Hard, but harmonious times? Cooperation among strangers increased across America in recent decades

WASHINGTON — Society may not be as divided as some people believe. Despite polarizing politics fraying the social fabric around us, a surprising new study reveals cooperation among strangers has actually increased since the 1950s.

An international team of researchers analyzed 511 studies in the United States between 1956 and 2017, which contained more than 63,000 participants. The studies included lab experiments measuring cooperation among strangers.

Over the 61-year period, researchers discovered a small, gradual increase in cooperation, which may reflect the shifts in American society. Researchers say the rise in cooperation displays a connection with increases in societal wealth, income inequality, urbanization, and the number of people living alone. Study authors note they can only prove there was a correlation among these factors — they cannot say for sure that these factors actually cause an increase in cooperation.

“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,” says Dr. Yu Kou, lead researcher and a professor of social psychology at Beijing Normal University, in a media release. “Greater cooperation within and between societies may help us tackle global challenges, such as responses to pandemics, climate change and immigrant crises.”

It’s harder going it alone

These 511 studies occurred in lab settings, primarily with college students as participants. Researchers say the findings may not represent real-life situations or U.S. society as a whole, however, they do point out that prior studies have not found any differences in cooperation based on an American’s gender or ethnicity.

Previous research also shows increased cooperation has a link to market competitiveness and economic growth. Dr. Paul Van Lange, study co-author and professor of social psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, explains that since more people live in cities and on their own, it may be necessary for them to cooperate more with strangers.

“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,” says Van Lange. “U.S. society may have become more individualistic, but people have not.”

Even though cooperation among strangers has increased, trust has not. Previous research has found a decline in the level of trust people place in strangers over the past several decades.

“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,” the researchers conclude.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

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About the Author

Matt Higgins

Matt Higgins worked in national and local news for 15 years. He started out as an overnight production assistant at Fox News Radio in 2007 and ended in 2021 as the Digital Managing Editor at CBS Philadelphia. Following his news career, he spent one year in the automotive industry as a Digital Platforms Content Specialist contractor with Subaru of America and is currently a freelance writer and editor for StudyFinds. Matt believes in facts, science and Philadelphia sports teams crushing his soul.

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  1. Two-thirds of US psychology students use lab-based studies using college students. It is hard to put much credit in samples who are whiter, more affluent, and a whole lot younger than he rest of the country. And trust in a lab setting is quite a different matter than, say, social trust as an adult asked to cooperate with an increasingly opposite seeming “they.” College students perforce have to work together, or at least be in class together and often live and eat together. Adults can silo into communities of like-minded people. So these results are encouraing, but it seems a stretch to generalize.

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