By Alex Fradera
The “Big Society” initiative – launched at the turn of this decade by the incoming British government – was a call for politics to recognise the importance of community and social solidarity. It has since fizzled out, and for a while communitarianism fell out of the political conversation, but it has returned post-Brexit, sometimes with a nationalist or even nativist flavour. The US political scientist Robert Putnam’s research is sometimes recruited into these arguments, as his data suggests that racially and ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have lower levels of trust and social capital, which would seem an obstacle to community-building. But an international team led by Jared Nai at Singapore Management University has published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggests that diverse neighbourhoods are in fact more likely to generate prosocial helpful behaviours.
Putnam’s work tallies with a distinguished psychological idea, conflict theory, which suggests salient distinctions between people in an area heightens a sense of competition between groups over resources. Because race is so visible – neuroscientific studies suggest we perceive it earlier even than gender – the argument goes that racially diverse areas lead people to, as Putnam puts it, hunker down and withdraw. Consistent with this view, Putnam’s data shows that multicultural areas have lower levels of trust – even between people of the same race – and some evidence, but not all, has shown this has a knock-on adverse effect on civic engagement and volunteering.
Nai’s team predicted that despite this, racially diverse areas would show more, not less prosocial helping. They drew on contact theory, which suggests that active contact with people from other groups humanises them. In particular, such contact leads people to view their own identity as broader, potentially encompassing all of humanity – this could be a mechanism to encourage prosociality. As most of the contact theory work puts people in extended face to face interactions, the question was whether mere ambient diversity will help (simply being around other people who look different).
A first study showed that diverse areas have a more prosocial online buzz. Nai’s team pulled 60 million tweets and identified the usage frequency of words from James Pennebaker’s “prosocial dictionary” that are known to correlate with a desire to help others. Indexing across 200 metropolitan areas, they found that tweets from more racially diverse areas used prosocial language more frequently. But language is an indirect measure, and it may be that people with that style voluntarily move into areas that are more diverse. So Nai’s group looked at international data, as moving country is rarer than moving cities, and at levels of actual (reported) helping. The data came from a 2012 Gallop World Poll that asked “in the past month, have you helped a stranger?”. Across 128 countries, Nai’s team found that it was the more ethnically diverse countries that scored a greater frequency of yes responses to this question.
Next, Nai’s team wanted to see if the factor that turned diversity into helping was people having a broader sense of identity. They surveyed US people online using the same helping question used in the Gallop poll, and replicated the greater diversity/greater helping correlation for different zip codes for around 500 participants (good gender balance, average age 33). They also asked the participants how much they identified with three groups: people in my community, Americans, and all humans everywhere. They found that diverse neighbourhoods were associated with higher identification with all of humanity, and statistical analysis suggested, but could not prove, that this (and only this) form of identification was driving the helping behaviour.
Finally, the researchers looked at help for outsiders during a crisis. Real data from a helping website set up following the Boston marathon showed that more offers of help came from zip codes that were more racially diverse, even after controlling for distance from site and wealth of the zip code. And in an online experiment, 300 participants stated they would be more likely to offer help following a bombing when they had been asked to imagine living in a very diverse neighbourhood – again mediated by a greater sense of connection to humanity.
All the studies controlled for a range of factors related to area or nation, such as income / national economics, education, urbanisation, and religious diversity. One weakness is that apart from the last study, all this work is correlational. It would be interesting to track neighbourhoods over time to see how changes have an impact dynamically – maybe an area renowned for its diversity that evolved organically over decades would have a different attitude to the idea of “one humanity” than a neighbourhood with no sense of itself as diverse per se and that had changed fairly rapidly due to impersonal market or governmental forces.
An interesting detail from the international study is that trust scores (available for a subset of nations) were lower in more ethnically diverse countries, in line with the Putnam data. So it seems that a populace can both be less trusting and more willing to help strangers, which is something to puzzle on. But regardless, the new data pushes back against the assertion that diverse neighbourhoods struggle to show communal spirit, and suggests that ambient contact with those superficially different can underscore our common humanity and obligations to one another.