Psychology Altruism1

Published on November 9th, 2012


Why People Favor Their Own Ethnic Group

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen

Altruism as a concept has mainly focused on why people favor others than the individual itself. From an evolutionary perspective altruism is contra-intuitive because an individual is not supposed to go against his own genetic interests. However, altruism is selective, and research indicate that people tend to be far more altruistic toward people from one´s own ethnic group. This could indicate that people are more altruistic toward people who are genetically similar to themselves. This article explains the genetic mechanisms behind this human tendency.

Research has demonstrated that homogenous societies invest more in public welfare than heterogenous societies do, and that ethnic diversity within nations may be an obstacle to economic growth. Tatu Vanhanen has empirically examined the relationship between a societies` degree of ethnic homogeneity and ethnic conflicts. He found that more ethnically heterogeneous nations had more ethnic conflicts. The degree of democratization explained very little, except that very authoritarian states, such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, could suppress ethnic conflicts. Ethnic conflicts were only slightly less common in more economically developed countries. They appeared within all racial groups, cultures, and geographical regions.

In Vanhanen’s view, people have a genetic tendency to easily learn ethnic attitudes and psychological mechanisms leading to prejudice, scapegoating, and discrimination.


Ethnic altruism

What are the mechanisms behind these patterns? The concept of ethnic nepotism may explain why humans see people who share their ethnicity as an extended kin. The theory states that there is a biological basis for the phenomenon where people of the same ethnic group favor others of the same ethnicity or race. This may explain the human tendency to favor members of their own group.

The theory builds on knowledge from other animal species where individuals are more altruistic toward ones` own kin, in order to replicate more copies of their common genes. We may also detect ethnic nepotism within human societies where people tend to favor people with same ethnicity, with the prime example being discrimination on the labour market. The term is based on William Hamilton’s theory of kin selection, and a concrete example of nepotism is ethnic altruism.


How to use this knowledge

In order to try to reduce ethnic tension it is vital to gather knowledge around what triggers hostility in the first place. Even if our biology may indicate some basic prejudiced tendencies, we may try to find solutions that take into account the predispositions of our human nature. In a globalized world there is a dramatic increase of contact between different ethnic groups. In order to reduce the potential sources of conflict it is important to reduce the in-built boundaries from our nature. One solution could be to create new identities that surpass these boundaries, for example the construct of identities that go beyond the conventional ethnic constructs, such as nationality, race and religion.


Further reading:

Rushton, J. Philipe (2005) “Ethnic Nationalism, evolutionary psychology and Genetic Similarity Theory” Nations and Nationalism 11 (4): 489–507.

Salter, Frank Kemp (2006) On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethnicity, and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration. Transaction Publishers.

Vanhanen, Tutu (1999) Ethnic conflicts explained by ethnic nepotism. Emerald Group Publishing Limited.






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