Why I picked it up: I'm pretty focused on what impact arts and culture has on individuals and communities. So I'll look at any study that examines long-term arts engagement and civic engagement to see if there is any reliable evidence. This new study was only released last week.
What you need to know: Researchers from the University of Lincoln and the University of Kent (UK) wanted to test the hypothesis that arts engagement generates more prosocial cooperation, thus yielding significant societal benefits. They used the Understanding Society sample, which is longitudinal and, crucially, a representative sample of the UK population. With n = 30,476, they can control for a host of sociodemographic factors.
Their questions boiled down to:
1 - Is there a connection between arts engagement and prosocial behavior?
2 - Does that connection still exist when sociodemographic and personality variables are controlled? That is, when the capacity for prosocial behavior and for arts engagement is accounted for.
3 - Is this connection distinctive, or are there other things that similarly affect prosocial behavior?
4 - Does arts engagement create short-term effects, or is it cumulative?
Their results were pretty definitive.
First, yes, no question. Engagement in the arts was one of the strongest predictors of charitable giving and volunteering even stronger than most socio-demographic variables. And when the socio-demographic variables that also strongly affected prosocial behaviors were controlled for (e.g., education, income), arts engagement was the strongest predictor at all levels. So while low-income individuals may generally have lower capacity to engage in the arts and/or engage in prosocial behavior, those that do engage in the arts still have greater prosocial behavior than those who do not. And while high-income individuals may have greater capacity to engage in the arts and/or prosocial behavior, the same rule holds depending on whether they actually do engage.
The results also suggest that the effect is cumulative. The longer individuals engage with the arts, the more prosocial they became. Or, in other words, one museum visit isn't going to make anyone significantly more prosocial. It takes many visits, over years.
They summed up their conclusions in three points:
1 - Arts have an essential role in prosocial behavior, benefiting society.
2 - Evidence indicates that there are significant social and economic gains for investing in the arts.
3 - The most effective investments in the arts are likely those that make arts engagement more widely available across the socio-economic spectrum.
Implications for museums: This is a solid study, using a well-respected longitudinal survey, that should be helpful for making a case to both donors and potential community partners that arts organizations, including museums, can deliver significant impact that is far-reaching.
And the research makes sense to me, as the findings are similar to my own about museum-going and civic engagement: museum-goers are more likely to be active in their communities. I'm mindful, however, that we have to be careful about making judgments about those who are not engaged, and be sensitive about capacity to engage. (See my review of American Generosity for my first thinking about this; you'll see me explore it more in the coming weeks on The Data Museum as well.) Additionally, we need to consider why arts engagement yields these prosocial effects.
Read or skip? Probably skip. But keep the citation handy for approaching community partners to extend reach, and for grant proposals that focus on community and/or impact. The article is short, and most of the method and results sections can be skipped … if you want to quote from it in a grant, head to the summary at the end.
Full citation: Van de Vyver, Julie, and Abrams, Dominic. "The Arts as a Catalyst for Human Prosociality and Cooperation." Social Psychological and Personality Science. August 2, 2017.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.