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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

Problems in Translation

Figure 4. Author's 1994 study measured the general level of helpfulness . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Psychologists who mount elaborate field studies are keenly aware that observing what doesn't work in experiments is sometimes as instructive as observing what does. True to this rule, our first noteworthy finding was that ways of measuring helping do not always translate cleanly across cultures. Two experiments in particular—those that involved asking for change and losing letters—simply do not have the same functional meaning in many countries that they have in the United States.

The lost-letter test was the most troublesome. This experiment entails leaving stamped, addressed envelopes in a visible location on the street and then recording the percentage of these letters that get delivered. One problem we encountered was that people literally ran away from the letters in some cities. In Tel Aviv, in particular, where unclaimed packages have all too often turned out to contain bombs, people actively avoided our suspicious-looking envelopes. In El Salvador, our experimenter was informed about a popular scam in which shysters were intentionally dropping letters: When a good Samaritan picked one up, a con man appeared, announcing that he had lost the letter and that it contained cash (it didn't), then demanding the money back with enough insistence to intimidate the mild-mannered. Not surprisingly, very few letters were touched in El Salvador.

In many developing countries, we found that local mailboxes are either unattended or nonexistent. As a result, mailing a letter in these places requires walking to a central post office, rather than simply going to the letter box on the nearest corner. In Tirane, Albania (where we eventually gave up our attempts to gather data), we were warned not to bother with this experiment, because even if a letter were posted, it probably wouldn't arrive at its destination. (Of course, postal unreliability is also a factor in some more affluent nations.) And most problematic of all, in several countries we found that letters and postal communication are irrelevant to many residents' lives. In retrospect, we should have known better and been less ethnocentric when we designed the experiment. After all, what can one expect in India, for example, where the illiteracy rate is 52 percent?

The asking-for-change experiment also encountered a variety of problems in translation. In this study, the experimenter would ask someone walking in the opposite direction for change for a quarter (in the United States) or the equivalent in other currencies. Between monetary inflation and the widespread use of prepaid telephone cards, however, we learned that the need for particular coins has disappeared in many parts of the world. In Tel Aviv, for example, no one seemed to understand why a person might require small change. In Calcutta (a city that has now officially changed its name to Kolkata), our experimenter had difficulty finding anyone who had small-value bills and coins—reflecting a general shortage all over India at that time. In Buenos Aires, capital of the struggling Argentine economy, we wondered how to score the response of a person who replied that he was so broke that he couldn't even make change. In a few cities, people were afraid to exchange any money with strangers. In Kiev (another city for which we eventually gave up collecting data), where thieves run rampant, visitors are warned never to open a purse or wallet on the street.

In the end, we limited our cross-national comparisons to the tests in which the experimenter pretended to be blind, to have an injured leg or to accidentally drop a pen. Even these situations, we found, occasionally suffered in translation. In the hurt-leg trials, for example, we learned that a mere leg brace was sometimes insufficient to warrant sympathy. Take Jakarta, where experimenter Widyaka Nusapati reported that people don't usually bother to help someone with a minor leg injury. Perhaps if the limb were missing, Nusapati observed, the test might be valid there.

We found that in some cities, such as Tokyo and in parts of the United States, traffic light controls give off distinctive sounds so that the visually impaired will know when it is safe to walk, making it less likely that people would consider a blind person crossing an intersection as someone in need of aid. And, in a curious twist, the experimenter in Tokyo felt so compelled by the surrounding norms of civility that he found it nearly impossible to fake blindness or a hurt leg to attract well-meaning helpers. As a result, Tokyo could not be included in our final ranking.

Figure 5. Ranking of cities around the world . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Despite these difficulties, we ran the three tests successfully in 23 different countries—the largest cross-national comparison of helping ever conducted. What we found suggests a world of difference in the willingness of urbanites to reach out to strangers. In the blind-person experiment, for example, subjects in five cities—Rio de Janeiro, San Jose (Costa Rica, not California), Lilongwe, Madrid and Prague—helped the pedestrian across the street on every occasion, whereas in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok help was offered less than half the time. If you have a hurt leg in downtown San Jose, Kolkata or Shanghai, our results show that you are more than three times more likely to receive help picking up a fallen magazine than if you are struggling on the streets of New York or Sofia. And if you drop your pen behind you in New York, you have less than one-third the chance that you do in Rio of ever seeing it again.

The two highest-ranking cities are in Latin America: Rio and San Jose. Overall, we found that people in Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking cities tended to be among the most helpful: The other three such cities on our list, Madrid, San Salvador and Mexico City, each scored well above average. Considering that some of these places suffer from long-term political instability, high crime rates and a potpourri of other social, economic and environmental ills, these positive results are noteworthy.

Social psychologist Aroldo Rodrigues, who is currently a colleague of mine at California State University, Fresno, spent most of his career as a leading scholar at universities in the most helpful city of all, Rio. Rodrigues was not surprised by our results. "There is an important word in Brazil: 'simpático,'" Rodrigues explains. "The term has no equivalent in English. It refers to a range of desirable social qualities—to be friendly, nice, agreeable and good-natured, a person who is fun to be with and pleasant to deal with. Mind you, simpático doesn't mean that a person is necessarily honest or moral. It is a social quality. Brazilians, especially the Cariocas of Rio, want very much to be seen as simpático. And going out of one's way to assist strangers is part of this image." This Brazilian social script also extends to the Hispanic cultures in our study, where a simpático personality is held in equally high regard.

Figure 6. What accounts for the variation in helpfulness? . . .Click to Enlarge Image

There were other notable trends, although each had its exceptions. Helping rates tended to be high in countries with low economic productivity (low gross domestic product per capita—that is, less purchasing power for each citizen), in cities with a slow pace of life (as measured by pedestrian walking speeds) and in cultures that emphasize the value of social harmony. This city "personality" is consistent with the simpático hypothesis. People in communities where social obligations take priority over individual achievement tend to be less economically productive, but they show more willingness to assist others. This trend did not, however, hold for all of the cities in our study. Pedestrians in the fast-paced, first-world cities of Copenhagen and Vienna, for example, were very kind to strangers, whereas their counterparts in slower-paced Kuala Lumpur were not helpful at all. These exceptions make clear that even city dwellers with a fast pace of life and a focus on economic achievement are capable of finding time for strangers in need and that a slow pace of life is no guarantee that people will invest their leisure time in practicing social ideals.

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