Need Help? Call an Arts Lover - Pacific Standard

Need Help? Call an Arts Lover

British researchers find a strong link between cultural engagement and participating in activities that benefit the community.
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An actor prepares before a performance at the Courtyard Theatre on February 27th, 2008, in Stratford-Upon Avon, England.

An actor prepares before a performance at the Courtyard Theatre on February 27th, 2008, in Stratford-Upon Avon, England.

"'Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support him after," Timon of Athens declares in his eponymous Shakespeare tragedy. While the character ends up embittered, new research from the United Kingdom suggests that sentiment of selflessness is widely shared by buffs of the Bard.

It reports people who engage with the arts—either as a participant or observer—are more likely than others to participate in two varieties of compassionate behavior: charitable giving and volunteering.

The findings suggest "the arts provide an important vehicle for facilitating a cohesive and sustainable society," psychologists Julie Van de Vyver of the University of Lincoln and Dominic Abrams of the University of Kent write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. "Fostering a society in which engagement in the arts is encouraged and accessible to all may provide an important counter to economic, cultural, and political fracture and division."

The results largely mirror those of a 2012 study, which found that Americans who attend arts events are more tolerant, charitable, and civic-minded than those who do not.

"The arts provide an important vehicle for facilitating a cohesive and sustainable society."

This new research used data on 30,476 people from all around Great Britain who took part in the nationally representative Understanding Society survey. They indicated whether they participated in 14 arts activities over the past year, including dancing and painting, and whether they had attended a range of cultural performances. Each time they answered yes, they were asked how often.

Participants were also asked about how many sports activities they had participated in during the past year. The idea was to determine whether the benefits of arts engagement were unique, or common to activities that involve a strong social component.

Finally, they were asked whether they had donated money to charity, and performed any volunteer work, during the past year.

"Arts participation and attendance independently were among the strongest predictors of charitable giving and volunteering," the researchers report. "Only age and monthly savings had larger effects than arts engagement on charitable giving, and only education level had a larger effect that arts engagement on volunteering."

This link held true "even after accounting for a large set of demographic variables such as gender, individual resources such as personal income, (and) core personality," they write. Additional analysis found charitable giving/volunteering was more pronounced for arts devotees than for sports enthusiasts.

Two years after this survey was taken, participants were re-interviewed, allowing the researchers to look for long-term effects. They report arts engagement in 2010–11 was a strong predictor of whether people would be giving to charity and/or volunteering in 2012–13.

These positive results suggest governments would be wise to "make the arts more widely available, and ensure that access is not restricted only to the wealthy," the researchers conclude. Such an investment, they write, has "the potential for substantial social and economic gains."

Indeed. The arts are worth supporting for many reasons, but helping create a more altruistic society is surely one everyone can understand.

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