LOS ANGELES — The world can feel like a cold place at times, but new findings reveal that a small act of kindness occurs about every two minutes. More specifically, researchers at UCLA, in collaboration with an international team of scientists, found that people all over the world signal others for assistance every couple of minutes — and the vast majority of the time people comply with these small requests for help.
All in all, study authors say acts of kindness appear to be quite frequent and universal; people of various cultures may share far more similar cooperative behaviors than prior research has suggested.
Led by UCLA sociologist Giovanni Rossi, as well as scientists from Germany, Ecuador, Australia, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, this study originally set out to explore the human capacity for cooperation. They found that people signal a need for assistance, for example asking someone to pass them a utensil, roughly once every couple of minutes. While these requests for help usually receive an answer, on the rare occasions when people do decline, they explain why.
Different cultures help in different ways
This observed human tendency — helping others when they need it and explaining when they can’t — transcends cultural differences, according to the study’s results. These findings help answer questions posed by prior anthropological and economic research, which highlighted variations in rules and norms governing cooperation.
For instance, whale hunters of Lamalera, Indonesia, follow established rules about how to share out a large catch, while the Hadza foragers of Tanzania share their food more out of a fear of generating negative gossip. Meanwhile, in Kenya, the wealthier Orma villagers are typically expected to pay for public works such as road projects. Wealthy residents of Gnau, Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, would never agree to this as it would create an awkward obligation to reciprocate for their poorer neighbors.
“Cultural differences like these have created a puzzle for understanding cooperation and helping among humans,” says Rossi, the paper’s first author, in a university release. “Are our decisions about sharing and helping shaped by the culture we grew up with? Or are humans generous and giving by nature?”
In pursuit of answers to those questions, study authors analyzed more than 40 hours of video recordings of everyday life involving more than 350 people in geographically, linguistically, and culturally diverse locations. Examples include towns in Poland, Italy, England, and Russia, as well as rural villages in Ecuador, Ghana, Laos, and Aboriginal Australia.
8 in 10 people help without thinking about it
While conducting their assessment, researchers were sure to focus specifically on sequences in which one person sent a signal for help (asking directly or visibly struggling with a task) and another person responded. The team identified over 1,000 requests, occurring roughly once every two minutes on average. These situations always involved “low-cost” decisions in relation to either sharing items for everyday use or assisting others with tasks around the house or village, just to name a few examples.
More “high-cost” decisions covered by earlier research, such as sharing the spoils of a successful whale hunt or contributing to the construction of a village road, are far less common.
Individuals complied with small requests seven times more often than they declined, and six times more often than they chose to ignore others. Statistically, average rejection (10%) and ignoring (11%) rates were much lower than the average rate of compliance (79%).
This tendency to comply with small requests held up across all examined cultures, and appeared totally uninfluenced by whether the interaction was between family or non-family members. Whenever someone chose to lend a helping hand, they usually did it without explanation. However, when people declined, 74 percent of the time they gave an explicit reason. This indicates, researchers explain, that when people choose to help others for a good reason, they help unconditionally, without needing to explain why they are doing so.
“A cross-cultural preference for compliance with small requests is not predicted by prior research on resource-sharing and cooperation, which instead suggest that culture should cause prosocial behavior to vary in appreciable ways due to local norms, values, and adaptations to the natural, technological, and socio-economic environment,” explains N. J. Enfield, the paper’s corresponding author and a linguist at the University of Sydney. “These and other factors could in principle make it easier for people to say ‘no’ to small requests, but this is not what we find.”
In conclusion, Rossi says these findings suggest that being helpful is an ingrained reflex within the human species.
“While cultural variation comes into play for special occasions and high-cost exchange, when we zoom in on the micro level of social interaction, cultural difference mostly goes away, and our species’ tendency to give help when needed becomes universally visible,” he concludes.
The study is published in Scientific Reports.