Good News: Cooperation Among Strangers Has Increased for the Past 60 Years

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The study saw a small, progressive increase in cooperation since 1956.

Findings provide encouragement for attempts to solve global problems.

Despite widespread worries that the social fabric is disintegrating, data from the American Psychological Association shows that since the 1950s, cooperation between strangers has steadily increased in the United States.

“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 lead researcher Yu Kou, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at 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.”

Over 63,000 people participated in 511 studies that were carried out in the US between 1956 and 2017 that were analyzed by the researchers. These studies included lab tests that evaluated strangers’ cooperation. The study was recently published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

The study discovered a slight, gradual rise in collaboration over the period of 61 years, which the authors believe may be related to significant changes in American society. Urbanization, societal wealth, income inequality, and the number of people living alone all increased alongside cooperation. Although there is an association, the research cannot conclusively show that those variables increased collaboration.

Prior studies have shown a correlation between increased collaboration and market competitiveness as well as economic growth. As more people live in cities and on their own, they may be forced to cooperate with strangers, said study co-author Paul Van Lange, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

“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,” Van Lange said. “U.S. society may have become more individualistic, but people have not.”

The studies that were analyzed occurred in lab settings primarily with 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.

The study did not measure some other societal factors, such as levels of trust in strangers. Prior research has found a general decline in trust over several decades in the U.S.

“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 journal article stated.

Reference: “Did cooperation among strangers decline in the United States? A cross-temporal meta-analysis of social dilemmas (1956–2017)” by Yu Kou, Ph.D.,  Mingliang Yuan, Ph.D., Giuliana Spadaro, Ph.D., Shuxian Jin, Ph.D., Paul A. M. Van Lange, Ph.D., Daniel Balliet, Ph.D. and Junhui Wu, Ph.D., 18 July 2022, Psychological Bulletin.
DOI: 10.1037/bul0000363

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