CAREER: Social Closeness Helping and Neglect: Examining the Roots of Favoritism in Rural Bangladesh

Project: Research project

Project Details


In the last ten years, an emerging body of research has begun to reveal how perceived social closeness fundamentally transforms peoples motivations and behaviors toward others, most notably in terms of helping, sharing and neglect. Based largely in industrialized countries, current findings leave open a number of key questions about how cultural context changes the relevance of social closeness for decision-making. For example, in religious traditions where aid is grounded in social duty, does perceived social closeness effect helping in the same way it does in majority cultures in U.S. and Europe? And to what degree does socioeconomic uncertainty increase the relevance of social closeness in decisions to help and share? With a population density topped only by city states and small islands, Bangladesh is a country of 160 million Muslims and Hindus living in close contact. Past observers have noted how this close proximity renders definitive social boundaries elusive, making the country a unique setting for studying how individuals define social closeness and carve out social boundaries. It also provides an opportunity to assess hypothesized religious influences among groups residing in otherwise very similar cultural circumstances. Using ethnographic methods to ground concepts of social closeness in local context and innovative experimental tools to measure social behavior, the study will ask three main questions: (1) How do people discriminate between socially close and non-close others in different religious and socioeconomic contexts? (2) How do religious and economic factors change the effect of social closeness on the willingness to help and to share? (3) What are the proximate psychological mechanisms by which social closeness influences helping and sharing? To answer these questions, the project will take a micro-comparative approach among four rural communities in Dinajpur, Bangladesh. In recent years, new debates have emerged about cultural diversity in human moral judgment. Using internet and university student samples, moral psychologists have proposed that a core set of principles guide how people across cultures judge the rightness and wrongness of actions. However, recent experimental and cross-cultural studies have challenged such universal claims by showing individual and cultural differences in how these basic principles guide moral judgments. This project takes another approach to exploring cultural differences in moral judgment, by examining how a specific type of professional experience--legal training--shapes individual judgments. It will focus on one well-documented form of bias--the tendency to judge harms caused by an action as worse than harms caused by failure to act (action-omission bias). I will use open-ended interviews and experiments involving hypothetical moral dilemmas to answer the following questions: (1) how does legal training expose lawyers to issues of omission bias, (2) how do law students and lawyers differ from non-lawyers in their moral judgments, moral reasoning, and legal reasoning about omission bias, and (3) how does omission bias arise in courtroom setting?
Effective start/end date5/1/124/30/18


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $514,368.00


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