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Saturday, May 21, 2022

Cross-Cultural Variation in Cooperation: A Meta-Analysis

Spadaro, G., Graf, C., et al. (2022). 
Journal of personality and social psychology.
Advance online publication. 


Impersonal cooperation among strangers enables societies to create valuable public goods, such as infrastructure, public services, and democracy. Several factors have been proposed to explain variation in impersonal cooperation across societies, referring to institutions (e.g., rule of law), religion (e.g., belief in God as a third-party punisher), cultural beliefs (e.g., trust) and values (e.g., collectivism), and ecology (e.g., relational mobility). We tested 17 pre-registered hypotheses in a meta-analysis of 1,506 studies of impersonal cooperation in social dilemmas (e.g., the Public Goods Game) conducted across 70 societies (k = 2,271), where people make costly decisions to cooperate among strangers. After controlling for 10 study characteristics that can affect the outcome of studies, we found very little cross-societal variation in impersonal cooperation. Categorizing societies into cultural groups explained no variance in cooperation. Similarly, cultural, ancestral, and linguistic distance between societies explained little variance in cooperation. None of the cross-societal factors hypothesized to relate to impersonal cooperation explained variance in cooperation across societies. We replicated these conclusions when meta-analyzing 514 studies across 41 states and nine regions in the United States (k = 783). Thus, we observed that impersonal cooperation occurred in all societies – and to a similar degree across societies – suggesting that prior research may have overemphasized the magnitude of differences between modern societies in impersonal cooperation. We discuss the discrepancy between theory, past empirical research and the meta-analysis, address a limitation of experimental research on cooperation to study culture, and raise possible directions for future research.

From the Discussion

In the present meta-analysis, we found little variation in impersonal cooperation across 70 societies and 8 cultural groups. In fact, we found no significant differences in cooperation between cultural groups, which suggests there is little variation both within and between cultures. Moreover, linguistic and cultural distance between each pair of societies were only weakly related to differences in cooperation between societies, and genetic distance was not significantly associated with cooperation. If there existed substantial, systematic differences between societies in impersonal cooperation, we would expect a strong association between cultural distance and cooperation. Furthermore, we gathered all the societal indicators that have been hypothesized to explain cross-societal variation in impersonal cooperation and found that none of these were associated with cooperation. We also analyzed variation in cooperation across U.S. states and regions and found mixed evidence for variation in cooperation across the US. Contrary to what we observed within the global data, we found some variation in cooperation across U.S. regions, but only in one out of eight comparisons (i.e., South Atlantic region vs. East North Central region). That said, we did not find evidence for any between-state variation in cooperation.