Atlantic Cities
Charts

Is Civic Virtue Universal?

Is Civic Virtue Universal?
Shutterstock

Aristotle thought that a virtuous person was a happy person. People "seem to pursue honor in order that they may be assured of their goodness," he wrote in Nichomachean Ethics. But a relationship between virtue and happiness presupposes that everyone defines virtue the same way — and recently behavioral scientists have found that's not the case.

On the contrary, the value of civic virtue seems to vary around the world.

Researchers typically study virtue through experimental games (e.g. the ultimatum game or the public goods game) that suggest levels of altruism. The rules of these games differ from study to study, but generally speaking, the idea is that there's a pot of money available if players can agree on how to split it. Most players punish other players for being stingy or selfish — in other words, trying to keep most of the money to themselves.

In some cultures, however, players who might in the West be considered generous aren't treated with open arms. In a 2005 paper [PDF], for instance, political scientist Donna Barry of Penn State studied the ultimatum game in two Russian republics. Barry found, as one would expect, that players generally accepted a 50-50 split of the pot and generally rejected low-ball offers. But she also discovered that players often rejected an offer to get more than half the pot, refusing what many would see as a charitable gesture.

A study published in 2006 [PDF], led by anthropologist Joseph Henrich of Emory University, studied the ultimatum game in 15 separate global populations. Again, in most societies, selfishness is punished by other players. But again, in some places, people rejected an offer of more than their fair share, with half the players from two populations rejecting 100 percent of the pot.

Subsequent work paid increased attention to the cultural variables at play here. A group of scholars led by economist Benedikt Herrmann of University of Nottingham ran a public goods experiment in people from 16 very different countries. As expected, selfishness (in this case, players who tried to free-load off group contributions without contributing their share) was punished. But players from a number of places were also punished for contributing too much to the group pot — which Herrmann and company called "antisocial punishment" in the journal Science [PDF]:

When Herrmann and colleagues tried to figure out the roots of antisocial punishment, they came up with two possible explanations. First, these players came from places with weak rules of law, and so they were trying to govern themselves in a stronger way. Second, they also came from places with traditionally weak norms of civic cooperation, meaning cultures that condone behavior that could be seen as harming the community as a whole (e.g. tax evasion, welfare abuse, or transit fare dodging).

New work from a group of psychologists at the University of Cologne in Germany, led by Olga Stavrova, extends this line of research back to personal happiness. Stavrova and company find that — contrary to Aristotle's expectations — not all virtuous people are happier people. Rather, in countries that don't value civic cooperation, virtuous people don't seem to get the emotional benefit of contributing to the greater good.

The researchers reached this conclusion by pairing happiness rates with national surveys on civic cooperation and results from the types of experimental virtue games mentioned above. In one analysis of 13 countries, they indeed found a subset of places that don't seem to hold civic virtue in high regard. That was mostly true of Eastern and Southern European countries, including Russia, Greece, and Turkey (via Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin): 

Stavrova and company conclude that "virtuous individuals living in cultures that do not reward virtue and prosociality are less happy than their counterparts in cultures that provide such rewards."

Lest this work spark international resentment among readers, let's be clear that having a different value on civic virtue is not the same as labeling certain cultures mean-spirited. Far from it. In fact, researchers still struggle to explain why certain countries differ on measures of civic virtue. What they do seem to know with confidence is that feeling good by doing good depends a lot on where that good is done.

Keywords: Psychology, Behavior, virtue

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion