In a recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists Sam McFarland, Matthew Webb, and Derek Brown developed a new scale for measuring individual differences in this attribute, the Identification With All Humanity scale (IWAH). The scale involves a series of questions assessing the degree to which someone identifies with "all humans everywhere" ("identifying" includes things like feeling love toward, feeling similar to, and believing in), independent of how much they identify with people in their own community and country. They then examined how scores on this measure relate to various personality traits and behaviors. Here are some highlights from the findings.
1. It's more than just being a good person. Plenty of scales exist to measure traits like altruism, compassion, and interdependent self-construal, but these kinds of scales do not differentiate between people who feel connected only to a specific group of people and those who feel connected to all people. Sometimes the two are even inversely correlated, as evidenced by research suggesting that, paradoxically, those living in collectivist cultures, though willing to sacrifice for their group members, may be even less likely to help outgroup members, compared to members of individualistic cultures. In other words, you might feel nothing but good will towards people who are similar to you, but how do you feel about people whose values or lifestyles are different from your own? The IWAH is unique in that it identifies where people draw the line, and therefore it can make meaningful predictions about their behavior in a wider range of situations. The researchers found, for example, that people who score high in IWAH are also more concerned about global issues such as combating world hunger and addressing human rights violations, even when controlling for dispositional empathy and moral concern.
4. Is humanitarianism a luxury? The main purpose of this research was to develop a scale to capture IWAH, but the researchers also speculate, in their conclusion, about why some people become high in IWAH and others do not. One possible explanation is that a loving, secure childhood environment allows people to feel less threatened by those who are different from themselves (and indeed, attachment security primes have been shown to reduce intergroup bias). This reasoning led the researchers to question whether IWAH might be somewhat of a luxury, something that a person can only focus on when their own basic physical and psychological needs are met. In other words, maybe it's only the privileged who have the time and resources to concern themselves with global human welfare. But it seems that identification with humanity is possible even in the most dire of circumstances, as it was for the Holocaust rescuers whose own safety was clearly at risk, or for victims of natural disasters who have lost everything and yet still help strangers get back on their feet.
What can you do to increase your IWAH? If you can afford to travel the world, great, but it's not the only way. You can also educate yourself about global issues, volunteer for relief organizations, and strive to build friendships with people whose backgrounds are different from your own. As we enter the peak of election season and tensions run high, it seems especially important that we remember the basic things that unite us across party lines, like our desire for happiness, health, safety, and the freedom to live the lives that we choose. We just have different ideas about how to get there.
McFarland S, Webb M, & Brown D (2012). All Humanity Is My Ingroup: A Measure and Studies of Identification With All Humanity. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 22708625