Study reveals how humanity could unite to address global challenges

New research led by the University of Oxford has found that perceptions of globally shared life experiences and globally shared biology can strengthen psychological bonding with humanity at large, which can motivate prosocial action on a global scale and help to tackle global problems. The findings have been published today in Royal Society Open Science.

Many of the most daunting challenges facing humankind today – from the climate crisis and poverty to food insecurity and terrorism – can only be overcome through cooperation and collective action on a global scale. But what would it take to unite humanity in this way?

According to the results of a new study, the key could lie in two of the most potent drivers of social bonding known in group psychology – shared ancestry and shared transformative experiences – albeit shared not only on the level of the tribe, the nation, or the religious community, but with humanity at large.

First author Lukas Reinhardt (Leader of the Global Cohesion Lab at the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion (CSSC), University of Oxford) said: ‘Us-vs-them thinking is on the rise in many places all over the world, exacerbating conflicts and complicating finding solutions for pressing global problems. Our research, however, suggests that it is possible to foster a shared global identity which could facilitate cooperation on the global level. The practical implications of our findings for policymakers, NGOs, politicians, and activists are wide-ranging.’

In two studies involving more than a thousand US participants in total, the researchers investigated whether shared biology and shared experiences with people across the world can foster bonding with humanity at large and motivate prosocial action on a global scale.

To explore whether appeals to our globally shared biology can affect bonding with humanity at large, the study participants watched a TED Talk delivered by journalist A. J. Jacobs explaining how all humans share a common ancestry, portraying us as one large human family. Those who watched the video expressed significantly stronger psychological bonds with humanity at large compared with a control group whose attitudes were measured before rather than after they had watched the video. Furthermore, participants who watched the video felt stronger social bonds with individuals supporting an opposing political party, compared with the control group.

To investigate whether globally shared experiences can strengthen social bonds on a global scale, the study focused on the common experience of motherhood. The researchers recruited a sample of mothers and showed that mothers felt stronger bonds with other women from all over the world if they shared motherhood experiences with them.

In each case, the strength of social bonds was measured using a series of images of two overlapping circles – one representing the participant and the other one a group, e.g. humanity at large or the group of all the world’s mothers. The images differed in the degree of overlap between the two circles. Participants had to choose the image that best represented their relationship with the group, with the images that had the greatest amount of overlap representing the strongest social bonds with the group.

In both studies, the reported psychological bonding on a global scale was strongly reflected in measures of prosocial action. To assess this, the researchers used a measure from behavioural economics, where participants had to indicate how they would split an amount of money between members of two different groups in hypothetical scenarios. This measure is used as a practical and cost-efficient tool in experiments to shed light on how strongly participants care about different groups and has been shown to predict real-stakes behaviour very accurately.  

Professor Harvey Whitehouse (Director of the CSSC, University of Oxford), who co-authored the study, said: ‘At the CSSC we have been studying for years these two pathways to strong forms of group cohesion – based on shared biology and shared experiences – but this is the first time we have shown that we can create powerful bonds uniting all of humanity. If we can do this in a simple experiment, we can develop far more powerful methods of motivating action on global problems in the future.’

He added: ‘Remembering that we are all related and all experience many of the same challenges in life could be the key to addressing a wide range of global problems, from intergroup conflicts to extreme poverty and the climate crisis.’

Notes to editors:

For enquiries, interview requests and/or to see a copy of the research paper under embargo, contact Dr Caroline Wood, University of Oxford: [email protected]

The study ‘Why Care for Humanity?’ will be published in Royal Society Open Science at 00:01 AM BST Wednesday 17 April / 19:01 ET Tuesday 16 April 2024 at

About the University of Oxford

Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the eighth year running, and ​number 3 in the QS World Rankings 2024. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.

Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.

Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 300 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past five years. The university is a catalyst for prosperity in Oxfordshire and the United Kingdom, contributing £15.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018/19, and supports more than 28,000 full time jobs.