Much research on helping behaviour can be criticised as being ethnocentric, conducted in the USA alone. Thus, the studies are rather limited in terms of the lack of variety in the people studied. Latane and Darley were the first to systematically investigate the circumstances under which bystander’s are/are not likely to intervene to help others, and promote pro-social behaviour. However, we must be cautious not to generalise the findings to other cultures. We cannot assume that the same circumstances apply equally to any human population.
The tendency to make this assumption is something we need to be very aware of when drawing broad conclusions regarding pro-social behaviour from a limited sample. This implication highlights the need for cross-cultural research into pro-social behaviour. Each cultural group has social norms. Cultures also share values, which specify what kinds of pro-social behaviour are considered desirable. We all need to go through the processes of socialisation to acquire the norms and values relevant to our culture.
If we behave differently from the prescribed cultural norms, there are likely to be negative consequences, such as disapproval of others. Norms and values vary considerably between cultures and subcultures because there is such cross-cultural variation in social structures. We need to remember, then, that what may be true of the social behaviour of Americans does not necessarily apply to people living in the Kalahari Desert or indigenous people of New Zealand. Hsu (1971) proposed that cultures could be divided into two broad groupings, individualist and collectivist.
In individualistic cultures, such as the UK, US and other Western cultures, emphasis is placed on individual freedom and looking after our own interests, with less concern for the welfare of others. In collectivistic cultures, such as China, Japan and some other Asian countries, individual wishes are seen as less important than the well being of the group. It might therefore be expected that pro-social behaviour would be more apparent in collectivistic cultures.
Cultural perspectives on pro-social behaviour place it within a much larger moral system that binds people together in social relationships (Miller and Bersoff, 1994). An example of the role that pro-social behaviour, or specifically helping behaviour, plays in the establishment of social relationships can be found in the Chinese custom of ‘doing favours for people’ (Moghaddam, 1998) Eisenburg and Mussen (1989) conducted cross-cultural research into children’s pro-social behaviour to examine this notion further.
It was found that North American children were less kind, considerable and co-operative than children who had grown up in Mexican villages, Hopi children reared on Indian reservations or Israeli children reared in kibbutzim. Thus, the findings suggest that there is a relationship between the type of culture within which children grow up and the degree of pro-social behaviour they show. Children reared within a collectivistic culture tend to show more pro-social behaviour than those reared in an individualistic culture.
However, the distinction between individualist and collectivist cultures may be too broad to give a clear picture of cultural differences in helping behaviour, since members of cultures which can be in general classified under one heading may also vary in their willingness to help. Feldman (1968) found that foreigners in Greece asking a favour (postage of a stamped letter) were more likely to receive help than if they were locals, while Bostonians treated foreigners worse than compatriots. These findings indicate the wide variations between individual cultures in pro-social behaviour.
Furthermore, the extent to which help is offered in a particular culture is influenced by the situation in which it is required. Collett and O’Shea (1976) found that in Iran directions were frequently given, even to nonexistent sites, however, this did not happen in London. Thus, in Iran, the format of helpfulness was preserved, even though the directions were not particularly helpful. Collett and O’Shea conclude that in some collectivistic cultures, foreigners may be treated differently to locals because they are seen as in some way more important and worthy of help.
This contrasts with Fiske’s findings, since it has now been shown that people will offer help to those who live outside the culture. A further study has investigated the effect of specific cultural beliefs. L’Armand and Pepitone (1975) compared altruistic behaviour in the US and India. The attitudes to and beliefs about helping in the two cultures were also explored. The findings were found to be in contrast to what would be predicted from the individualistic versus collectivist distinction.
Americans were in general more altruistic than Indians, however, only in low-cost situations. In addition, there was a cultural belief among Indians that all types of rewards are fixed and limited; so one person’s gain is another’s loss. Therefore, this study demonstrates the influence of cultural beliefs and attitudes and how they can affect helping behaviour. There has also been a certain amount of research focussing on the effect sub-cultural differences has in helping behaviour within a particular culture and, in particular, differences between classes.
Muir and Weinstein (1962) studied middle-class and lower-class women in the USA, questioning them regarding helping behaviour and the principles that they used in deciding whether or not to help. It was found that middle-class women worked on exchange principles, i. e. according to what is ‘fair’, following the same general principles as financial help. They felt obliged to help others who had helped them in the past, but did not help again people who had not ‘repaid’ the help they had already given. In contrast, lower-class women were more likely to help when they were able.
These findings are useful in highlighting the power our social class can have on our helping behaviour. This research was carried out over 30 years ago, so it is quite possible that there have been sufficiently large cultural changes in that time to make the validity of this conclusion questionable. There does not seem to have been much recent research in this particular area. However, similar results have been found when the same procedure was replicated in other countries, e. g. Turkey (Ugurel-Semin, 1952) and Israel (Dreman and Greenbaum, 1973)
Miller & Bersoff (1998) investigated the importance of liking in on perceived responsibilities to help someone in need. It was found that American participants were less likely to take responsibility for helping someone they did not like, compared to someone they did like. Liking had no impact on Indian participants perceptions of their moral responsibility to help to child, sibling or colleague. This showed that those from a collectivist culture would provide help, regardless of liking. Cultural rules governing gender relations may also determine the likelihood of individuals seeking help.
These may account for the fact that, in most cultures, women seek help more than do men (Moghaddam, 1998). Cultural rules with regard to gender appears to be powerful, because women are allowed to present themselves as in need whereas male concerns for toughness and independence may prevent them from seeking the help of others. In Britain and the US, for example, twice the number of women than men seeks help for their depression (Weissman et al, 1991), whereas male alcoholics outnumber female alcoholics by the same proportion (Nolen-Hoeksama, 1990)
Sub-cultural differences are also evident in addition to culture. Nadler (1986) compared Israeli urban dwellers with those living on a kibbutz, in terms of whether they would be willing to seek and receive help. Nadler found that those who had been raised communally were more likely to help compared to those raised individualistically in the city, particularly when the help was seen to benefit the group rather than just the individual. However, these results raise intriguing questions, as to whether they were the product of individualist or collectivist experiences.
Therefore, Nadler (1993) compared these two groups with US and USSR immigrants settled in Israel. As before, the kibbutz dwellers were most likely to seek help, and US immigrants and Israel urban dwellers less likely to do so. The USSR immigrants, from a predominantly collectivistic culture, were least likely to seek help. This can be explained adequately, since USSR citizens tend only to seek help from those to whom they felt close and intimate, avoiding interactions outside this small circle of family and friends.
In conclusion, conflicting results from laboratory and field studies of helping behaviour tends to question the significance of culture differences on pro-social behaviour. Laboratory studies, particularly those involving American participants, tend to emphasise that people will avoid the need to request help as far as possible. In contrast, field studies, particularly those involving participants from Asian cultures, emphasise that people will sacrifice time and effort in order to attend to those that deserve help (Wills, 1992).
However, these conflicting results may not simply be the product of cultural differences alone. Moreover, lab-based studies tend to lack the social context of seeking help. Faced with a limited time period with anonymous fellow participants, there would seem little point in attempting to develop a social relationship in such an artificial context. In the real world, however, people actively seek out the help of others to extend their social relationships (Moghaddam 1998)