Monday, 8 October 2012

In search of the super-humane (those who identify with all of humanity)

The pages of psychology's journals are filled with sorry tales of people's intolerance and prejudice towards one another. Against this darkness, Sam McFarland and his colleagues urge us not to forget the brighter stories - the heroes of the past who put themselves at risk because they felt empathy towards outsiders.

Consider the French Pastor Andre ́ Trocme ́ and his wife, who helped save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. "We don't know what a Jew is," Trocme ́ said when instructed to hand over the names of all the Jews. "We only know people."

The ability and inclination to identify with all of humanity was touched on by some of psychology's pioneers. Alfred Adler wrote about the innate potential of people to achieve "gemeinschaftsgefuhl", literally translated as "social interest", but also taken to mean "oneness with all humanity".  The founder of humanistic psychology Abraham Maslow invoked the concept of "self-actualised individuals" - people able to identify with and have a concern with all mankind.

Yet despite these early ideas, there's been little subsequent research on the ability to identify with all humanity. One reason is the lack of an explicit measure. Some psychological scales come close - for example, there's the "Social Interest Scale" (measuring interest in community) and there are measures of "moral identity" (how central morality is to self-identity) and "universalism" (a oneness with the world), but none quite targets identifying with all humankind. Until now.

McFarland and his team have devised the Identification With All Humanity Scale (IWAH), consisting of 9 three-part items, including: "How much do you identify with (that is, feel a part of, feel love toward, have concern for) each of the following: a) people in my community, b) Americans, c) All humans everywhere". This version is aimed at US participants, hence the option for (b). The full version is online.

The researchers tested their new IWAH scale exhaustively across ten studies involving hundreds of participants. The researchers found:
  • a high score on the IWAH was more than just a lack of in-group bias and a disposition for empathy; the IWAH also taps into something other than Shalom Shwartz's broader and more abstract concept of "universalism" (the goal of "understanding, appreciation, tolerance and protection for the welfare of all people and for all nature").
  • high scores on IWAH correlated more strongly with people's concern for human rights than existing compassion measures
  • scores on the scale were stable across 10 weeks
  • close friends and family had a good idea of a person's score on the IWAH
  • members of Human Rights Watch and the Church World Service scored particularly high on the scale, just as you'd expect if it's measuring what it is supposed to
  • high scores on the IWAH correlated with the personality factors agreeableness, openness to experience and neuroticism (the researchers were baffled by this last association)
  • high scorers on IWAH valued American and Afghani lives more equally
  • high scorers had a greater knowledge of global humanitarian issues
  • and finally ... research via the your morals.org website, involving thousands of participants, showed that high scores on the IWAH predicted people's willingness to donate money to international charities, beyond traditional measures, such as of ethnocentrism. 
McFarland and his colleagues concluded that their new scale has "substantial merit" and that it's now important to question why some people develop a deeper identification with all of humanity than others. They predicted that children who are neglected or spoiled will fail to develop this form of empathy for all mankind. "A lack of punitiveness coupled with affection may provide a foundation for later concern for humanity at large," they said. "Understanding how identification with all humanity develops is worthy of direct and extensive investigation." Let's hope their new scale helps inspire more research on this vital issue. 

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

McFarland S, Webb M, and Brown D (2012). All Humanity Is My Ingroup: A Measure and Studies of Identification With All Humanity. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 22708625

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

10 comments:

  1. European Native3:32 pm

    Did you notice by whom these "studies" are hosted and likely sponsorised?

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    1. I paid for most of the work myself. Why does that matter?
      Sam McFarland

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  2. plenty of super-humane out there. :)

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  3. Do not give too much into this study - it does not measure altruistic behavior in the real life but only answering questions in a survey. The history of psychology as a science is full of discoveries where people acted completely against the answers they had given to questions. For example, most people complied in the famous Milgram experiment, but the overwhelming majority denied that they would act this way when they were asked before the actual experiment. And than I absolutely distrust the argument that there are some people who are absolute "do gooders" - who act altruisically under all conditions and to all humanity. That there are some people who are simply "better" than all others. This is pretentious. Altruistic behavior is always dependant on context. For example, here in Germany, you might have been a white knight in the nazi era, but turned into a torturer in the socialistic DDR era.

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    1. hi Rolf, thanks for your comments. It's true that self-report questionnaires have their limitations. But really that was one of the issues addressed by this study. They were looking to see if high scores on the new IWAH scale correlated with real behaviours. The results were encouraging - for example, the final part showed that high scorers were more willing to donate money to international charities.

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    2. Saying that one is willing to donate and actually donating is definitely not the same!

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    3. You misunderstand - they did choose to donate. Participants were entered into a lottery - they then had the choice of whether to keep any winnings or donate them. People who scored more highly on the IWAH more often chose the donate option.

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  4. I am not surprised at all by the correlation with neuroticism. If you are "super-humane" and witness others behaving in inhumane ways on a daily basis, it is HIGHLY distressing! The more aware, open, and empathetic you are, the more you are affected by behavior that is counter to universal well-being; it HURTS.

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  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  6. Thank you for this study. I would like to help with future studys of this nature. monicaemberley@gmail.com

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