A team of social psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania set out to investigate whether the concept of moral character is universal by studying populations outside of the Western world.
Research focused on the Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania revealed that these indigenous people agree on what qualities are characteristic of morality, yet hold different views of who has such virtue.
The team interviewed Hadza people, asking them to rank others on a number of qualities, including who has a good heart, is the most giving, and who is the most hard-working. Overall, the researchers had 94 judges rank their campmates on global character and relevant character traits for a total of 824 observations.
The study revealed that while Hadza could all agree on the importance of generosity and hard work for outstanding moral character, they had conflicting ideas of who among them best represented these traits.
“It’s not that the Hadza do not have a concept of morality or don’t care about it. They agreed on what traits contributed to moral character. But they cannot agree on who exemplifies it,” explained study lead author Kristopher Smith.
The Hadza live in small nomadic tribes and shift from group to group, which means the social structure of each tribe is constantly changing. According to scientists, this nomadic way of life provides a unique opportunity to explore the origins of human cooperation.
Even though the Hadza are a modern society, the experts note that their way of life is more similar to how our human ancestors lived than to western societies.
In a previous study, the team discovered that generosity depended on a group’s dynamic. While a generous group led members to be more generous, a stingy group led to less sharing.
Study co-author Professor Coren Apicella said that mobility and changing group dynamics may explain the current findings as well, noting that “the changing of groups and behavior may make it difficult for individuals to track and agree on moral reputations.”
Smith said the study results suggest that there is little consistency in moral behavior across different circumstances for the Hadza, and that “reputation may have played a smaller role in the evolution of morality.”
“Understanding how moral psychology differs across cultures and in different social systems may provide insight into ways to improve our interactions with one another, and maybe overcome moral disagreements in our society.”
The study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
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