Noblesse oblige exists across cultures

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Noblesse oblige – French for “nobility obliges” – is a social norm where those with more power, prestige and resources are expected to be more generous to subordinates or to the rest of society. Researchers have found it to exist across cultures, but it depends deeply on the situation.

Psychologists asked participants to imagine being in one of two carpooling roles: 1. You’re a boss offering to drive and your employee pays for the gas, 2. You’re an employee offering to drive and your boss pays the gas. If the gas-payer didn’t pay up, bosses were much more tolerant, generous and willing to continue carpooling than employees.

In other words, there was an expectation for the bosses to be more benevolent with their time and resources than the employee – across seven different cultures.

“Even if their carpooling partner only paid for gas 30 percent of the time, bosses felt they had been treated fairly and felt more positively about their partner,” said Denise Dellarosa Cummins, a retired professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The findings contrast a bit with other studies that show people in powerful positions to be much less generous, even exploitative.

In a study by economist Elizabeth Hoffman, for example, some participants were made to feel more powerful by getting high scores on a phony test, while others got low scores. During the experiment, the “high-status” individuals gave much less money to the “low-status” folks in a game, and the low-status folks were more willing to accept it.

The difference likely depends on the circumstances, like the beliefs and relationships people bring to the table.

“What determines whether we behave generously or exploitatively is our beliefs about why we’re on the particular rung of the ladder that we’re on,” Cummins said. “So if we think that we’ve earned it because we’re superior, because we’re smarter, because we got better grades – we tend to behave very exploitatively to those below us on the food chain.”

But if you have a relationship with the individual who is “below” you, the dynamic can change.

“We feel some sort of pastoral responsibility towards these people,” Cummins said. This “noblesse oblige” may be ubiquitous across human organizations and cultures because it taps into a dynamic as old as hunter-gatherer societies.

The employer-employee relationship is like a kinship, Cummins said, because the employee is ‘one of us.’

“A lot of researchers have concluded that there’s a set of basic human psychological mechanisms involving fairness and resource distribution that’s constrained in different ways by kinship, age, status and other variables,” Cummins said. “‘Is this person related to me? Is this person a child? Where does this person stand within the village? Are they an elder or not? These are the types of things people bring to the economic decisions of small-scale societies, where the human race has spent most of its history.”

“If I’m a king, elder or high-ranking individual, I ensure my position in this society by being generous with my resources. If I am not generous, then I risk losing my allies, my base of support.

“Sounds kind of like politics, doesn’t it?”

A Cross-Cultural Study of Noblesse Oblige in Economic Decision-Making,” was published in the journal Human Nature. Earlier research, “Are Perceptions of Fairness Relationship-Specific? The Case of Noblesse Oblige,” was published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Featured Image: A Thai watercolor “Prince Vessantara Gives Away His White Elephant,” Scene from Vessantara Jataka on Generosity. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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