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Social mindfulness varies across the globe

Compare human social behaviour at a country level and you will find differences. Japan has the highest score whereas the Netherlands is just above average. This is what psychologist Niels van Doesem discovered in research with an international team of 64 colleagues in 31 industrialised countries. Their findings have published in PNAS.

Japan had the highest score for the specific form of social behviour that the comparative research focused on: social mindfulness. This is whether people are mindful of people they don’t know. The Netherlands’ score was just above average. Sixty-four researchers from 31 industrialised countries were involved in the research. Psychologist Niels van Doesum from the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University was co-initiator and first author of the article, which was published in PNAS.

Niels van Doesum: ‘We don’t attach a value judgement to the research results.’
Niels van Doesum: ‘We don’t attach a value judgement to the research results.’

Friendly and helpful

Plenty of research has been conducted into people’s social behaviour when money is at play: to what extent are they prepared to share this with friends, family or strangers? Van Doesum researched what happens when money is not at play. Then it is about taking others into account, the immaterial aspect, in essence basic characteristics such as being friendly and helpful. The research focused on the extent to which people are mindful of another person’s control over their choices. The term social mindfulness differs therefore from the better-known (individual) mindfulness.

Van Doesum initiated the research together with Ryan Murphy, who at the time was working at the University of Zurich, and his former supervisor Paul van Langer, Professor of Psychology at VU Amsterdam. Van Doesum’s work falls under the Social, Economic and Organisational Psychology department at Leiden University and the affiliated Knowledge Centre for Psychology and Economic Behaviour.

Dilemmas for 8,354 participants

One example of a dilemma that the 8,354 participants in the study were given is the apple test. Here you have to imagine a bowl with one red and two green apples. You can choose which one you take, but you know that someone will come after you. If you choose the red one, the person after you won’t have a choice. If you choose a green one, the person after you will still be able to choose between a red and a green apple.

The participants were presented with 12 such hypothetical choices on a computer. The researchers chose industrialised countries because a similar stage of the economic development process makes for a better comparison. The results showed significant differences between individuals and between countries. For each country, the average score for the individuals was calculated. Japan took the lead in the ranking, and India, Turkey and Indonesia were at the bottom.

Is it better to be more prosocial?

Does this mean that the countries that were high in the ranking are ‘better’ countries? Van Doesum: ‘No, you can’t say that. We don’t attach a value judgement to the research results. The main thing is that there are differences. That’s what we’d expected, but it hadn’t been scientifically proven. There are several possible explanations for this.’

The researchers did compare social mindfulness at a country level with a number of global indexes, including a ranking of whether countries are achieving the global climate goals. ‘Here we saw a clear positive relationship, but that doesn’t mean there is a causal link with social mindfulness. What exactly this relationship is still needs to be investigated. Our research doesn’t say anything about that.

Social mindfulness and prosociality vary across the globe, Niels J. Doesum et al, PNAS, August 31 2021

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photo of apples: James Yarema, Unsplash

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