A new study by UCLA sociologist Giovanni Rossi and an international team of collaborators finds that people rely on each other for help constantly.
In the study, published in Scientific Reports, the authors – who also included researchers at universities in the UK, Australia, Ecuador, Germany, and the Netherlands – explore the human capacity for cooperation. They found that people signal a need for assistance, such as asking someone to pass them a utensil, once every couple of minutes.
And the research revealed that those requests for help do not go unanswered: Across cultures, people comply with these small requests far more often than they decline them. On the rare occasions when people do decline, they explain why.
Those human tendencies, to help others when needed and to explain when such help can’t be given, transcends cultural differences, suggesting that, deep down, people from all cultures have more similar cooperative behaviours than prior research has established.
The new findings help solve a puzzle generated by prior anthropological and economic research, which has emphasized variation in rules and norms governing cooperation.
For example, while whale hunters of Lamalera, Indonesia, follow established rules about how to share out a large catch, Hadza foragers of Tanzania share their food more out of fear of generating negative gossip. In Kenya, wealthier Orma villagers are expected to pay for public goods such as road projects. Wealthy Gnau villagers of Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, would reject such an offer because it creates an awkward obligation to reciprocate for their poorer neighbours.
“Cultural differences like these have created a puzzle for understanding cooperation and helping among humans,” said Rossi, the paper’s first author. “Are our decisions about sharing and helping shaped by the culture we grew up with? Or are humans generous and giving by nature?”
To answer those questions, the authors analyzed over 40 hours of video recordings of everyday life involving more than 350 people in geographically, linguistically and culturally diverse sites – towns in England, Italy, Poland and Russia; and rural villages in Ecuador, Ghana, Laos and Aboriginal Australia.
The analysis focused on sequences in which one person sent a signal for help, such as asking directly or visibly struggling with a task, and another person responded. The authors identified more than 1,000 such requests, occurring on average about once every two minutes. The situations involved “low-cost” decisions about sharing items for everyday use or assisting others with tasks around the house or village, for example.
Such decisions are many orders more frequent than “high-cost” decisions such as sharing the spoils of a successful whale hunt or contributing to the construction of a village road, the types of decisions that have been found to be significantly influenced by culture.
People complied with small requests seven times more often than they declined, and six times more often than they ignored them. People did sometimes reject or ignore small requests, but a lot less frequently than they complied. The average rates of rejection (10%) and ignoring (11%) were much lower than the average rate of compliance (79%).
The preference for compliance was held across all cultures and was unaffected by whether the interaction was among family or non-family members.
People helped without explanation, but when they declined, 74% of the time they gave an explicit reason. That suggests that while people decline helping only for a good reason, they give help unconditionally, without needing to explain why they are doing it.
“A cross-cultural preference for compliance with small requests is not predicted by prior research on resource-sharing and cooperation, which instead suggests that culture should cause prosocial behaviour to vary in appreciable ways due to local norms, values, and adaptations to the natural, technological, and socio-economic environment,” said 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.”
The findings suggest that being helpful is an ingrained reflex in the human species, Rossi said.
“While cultural variation comes into play for special occasions and high-cost exchange, when we zoom in on the micro level of social interaction, the cultural difference mostly goes away, and our species’ tendency to give help when needed becomes universally visible,” he said.