As expected, the IWAH related positively with increased knowledge of and willingness to help with international aid issues. But a few surprising things did pop up. For instance, IWAH related to the personality traits of agreeableness and openness to experience, as expected, but it also related to neuroticism. Although perplexed by this unexpected finding, the researchers suggested that perhaps people who were ‘thin skinned’ and worried more might also be more likely to empathically worry or show concern for others. And while social dominance orientation and in-group identification were predictive of ethnocentric valuation of American over Afghani lives, authoritarianism, self-rated conservatism and religiosity were not. In fact, using a subscale of McFarland’s, Ravi Iyer found that, assuming one is not involved in a zero-sum game, ingroup love does not always equal outgroup hate.
Nevertheless, this study is likely to find itself in the groaner column for conservatives who’ve grown weary of presumed-liberal researchers publishing studies demonstrating how wonderfully self-actualized and mature their own moral tendencies and preferences are. Identifying with your fellow man sounds great, but can there be too much of a good thing? Pathological Altruism, a fascinating book that came out last year, highlights the ways in which giving and good intentions can go terribly wrong. Ideologues can get so addicted to the high of moral self-righteousness that no amount of common sense could convince them that burning a Koran might just not be the best idea. Excesses of empathic guilt and identification can cause women to take abusers back into their lives. Even at the more mundane levels of daily life, we all have competing demands coming from the different levels of self, in-group, and out-group all jockeying for position and favor. If you pour out compassion for outgroup members, you may have less left for your family; if you say yes to every ingroup request that comes your way, you may promote social cohesion and group fitness but sacrifice your own personal fitness.
There are many practical, group level applications for this line of inquiry as well. Creating effective church, non-profit, and social justice organizations depends on the leadership’s ability to convert passive, well-meaning interest into active engagement. Most of us want to live according to our values, but moving from the occasional church attendance or charitable contributions to daily engagement, routine giving, and a full-time commitment to a values-centered life can take a herculean will. In this world of abundant pressures and distractions, it’s hard to find the time to even reflect on what we should be doing, let alone doing it. Conservative church groups and liberal non-profits alike will surely be interested in gaining clarity about the identifications underlying donor behavior. Moving from passive group membership to active, engaged social interest can help donors attain their higher-order needs for self-actualization, even as they help fulfill the basic needs of others.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.