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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

A Special Attitude?

Do our results mean that New Yorkers are less kind people—less caring on the inside—than city dwellers in more helpful places? Not at all. The New Yorkers to whom we spoke gave many good reasons for their reluctance to help strangers. Most, like me, had been taught early on that reaching out to people you don't know can be dangerous. To survive in New York, we were told, you should avoid even the vaguely suspicious.

Some also expressed concern that others might not want unsolicited help, that the stranger, too, might be afraid of outside contact or might feel patronized or insulted. Many told stories of being outright abused for trying to help. One woman described an encounter with a frail, elderly man with a red-tipped cane who appeared unable to manage crossing an intersection. When she gently offered assistance, he barked back, "When I want help I'll ask for it. Mind your own f---ing business." Others told of being burned once too often by hustlers. One nonhelper commented that "most New Yorkers have seen blindness faked, lameness faked, been at least verbally accosted by mentally ill or aggressive homeless people. This does not necessarily make one immune or callous, but rather, wary."

Over and again, New Yorkers told us they cared deeply about the needs of strangers, but that the realities of city living prohibited their reaching out. People spoke with nostalgia for the past, when they would routinely pick up hitchhikers or arrange a meal for a hungry stranger. Many expressed frustration—even anger—that life today deprived them of the satisfaction of feeling like good Samaritans.

These explanations may simply be the rationalizations of uncharitable citizens trying to preserve their self-image. But I do not think this is the case. The bulk of the evidence indicates that helping tends to be less dependent on the nature of the local people than it is on the characteristics of the local environment. And investigators have demonstrated that seemingly minor changes in situation can drastically affect helping—above and beyond the personalities or moral beliefs of the people involved. It is noteworthy that studies show the location where one was raised has less to do with helping than the place one currently lives. In other words, Brazilians and New Yorkers are both more likely to offer help in Ipanema than they are in Manhattan.

Figure 8. New Yorkers earned a reputation for callousness . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Yet the cause of civility in cities like New York and Kuala Lumpur may not be hopeless. Just as characteristics of the situation may operate against helping, there are ways to modify the environment so as to encourage it. Experiments have shown, for example, that reversing the anonymity and diffusion of responsibility that characterize life in some cities—by increasing personal accountability, or simply by getting people to address one another by name—boosts helping. In a 1975 experiment at a New York beach, Thomas Moriarity, then a social psychologist at New York University, found that only 20 percent of people intervened when a man (actually one of the experimenters) blatantly stole a portable radio off of the temporarily abandoned blanket next to them. But when the owner of the radio simply asked her neighbors to keep an eye on the radio while she was gone, 95 percent of those who agreed stepped in to stop the snatcher.

Inducing a bit of guilt—by making people aware that they could be doing more—also seems to make a difference. Perhaps most promising is the observation that helping can be effectively taught. Psychologists have found, for example, that children who are exposed to altruistic characters on television tend to mimic them. And, because prosocial exemplars in real life often induce others to follow suit, any increases in helping are potentially self-perpetuating.

Might a kinder environment eventually raise the level of helpfulness in New York? This city is leading a nationwide trend and currently enjoying a wave of crime reduction. (Statistics indicate that fewer New Yorkers are doing each other injury today than in the recent past.) Could diminished worries over street crime free more people to step forth and offer one another aid, strangers included? Our experiments do not address variations over time, but I suspect that little will change. After all, the reduction in the number of harm-doers does not necessarily imply that there will be greater quantity of altruism practiced. And there is little doubt that the drunk man I watched people sidestep when I was six would be even less likely to receive help from a passing stranger today.

A little more than a century ago, author John Habberton may have had New Yorkers in mind when he wrote that "nowhere in the world are there more charitable hearts with plenty of money behind them than in large cities, yet nowhere else is there more suffering." Perhaps good Samaritans are indeed living in New York in large numbers but are hiding behind protective screens. To strangers in need of help, it would make little difference, thoughts being less important than actions. The bottom line: One's prospects for being helped by a stranger are bleaker in New York than they are in Rio, Mexico City or Shanghai. Indeed, you're more likely to receive assistance from someone you don't know just about anywhere else in world.

© Robert V. Levine


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  • Levine, R. V., and A. Norenzayan. 1999. The pace of life in 31 countries. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology 30:178–205.
  • Levine, R. V., A. Norenzayan and K. Philbrick. 2001. Cross-cultural differences in helping strangers. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology 32:543–560.
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