Although almost every culture has a social responsibility norm, the strength of those norms varies across cultures. And these differences relate well to what we know about individualism and collectivism. In one study, Miller, Bersoff, and Harwood (1990) found that children and adults in the United States (a Western and therefore individualistic culture) were less likely than children and adults in India (an Eastern and therefore collectivistic culture) to believe that people have an obligation to provide assistance to others. The Indian respondents believed that there was an absolute requirement to help, whereas the Americans offered their helping more selectively, even to their friends. Similarly, Baron and Miller (2000) found that Indian students were more likely than U.S. students to view donating bone marrow to save someone’s life as morally required, whereas U.S. students were more likely than Indian students to say that donating was a decision that the potential donor had to make himself or herself.
Perlow and Weeks (2002) found that there were substantial cultural differences in the behavior of software engineers working at similar companies and doing the same type of work in the United States and in India. Engineers at the American site were more focused on exchange and reciprocity—they tended to provide help to others only if they thought those people could be helpful to them in the future. The engineers at the Indian company, on the other hand, were more willing to help anyone who seemed to need help, regardless of the potential for a return. Perlow and Weeks interpreted these differences in terms of different ways of meeting the goal of self-interest. Among the Americans, helping was seen as an unwanted interruption on the time of the individual, and thus helping was not personally beneficial. At the Indian company, however, helping was seen more as an opportunity for improving one’s skills. These results suggest that helping, at least in Western contexts such as the United States, can be increased if it is framed to be perceived as important toward achieving one’s goals.
One important difference between Eastern and Western cultures is that the importance of self-concern (versus other-concern) is higher in the latter. In fact, the strong individualistic norms in cultures such as the United States make it sometimes inappropriate to try to help in cases where we do not have a personal interest. Rebecca Ratner and Dale Miller (2001) had participants read a scenario in which a governmental funding agency was planning to reduce funding for research regarding a disease. The disease was said to affect only women or only men. Then the participants were asked to indicate both whether they were opposed to the reduction in funding and how comfortable they would be in attending a meeting to protest the funding changes.
In terms of their attitudes toward the reduction in funding, there were no significant gender differences. Men thought that the funding should be maintained even when the disease only affected women, and vice versa. However, as you can see in Figure 8.11 when asked how comfortable they would feel attending a meeting protesting the funding decreases, significant differences occurred. The men predicted that they would feel less comfortable attending a meeting to protest the funding reductions when the disease only affected women, and the women predicted that they would feel less comfortable attending a meeting to protest the funding reductions when the disease only affected men.
Ratner and Miller argued that in Western cultures there is a norm of self-interest that influences whether or not we feel that we can be involved in actions designed to help others. In short, people are not expected to volunteer for, or to be involved in, causes that do not affect them personally. It is simply inappropriate to lend help to others unless the person is personally involved in the issue and thus stands to benefit. Indeed, participants in another study by Ratner and Miller reacted more negatively to an individual’s altruistic behaviors when they did not appear consistent with his or her self-interest.
There is still another example of the subtle role of self-interest in helping. Did you ever notice that many people who are looking for contributions to a cause do not ask directly but rather ask that you purchase something from them, allowing them to keep the profit from the sale? Bake sales, car washes, and address sticker and magazine subscription charity campaigns are all examples of this. Of course, it would be more profitable for the charity if people simply gave the same amount of money rather than taking the gift—and perhaps the people who are making the purchases would prefer not to have to buy the product anyway.
Is it possible that people are simply more comfortable making donations in exchange for a product than they are simply giving money to a charity? Research by John Holmes and his colleagues (Holmes, Miller, & Lerner, 2002) has supported this idea, finding that people are more likely to help when they can pretend that they are acting in their own self-interest. In one study, Holmes and his team found that students were more likely to donate money to a needy charity when they were offered a small candle in return for their donation than when they were not offered the candle. However, and suggesting that they didn’t really care about the candle that much, when the request was to contribute to a charity that did not seem that needy, contributions were smaller overall but were not greater when the candle was offered than when it was not. Again, it seems that people feel more comfortable being altruistic when they can pretend that they are really helping themselves—not violating the norm of self-interest.