When science compares cultures it often uses the measurement tool of dimensions. There are several dimensional models out there with the Hofstede and Trompenaars frameworks being among those which are cited most. In recent years modifications like the one Erin Meyer outlines in her book The Culture Map or Andy Molinsky’s Global Dexterity have become very popular in the cross-cultural field.
These dimensional frameworks build upon each other and have become one main element (among others) of cross-cultural consulting work. Talking to clients about the scales of individualism/collectivism, time orientation, hierarchy, task/relationship, directness, etc. has proven to be a useful way to introduce and explain cultural imprints.
While the emotion of empathy could be seen as reflected in Hofstede’s masculinity/femininity dimension, it hadn’t been singled out as a measuring unit in cultural comparisons. Only recently has there been more research on how national cultures can be differentiated in regards to their capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference.
In a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, researchers from Michigan State University, Indiana University, and University of Chicago analyzed and ranked 63 countries. The researchers examined the data from an online survey on empathy completed by 104,365 people. This survey measured how much compassion people have and their likelihood for putting themselves in the shoes of others:
Cultural practices socialize people to relate to others in different ways. One critical way in which these interpersonal bonds are formed and maintained is via empathy, our emotional reactivity toward others’ experiences. However, the extent to which individuals from different cultures vary in their dispositional empathy, and the correlates of these differences, are relatively unknown. Thus, the current study explored cultural variation in empathy, and how this variation is related to psychological characteristics and prosocial behavior across cultures. Evidence […] reveals that higher empathy countries also have higher levels of collectivism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, emotionality, subjective well-being, and prosocial behavior. These findings reveal that empathy is situated within a broader nomological network of other psychological characteristics, emotional expression and experiences, and prosocial behavior across cultures. The current study expands our understanding about how psychological characteristics vary across cultures and how these characteristics can manifest in broader national indicators of prosocial behavior.
Ranking highest as the most empathetic country is Ecuador, followed by Saudi Arabia, Peru, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Korea, the United States, Taiwan, Costa Rica and Kuwait. The least empathetic country according to this study is Lithuania and, in fact, seven of the ten least empathetic countries are located in Eastern Europe. The world map below shows high levels of empathy in darker hues of red. Countries which produced only small sample sizes in the survey were excluded (marked in gray).
William Chopik of Michigan State University, who is the lead author of the study, told Science Daily that he and his colleagues were surprised that three countries from the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait – ranked so highly in empathy considering the long history of aggression and wars with other countries in the region. That could be because the study did not distinguish between feeling empathy toward people in other countries vs. people in one’s own country.
This study is the first which looks at empathy on a country-by-country level. And Chopik points out that it “only grabbed a snapshot of what empathy looks like at this very moment,” and he noted that cultures are constantly changing. “This is particularly true of the United States, which has experienced really large changes in things like parenting practices and values. People may portray the United States as this empathetic and generous giant, but that might be changing.”
Given the study’s snapshot character it may not be fully accurate to use the empathy scale by itself when describing national cultures but it can be added as a layer to many of the dimensional frameworks which are currently being applied.
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