The holiday season is a time of giving and receiving, reflection on what is and what could be—and perhaps more than a little guilt. We all want to promote world peace and live in harmony, but what does that really mean? What does the intersection of praxis and theory look like? Is it a bumper sticker on your car, an annual donation to an international aid group, a bi-annual religious service attendance of your choice? New research attempts to quantify some of these philosophical questions. The results could shed light on everything from liberal-conservative differences to conflict resolution between Israel and Palestine. A scale developed by psychologists Sam McFarland, Matthew Webb, and Derek Brown at Western Kentucky University measures the degree to which people identify with all humans, not just their kin, local communities, or other assorted in-groups. The Identification With All Humanity Scale (IWAH) builds off of work by the towering figures Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow and attempts to measure active willingness to help those in need.

Adler and Maslow saw active and engaged “social interest,” or a sense of oneness with all humankind as a more mature and fully realized mode of being. Maslow held that each individual had a hierarchy of needs, starting with basic physiological needs, then security needs, friendship, acceptance and love, all the way up to the psychological drive toward self-actualization. Once the more basic needs are met, in this view, individuals are free to pursue higher goals of moral and personal flourishing. For Maslow, the more psychologically mature an individual was, the more they tended to identify with all of humanity as opposed to just their own family, race, or nation.

While neither psychologist developed operational measures in their lifetime, at least five scales have been established to measure social interest and moral identity in recent decades – most notably Americus Reed and Karl Aquino’s 2003 study on moral identity and expansive moral regard, and Shalom Schwartz’s nod to universalism in his 10 basic values. But these focused more on how people saw or evaluated their own morality as opposed to how actively they tended to identify and engage with humanity. Significantly, one previous paper presented at the International Society of Political Psychology in 2001, titled “Can humanity constitute an in-group?,” did directly measure active social identification. The study found that those who reported warmer feelings toward outgroups tended to have more critical ratings of whites, the predominant in-group for their Minnesota sample.

After pouring through the previous literature, McFarland and his team discovered that while some work on the concept of universalism (or a general feeling of kinship with all humanity) had been done, it was a fairly passive form of group membership which merely found that people with a greater sense of universalism tended to see themselves as part of the human family. It didn't really cover active identification or engagement--willingness to help others, willful acquisition of knowledge about international affairs and so on. They crafted their IWAH scale and then set out to test it on several different groups of people.

Building on previous work, McFarland and team established a series of ten studies, using self-reports as well as reports from close others. The researchers found that the IWAH was stable over time, distinct from a general empathy and tendency to identify with others, and was more than the mere absence of authoritarianism, social dominance and ethnocentrism. The IWAH did correlate with all these traits, but showed itself to be a distinct construct which manifested in a greater commitment to universal human rights, willingness to aid others, and greater acquired knowledge of international aid issues.

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 or Twitter @garethideas.