Americans are becoming more likely to cooperate with strangers, not less

They’re more willing to put the greater good above their own interests today than in the 1950s.

Contrary to popular belief, Americans are more likely to cooperate with strangers today than they were in the 1950s, according to an analysis by the American Psychological Association (APA).

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

The experiments forced people to choose between their self-interest or the benefit of the group.

Looking back: For their paper, the researchers analyzed more than 500 studies conducted in the US between 1956 and 2017. The studies included 63,000 participants and featured lab experiments designed to measure cooperation among strangers.

Specifically, these experiments presented people with “social dilemmas” that forced them to choose between acting in their immediate self-interest or for the long-term benefit of the group, at a cost to themselves — the latter choice indicated higher levels of cooperation.

The results: When the researchers compared the average levels of cooperation observed in the studies, they saw a small, gradual increase over the 61 years. 

They noticed an association between this increase in cooperation and shifts in US society, such as more urbanization, income inequality, and people living by themselves — it’s possible these solo city dwellers have little choice but to cooperate with strangers. 

However, the researchers can’t prove causation between these societal shifts and increased cooperation — only that there’s a correlation between them.

“Greater cooperation within and between societies may help us tackle global challenges.”

Yu Kou

The cold water: Most of the participants in the studies analyzed by the APA team were college students, and the studies themselves took place in labs — cooperation levels might be different among other demographics or in different settings.

However, the researchers found no significant difference in cooperation levels between the students and non-students in the studies, and the studies themselves found no difference in cooperation levels between the genders or people of different ethnicities.

Why it matters: Past research has linked people’s willingness to cooperate with strangers with economic growth, enhanced public health, and other societal benefits. An increase in cooperation in the US could be useful as we face the challenges of the future.

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

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