By John Salak —
Just maybe things weren’t always better and people kinder in years past.
In what may be an ironic twist given the source, recent research out of Beijing Normal University and published by the American Psychological Association found that in the last 60 years strangers in America are increasingly likely to help others.
“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 at the university.
Kou notes the findings may have global consequences for the good. “Greater cooperation within and between societies may help us tackle global challenges, such as responses to pandemics, climate change and immigrant crises,” he said.
The university’s conclusions were based on more than 500 studies conducted in the United States between 1956 and 2017 that involved 63,000 participants. The gradual increase in cooperation may be linked to notable shifts in U.S. society during this time. These factors could include increases in urbanization, societal wealth, income inequality and the number of people living alone.
The researchers acknowledged they did not establish a link between these factors and the rise in cooperation, but there is a correlation.
While the findings are interesting, they reinforce previous research that demonstrated a connection between cooperation, market competitiveness and economics. In effect, cooperating with strangers is becoming a requirement for people who live in cities or on their own.
“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,” explained the study’s co-author Paul Van Lange, Ph.D., at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Van Lange. “U.S. society may have become more individualistic, but people have not.”
Sadly, while cooperation may be on the rise, trust in others isn’t necessarily tracking upward. This study did not measure levels of trust in strangers, but its authors noted previous research has shown a general decline in trust among Americans over several decades.
In fact, some surveys report only about one-third of Americans generally trust others, which is about half the level of trust recorded 50 years earlier.
In another somewhat ironic twist, Americans don’t see themselves as more cooperative than in the past. “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,” researchers reported.