Carnegie Mellon University


November 20, 2019

Study Reveals that People Across Cultures Are Inclined to Volunteer

Noelle Wiker

Often in society, organizations and groups of people confront situations that require one individual to step up and volunteer to personally invest effort, money, or time to improve the situation for everyone. But who decides to volunteer in these situations and what influences that decision? New research from the Tepper School of Business finds that individual characteristics such as gender, religiosity, and to some extent culture, affect the level of volunteering among individuals and organizations. 

The study, “Cooperation and Coordination Across Cultures and Contexts: Individual, Sociocultural, and Contextual Factors Jointly Influence Decision Making in the Volunteer's Dilemma Game,” conducted by researchers at the Tepper School at Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making

Lead author Christopher Y. Olivola, Associate Professor of Marketing, explained that the researchers used the volunteer’s dilemma game as a controlled way to study people’s propensity to volunteer.

“We wanted to emulate situations that contain the key elements of real-world volunteering decisions, but in a ‘clean’ environment where participants could make judgments anonymously and without direct cultural or bystander influences,” said Olivola. 

In the game, participants received money at the start and could opt to give up a portion of this money in an attempt to benefit the entire group, including themselves. The catch, however, was that only one volunteer was needed for the whole group to benefit, with additional volunteering being wasteful since the added monetary sacrifice would add no further benefits. Yet participants in this game could not communicate or coordinate, and thus had to decide whether to volunteer without knowing if another member of their group was already going to do so. The researchers conducted six variations of the game—including some versions in which volunteering guaranteed the group benefit versus others in which it merely increased the probability of a collective benefit—and tested them with economic students across five different cultures.

“One of the locations we conducted this study in was Bali, which has a strong culture of volunteering connected to its religious and social institutions,” explained Olivola. “So we predicted the Balanese in this study would have a much higher volunteering rate than other cultures. But to our surprise, there were no overall differences across cultures.”

The researchers did find that some cultures responded differently depending on the size and riskiness of the returns to volunteering. They also found that women were more likely to volunteer when doing so guaranteed the group benefit, but that both genders volunteered equally when the returns to volunteering became uncertain. Finally, the study found an unexpected pattern linking religious affiliation, religiosity, and volunteering: although religious participants were more likely to volunteer than less religious ones from the same religion, atheists and agnostics were no less likely to volunteer than participants who belonged to a religion (even religious ones).

“One thing we learned from this is that once we take away all the external social and cultural pressures, we’re fundamentally very similar in our tendency to volunteer,” said Olivola. “For one thing, we tend to volunteer more than is rationally optimal, which suggests that people are overly generous.”