The General Social Survey (GSS) has tracked the whims and trends in American social life for more than three decades. The widely cited survey, run by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has measured everything from Americans’ drinking habits to race relations, as well as their attitudes toward their doctors, religions, and government. But in its first 30 years, the GSS never tried to gauge the prevalence of altruistic values and behaviors in American society. Most information on that topic came from smaller surveys, conducted mainly among college students.
That changed with the last GSS. As always, the NORC reached a broad, national sample of adult Americans; this time, though, with additional funding from the Fetzer Institute, the GSS tried to determine what percentage—and what types—of Americans feel and demonstrate altruism.
The study actually examined three areas: altruistic values, altruistic behaviors, and empathy. It found that all three are common in American society. For instance, 75 percent of more than 1,300 survey participants said that assisting people in trouble is personally important to them; a majority said they performed 8 of 15 sample altruistic acts over the previous year; and 80 percent said they often have tender, concerned feelings for the less fortunate.
The survey also found that the prevalence of empathy and altruism varies across groups: women appeared more likely to express empathy than men; people who reported being religious showed greater empathy and altruism. Those who were more empathetic and altruistic also proved to be more liberal on social policies, supporting higher government spending on health care and children, and stronger government efforts to reduce economic inequalities.
There were some surprises. Empathy and altruistic values were stronger among people more fearful of crime. People who advocated tougher punishment of criminals also reported more empathy. And residents of big cities helped people more often than their rural counterparts.