were: dropping the pen, hurting leg, helping a blind person cross the road.

Show question

Question

What city was ranked first in helping behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Show question

Question

What were the study results?

Show answer

Answer

The only variable associated with helping behaviour was economic productivity. People tended to help more in countries with poorer economies. Also, ‘simpatia’ countries were more helpful than ‘non-simpatia’ countries. 

Show question

Question

Why may countries with poorer economies be more helpful?

Show answer

Answer

Countries with poorer economies may also have a more traditional value system that includes guidelines for helping strangers.

Show question

Question

Did individualism vs collectivism make a difference to helping behaviour?

Show answer

Answer

Yes.

Show question

Question

Are the results of this study generalisable?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, because the study tested a large number of countries and participants.

Show question

Question

What is a weakness of correlational studies?

Show answer

Answer

They cannot establish cause and effect.

Show question

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