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The Kindness of Strangers

People's willingness to help someone during a chance encounter on a city street varies considerably around the world

Robert Levine

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Rousseau wrote that "cities are the sink of the human race." But as my experiences in New York and Rangoon make clear, not all cities are the same. Places, like individuals, have their own personalities. Which environments most foster altruism? In which cities is a person in need likely to receive help? I have spent most of the past 15 years systematically exploring these questions.

Figure 2. Tests of helpfulness span the globe . . .Click to Enlarge Image

My students and I have traveled across the United States and much of the world to observe where passersby are most likely to aid a stranger. In each of the cities we surveyed, we conducted five different field experiments. Our studies focused on simple acts of assistance, as opposed to Oskar Schindler—like heroism: Is an inadvertently dropped pen retrieved by a passing pedestrian? Does a man with an injured leg receive assistance picking up a fallen magazine? Will a blind person be helped across a busy intersection? Will someone try to make change for a quarter (or its foreign equivalent) when asked? Do people take the time to mail a stamped and addressed letter that has apparently been lost?

Our first studies were done in the early 1990s, when my students and I visited 36 cities of various sizes in different regions of the United States. The results did nothing to dispel my childhood impressions of New York. In an assessment that combined the results of these five experiments, New York came out dead last—36th out of 36. When we included a sixth measure of kindness toward strangers (per capita contribution to United Way), New York only moved up to 35th on the list. Overall, we found that people in small and medium-sized cities in the Southeast were the most helpful and that residents of large Northeastern and West Coast cities were the least.

One of the advantages of testing so many places is that we could see how other social, economic and environmental indicators correlated with our experimental results. Far and away the best predictor, we found, was population density. This parameter was more closely tied to the helpfulness of a city than were the crime rate, the pace of life, the prevailing economic conditions or environmental stressors—say, noise or air pollution. We could readily make a case that, overall, people in more crowded cities were much less likely to take the time to help. New York was Exhibit A.

This finding is, of course, easy enough to understand. Crowding brings out the worst in us. Urban critics have demonstrated that squeezing too many people into too small a space leads, paradoxically enough, to alienation, anonymity and social isolation. Ultimately, people feel less responsible for their behavior toward others—especially strangers. Previous research had shown that city dwellers are more likely to do one another harm. Our study indicated that they are also less likely to do one another good and that this apathy increases with the degree of crowding.

Figure 3. Three measures of helpfulness . . .Click to Enlarge Image

But do all big cities exhibit this pattern? It was no surprise to find that densely packed cities like New York do not measure up to the communitarian standards of their smaller and calmer counterparts in the Southeast and Midwest. But as my experience in Rangoon showed, one comes across pockets of village cohesiveness in the most urban places. How do big-city dwellers from various countries compare? In particular, how does New York measure up to other large cities worldwide?

To answer these questions, for six summers Ara Norenzayan and more than 20 other adventurous students from my university worked with me to carry out five separate experiments in large cities around the world. In all, we ran nearly 300 trials of helpfulness that involved feigning blindness, dropped more than 400 pens, approached some 500 people while pretending to have a hurt leg or to be in need of change, and strategically lost almost 800 letters. To relate our findings to the situation in the United States, we used results for the same five experiments carried out in New York during our earlier study.

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