In search of the super-humane: Christian Jarrett

The pages of psychology’s journals are filled with sorry tales of people’s intolerance and prejudice towards one another. Against this darkness, Sam McFarland and his colleagues urge us not to forget the brighter stories – the heroes of the past who put themselves at risk because they felt empathy towards outsiders.


Consider the French Pastor Andre ́ Trocme ́ and his wife, who helped save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. “We don’t know what a Jew is,” Trocme ́ said when instructed to hand over the names of all the Jews. “We only know people.”


The ability and inclination to identify with all of humanity was touched on by some of psychology’s pioneers. Alfred Adler wrote about the innate potential of people to achieve

“gemeinschaftsgefuhl”, literally translated as “social interest”, but also taken to mean “oneness with all humanity”. The founder of humanistic psychology Abraham Maslow invoked the concept of “self-actualised individuals” – people able to identify with and have a concern with all mankind.


Yet despite these early ideas, there’s been little subsequent research on the ability to identify with all humanity. One reason is the lack of an explicit measure. Some psychological scales come close – for example, there’s the “Social Interest Scale” (measuring interest in community) and there are measures of “moral identity” (how central morality is to self-identity) and “universalism” (a oneness with the world), but none quite targets identifying with all humankind. Until now.


McFarland and his team have devised the Identification With All Humanity Scale (IWAH), consisting of 9 three-part items, including: “How much do you identify with (that is, feel a part of, feel love toward, have concern for) each of the following: a) people in my community, b) Americans, c) All humans everywhere”. This version is aimed at US participants, hence the option for (b). The full version is online.


The researchers tested their new IWAH scale exhaustively across ten studies involving hundreds of participants. The researchers found:

-a high score on the IWAH was more than just a lack of in-group bias and a disposition for empathy; the IWAH also taps into something other than Shalom Shwartz’s broader and more abstract concept of “universalism” (the goal of “understanding, appreciation, tolerance and protection for the welfare of all people and for all nature”).
-high scores on IWAH correlated more strongly with people’s concern for human rights than existing compassion measures
-scores on the scale were stable across 10 weeks
-close friends and family had a good idea of a person’s score on the IWAH
-members of Human Rights Watch and the Church World Service scored particularly high on the scale, just as you’d expect if it’s measuring what it is supposed to
-high scores on the IWAH correlated with the personality factors agreeableness, openness to experience and neuroticism (the researchers were baffled by this last association)
-high scorers on IWAH valued American and Afghani lives more equally
-high scorers had a greater knowledge of global humanitarian issues
-and finally … research via the your website, involving thousands of participants, showed that high scores on the IWAH predicted people’s willingness to donate money to international charities, beyond traditional measures, such as of ethnocentrism.


McFarland and his colleagues concluded that their new scale has “substantial merit” and that it’s now important to question why some people develop a deeper identification with all of humanity than others. They predicted that children who are neglected or spoiled will fail to develop this form of empathy for all mankind. “A lack of punitiveness coupled with affection may provide a foundation for later concern for humanity at large,” they said. “Understanding how identification with all humanity develops is worthy of direct and extensive investigation.” Let’s hope their new scale helps inspire more research on this vital issue.