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Comparing experiences of dignity cross-culturally – evidence from the US, India and Nigeria

©Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels

Psychologist Joseph Henrich wrote that the bulk of social science research remains focused on the experiences and opinions of people in Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries. As authors from the UK and US respectively, we recognize how research tends to be centered in and around our countries of origin. We believe it is urgent to understand the similarities and differences of people’s experiences across the globe through a more equitable distribution of research. At IDinsight we aim to correct this imbalance in access to locally relevant evidence.

This is particularly salient in our study of dignity. Given that respect for people’s dignity requires that they are seen and heard, there is a particular urgency in examining popular understandings of dignity across different cultures and situations. We have previously researched and published how people in the United States define dignity. But it is problematic to extrapolate that other people everywhere share this definition or perspective on dignity. Practitioners need to make a concerted effort to understand what dignity means to a population being targeted for a policy or program so that they are able to measure if it’s being upheld. What do voices from the global majority outside the West say about what dignity means to them?

Our data shows that dignity matters in the US, Nigeria and India, but people have differing understandings of dignity. With a deeper understanding of people’s definition of dignity in a particular context, we can design better, more relevant policies and programs to affirm that dignity.

Study design

To gain some preliminary insights into the way that the US-centric conceptualization of dignity might differ from those in the Global South, we collected 1435 survey responses: 508 from India, 541 from Nigeria, and 386 from the United States. This was done through Qualtrics’ online panels in these countries, with data collection taking place in March 2023.1 

As part of this study, we randomly assigned people to versions of the survey that varied in their emphasis on agency, equity, and representation, in order to allow for variance in the perception of whether the researchers were treating them with respect. We then asked people to help us understand what concepts and words they associate with dignity. Finally, we asked them about their willingness to answer a voluntary set of questions to help researchers better understand their experiences and to participate in a standing research panel in the future – if they felt they had been treated respectfully, we anticipated they would be more willing to do both. 

This comparative study builds on a previous study in which we employed the same design in a US-only sample. We report the results of that study in Wein, Ghai, Lamberton & Saldanha, 2023.

The consequences of respect

Across all three countries, the extent to which people felt they would be treated by researchers with respect predicted their interest in participating further. When people feel treated with respect for their dignity, it matters to them, and they are willing to reciprocate – in this case by volunteering their valuable time to researchers. 

Specifically, we conducted a logistic regression on whether people’s sense of respectedness predicted whether they would altruistically opt-in to help researchers by answering extra, unrequired questions. This showed that peoples’ sense that their dignity was affirmed by researchers had a huge influence (Wald chi-square = 42.14, p < .0001). This effect didn’t vary based on peoples’ country of origin: treating people with dignity always increased their willingness to help. 

We further examined how much extra time people were willing to give. This willingness to help was reflected in substantial increases in the time that participants shared with us. As shown in the figure, the effect was greatest among participants from Nigeria, who nearly doubled their engagement time in the survey.

This contributes to mounting evidence of the positive outcomes for individuals, programs, and societies when people are treated with respect. It echoes a similar finding in the US in the earlier study, where people were significantly more likely to volunteer to take part in a panel if they felt they had been treated in a way that respects their dignity by researchers. We should care about dignity for its own sake, but it is helpful to note that it leads to other positive results as well.

Associations of dignity

We observed that participants in these three countries reported different associations between dignity and other concepts. Constructs like dignity are never precisely defined in their daily usage. We can better understand the nuances of what people mean by dignity by looking at the other ideas people link it to. 

For the US, dignity was associated with ideas of freedom, equity, and choice. Meanwhile, compared to the other places, the US shows a lower association between dignity and power. It is also less associated with contentment, loyalty, trust, and hope than in either Nigeria or India. It appears to also be less socially resonant: whereas when a person’s dignity is denied respondents in both Nigeria and India associate it with the disruption of interpersonal harmony, undermined social status, and religious differences, it was so to a significantly weaker degree in the US.

Indian and Nigerian respondents also showed different associations with dignity. Nigerian respondents showed the tightest connection between dignity and contentment and a weaker connection to power and anger than Indian respondents. Indian respondents, meanwhile, showed the strongest association between power, anger, and dignity. 

In Nigeria, dignity bridged the community and the individual more than in both other markets: denying dignity is more associated with the denial of voice to a group or community, the violation of community norms, the ability to express one’s preferences, and respect for individual self-expression than it is in the US or India.

Dignity is never a standalone concept. Everywhere it has a complex set of meanings and relationships to other concepts. Recording these associations allows us to put dignity in context in each of these three places. By examining the differences, we can see that while dignity is important everywhere, people’s understanding of it differs. By carefully describing dignity in each place, we advance our own understanding under the Consensus Research Agenda on Dignity and open up the possibility of more accurately designing ways to affirm people’s dignity in each place.

Dignity and fair compensation

What is the relationship between dignity and compensation? Understanding how to compensate people and how that relates to respect for dignity is important for researchers, who debate how to compensate research participants. It is also important for employers: a recent study in the US with more than 9,000 Walmart staff found that when an employee is treated with respect, his likelihood of quitting the job will be reduced as effectively as a 10% wage increase would.

We asked people if they felt they would be treated with respect if they participated in a future research panel. We then asked how much they would expect to be paid. 

Participants in India and the US who felt that they would be treated with more dignity asked for higher wages for future work than did those who anticipated being treated with less dignity. In these places, it seems that those who feel disrespected may feel disempowered to ask that their work be well-compensated – or they may have higher expectations of respect from higher paying workplaces. Studies of dignity will have to take careful account of people’s inbuilt expectations.

But in Nigeria, we see a different pattern: the more people expected their dignity would be respected, the less financial compensation they required for the same amount of work. This echoes the Walmart study described above. In a sense, this demonstrates the extremely high value placed on respect for human dignity among these respondents: recognizing one’s intrinsic worth is, in itself, conferring meaningful value. Economic value becomes less focal when this profound recognition occurs. Meanwhile, respondents in Nigeria demanded recompense for when their dignity was denied.


If we take dignity seriously – and design development programs, support human rights, and build communities in ways that respect dignity – we also have to take seriously that people do not all experience dignity and respect in the same way. What we share, most importantly, is the conviction that dignity matters in all three of these places. It is our responsibility to listen to the voices of the people with whom we work, and to design for the form of dignity that affirms their very real, and inestimable, intrinsic value. We hope readers will join us both in applying these learnings about dignity to program design in these three contexts and in committing to ongoing learning about dignity in each new context to ensure we show respect in the right ways.

Tom Wein leads IDinsight’s Dignity Initiative. He has been collaborating with Professor Cait Lamberton, Alberto I. Duran President’s Distinguished Professor and Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Together with their coauthors, they have been studying how people experience dignity in the world. Their book with Neela Saldanha, ‘Marketplace Dignity’ will be published by Wharton Business Press on 4 June 2024. This research was funded by the Wharton Dean’s Research Fund and the Wharton Behavioral Lab.

  1. 1. There has been considerable debate about the use of online panels for research of this kind. Sample validity studies have found that Qualtrics provides appropriately representative samples, though performance on attention checks is not as high.