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New study shows that cooperation among strangers in the US has increased since the 1950s

Despite common concerns that the social fabric is fraying, cooperation among strangers has gradually increased in the U.S. since the 1950s.

Despite common concerns that the social fabric is fraying, cooperation among strangers has gradually increased in the U.S. since the 1950s, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin (full PDF here).

The meta-analysis looked at 511 studies that were conducted in the United States between 1956 and 2017, involving a total of more than 63,000 participants.

Those studies included self-reports as well as lab experiments that measured cooperation among strangers.

Contrary to expectations, cooperation is on the rise

The study found a small, gradual increase in cooperation across the 61-year period, which the researchers said may be linked to notable shifts in U.S. society.

This finding is at with commonly-held beliefs, including within the scientific literature.

The current study mentions, for example, Robert D. Putnam’s classic 2000 book Bowling Alone, in which he argues that “Americans have become increasingly less connected with one another outside the marketplace, and thus are less prepared to cooperate for shared goals.”

That book alone, the authors of the present study point out, has been cited more than 95,000 times according to Google Scholar.

Why are Americans becoming more cooperative?

The increase in cooperation was associated with increases in urbanization, societal wealth, income inequality, and the number of people living alone.

The study cannot prove those factors caused an increase in cooperation, only that there is a correlation.

Increased cooperation has been linked with market competitiveness and economic growth in prior research.

And as more people live in cities and on their own, they may be forced to cooperate with strangers.

“We were surprised by our findings that Americans became more cooperative over the last six decades,” said lead researcher Yu Kou of Beijing Normal University, “because many people believe U.S. society is becoming less socially connected, less trusting, and less committed to the common good.”

“Greater cooperation within and between societies may help us tackle global challenges, such as responses to pandemics, climate change, and immigrant crises,” she said.

A more anonymous society may in fact lead to more cooperation, not less

It may be the case that “people gradually learn to broaden their cooperation with friends and acquaintances to strangers, which is called for in more urban, anonymous societies,” said co-author Paul Van Lange of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Indeed, as the study points out, some evidence shows that US states with higher levels of individualism (as measured by the percentage of people living alone, the divorce to marriage ratio, and the percentage of self-employed workers) tend to have higher levels of general
trust, more donations to charity, and more time spent on volunteering for the community.

The studies that were analyzed mainly included college students as participants, so the findings may not be representative of real-life situations or of U.S. society as a whole.

However, the researchers noted that prior studies have not found that levels of cooperation vary by gender or ethnicity in the U.S.

Future directions

“One intriguing implication of these findings is that while Americans’ cooperation has increased over time, their beliefs about others’ willingness to cooperate has actually declined,” the article’s authors write.

“These findings,” they conclude, “challenge the idea that social capital and civic cooperation among strangers have declined in the United States over time.”

Article: “Did Cooperation Among Strangers Decline in the United States? A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of Social Dilemmas (1956-2017)
Authors: Yu Kou, Mingliang Yuan, Giuliana Spadaro, Shuxian Jin, Paul A. M. Van Lange, Daniel Balliet, and Junhui Wu
Published in: Psychological Bulletin
Publication date: July 18, 2022
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000363

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Douglas Heingartner

Douglas Heingartner, the editor of PsychNewsDaily, is a journalist based in Amsterdam. He has written about science, technology, and more for publications including The New York Times, The Economist, Wired, the BBC, The Washington Post, New Scientist, The Associated Press, IEEE Spectrum, Quartz, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Frieze, and others. His LinkedIn profile is here, and his Muck Rack profile is here.