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People in all cultures offer small acts of kindness to strangers

A groundbreaking study led by UCLA sociologist Giovanni Rossi, in collaboration with an international team of researchers from Australia, Ecuador, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, has discovered that humans are intrinsically cooperative and regularly rely on each other for acts of kindness and assistance. 

The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, indicate that the human capacity for cooperation transcends cultural differences, contrary to previous research that emphasized the variations in rules and norms governing cooperation.

In this comprehensive investigation, the team of researchers sought to understand the fundamental nature of human cooperation. They discovered that people signal their need for assistance, such as asking someone to pass a utensil, approximately once every couple of minutes. 

Moreover, these requests for help are seldom ignored; across cultures, people tend to comply with these small requests much more frequently than they decline them. When individuals do decline to help, they usually provide an explanation for their inability to do so.

Rossi explained the significance of these findings, stating: “Cultural differences like these have created a puzzle for understanding cooperation and helping among humans. Are our decisions about sharing and helping shaped by the culture we grew up with? Or are humans generous and giving by nature?” 

The research sheds new light on these questions and demonstrates that the cooperative behavior of humans is more universally similar than previously thought. Acts of kindness are actually commonplace.

Prior anthropological and economic research has emphasized the variation in rules and norms governing cooperation. For example, whale hunters in Lamalera, Indonesia, adhere to established rules for distributing large catches, while Hadza foragers in Tanzania share their food primarily due to concerns about negative gossip. 

In Kenya, wealthier Orma villagers are expected to contribute to public goods like road projects, whereas affluent Gnau villagers in Papua New Guinea would refuse such offers, as they create an uncomfortable obligation to reciprocate for their less fortunate neighbors.

To resolve these inconsistencies and explore the core of human cooperation, the researchers examined over 40 hours of video footage of everyday life, featuring more than 350 participants from geographically, linguistically, and culturally diverse locations. These sites included towns in England, Italy, Poland, and Russia, as well as rural villages in Ecuador, Ghana, Laos, and Aboriginal Australia.

How the study was done

The research analyzed sequences, where one person signaled for assistance and another person responded. This human interaction sheds light on the intrinsic nature of human cooperation.

The study examined more than 1,000 requests for help, occurring on average about once every two minutes. The situations involved “low-cost” decisions, such as sharing everyday items or assisting others with tasks around the house or village. 

These low-cost decisions are far more frequent than “high-cost” decisions, like sharing the spoils of a successful whale hunt or contributing to the construction of a village road, which have been shown to be significantly influenced by culture.

The researchers found that people complied with acts of kindness to small requests seven times more often than they declined them and six times more often than they ignored them. The average rates of rejection (10%) and ignoring (11%) were much lower than the average rate of compliance (79%). 

This preference for compliance held across all cultures, and was unaffected by whether the interaction was among family or non-family members.

Moreover, when people declined to help, they gave an explicit reason 74% of the time. This implies that while people generally only refuse assistance for a good reason, they offer help unconditionally, without needing to explain why they are doing so.

“A cross-cultural preference for compliance with small requests is not predicted by prior research on resource-sharing and cooperation, which instead suggest that culture should cause prosocial behavior to vary in appreciable ways due to local norms, values, and adaptations to the natural, technological, and socio-economic environment,” said study co-author N. J. Enfield from the University of Sydney.  “These and other factors could in principle make it easier for people to say ‘no’ to small requests, but this is not what we find.”

Rossi suggested that being helpful and offering acts of kindness is an ingrained reflex in the human species. “While cultural variation comes into play for special occasions and high-cost exchange, when we zoom in on the micro level of social interaction, cultural difference mostly goes away, and our species’ tendency to give help when needed becomes universally visible,” he said.

The results of this extensive study indicate that, despite the diversity of cultures and backgrounds, humans are fundamentally cooperative and willing to help one another. 

This research has significant implications for our understanding of human nature and the role of cultural influences on cooperative behavior. As we continue to navigate an increasingly interconnected world, insights like these become even more valuable in fostering global cooperation and understanding.

Societal factors that contribute to a person’s willingness to help others

There is no single determinative factor for the acts of kindness and generosity found in a particular community or culture, as it can be influenced by a complex interplay of factors. Some of the key factors that might influence kindness and generosity in a community or culture include:

Cultural values and norms

The values and norms of a culture play a significant role in shaping people’s behavior, including their propensity for kindness and generosity. Cultures that emphasize collectivism, social harmony, and community well-being may foster more kindness and generosity among their members.

Religion and spirituality

Religion and spirituality often encourage kindness and generosity, as they promote empathy, compassion, and altruism. Communities with strong religious or spiritual beliefs may, therefore, display higher levels of kindness and generosity.

Socio-economic factors

The economic well-being of a community can influence the level of kindness and generosity displayed by its members. People living in economically stable communities may be more likely to share resources and help others, as they feel more secure in their own lives.


Education can play a role in shaping people’s values and behaviors, including kindness and generosity. Higher levels of education may lead to increased awareness and understanding of social issues, empathy, and a sense of responsibility towards others, which can promote kindness and generosity.

Social cohesion and trust

In communities with high levels of social cohesion and trust, people may be more likely to display kindness and generosity towards one another. Trust fosters a sense of security and encourages cooperation, as people feel more confident that their kindness and generosity will be reciprocated.

Leadership and community role models

The behavior of community leaders and role models can set the tone for the level of kindness and generosity in a community. If leaders and role models consistently display and promote kindness and generosity, others in the community may be more likely to adopt these behaviors.

It is essential to recognize that these factors are interconnected and can have a cumulative effect on the overall level of kindness and generosity in a community or culture. Consequently, the most determinative factor for kindness and generosity in a particular community or culture may vary depending on the specific combination of these factors present in that context.


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