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Cooperation among strangers has increased in the U.S.

A new study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin has found that, despite common concerns that the social fabric is fraying, cooperation among strangers has in fact gradually increased in the United States since the 1950s. These findings challenge the widespread assumption that civic cooperation among strangers has declined in the U.S. over time.

“We were surprised by our findings that Americans became more cooperative over the last six decades because many people believe U.S. society is becoming less socially connected, less trusting, and less committed to the common good,” said study co-author Yu Kou, a professor of Social Psychology at the Beijing Normal University. “Greater cooperation within and between societies may help us tackle global challenges, such as responses to pandemics, climate change, and immigrant crises.”

The scientists analyzed 511 studies conducted in the United States between 1956 and 2017 with a total of over 63,000 participants, which investigated how cooperation among strangers evolved over time. The analysis revealed a small, gradual increase in cooperation during this 61-year period, which was associated with significant shifts in U.S. society, including increases in urbanization, societal wealth, income inequality, and the number of people living alone. However, it is not yet clear whether a causal relationship between these factors and the increase in cooperation actually exists.

According to study co-author Paul Van Lange, a professor of Social Psychology at the Free University of Amsterdam, increased cooperation may be connected to market competitiveness and economic growth. As more people live in the cities and on their own, they may be forced to cooperate with strangers.

“It’s possible that people gradually learn to broaden their cooperation with friends and acquaintances to strangers, which is called for in more urban, anonymous societies,” Professor Van Lange said. “U.S. society may have become more individualistic, but people have not.”

However, since the studies that were analyzed were mostly conducted in laboratory settings primarily with college students as participants, they may not be fully representative of real-life situations or on the U.S. society as a whole. Further research is needed to clarify the extent to which these prior studies reflect real societal processes, and to include other important factors, such as how levels of interpersonal trust have changed over the past decades.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer   

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