Despite common concerns that the social fabric is fraying, cooperation between strangers has gradually increased in the US since the 1950s, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
“We were surprised by our findings that Americans have become more cooperative over the past six decades because many people believe that American society is becoming less socially connected, less trusting, and less committed to the greater good,” said lead researcher Yu Kou. , PhD, professor. of social psychology at Beijing Normal University. “Greater cooperation within and between societies can help us tackle global challenges, such as responses to pandemics, climate change and migrant crises.”
The researchers analyzed 511 studies conducted in the United States between 1956 and 2017 with a total of more than 63,000 participants. Those studies included laboratory experiments that measured cooperation between strangers. The research was published online at Psychological Bulletin.
The study found a small, gradual increase in cooperation over the 61-year period, which the researchers say may be related to notable changes in American society. Increased cooperation was associated with increases in urbanization, social wealth, income inequality, and the number of people living alone. The study cannot prove that these factors caused an increase in cooperation, only that there is a correlation.
Increased cooperation has been linked to market competitiveness and economic growth in previous research. As more people live alone and in cities, they may be forced to cooperate with strangers, said study co-author Paul Van Lange, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
“It is possible that people gradually learn to extend their cooperation with friends and acquaintances to strangers, which is required in more urban and anonymous societies,” Van Lange said. “American society may have become more individualistic, but the people have not.”
The studies that were analyzed occurred in laboratory settings with primarily college students as participants, so the findings may not be representative of real-life situations or of American society as a whole. However, the researchers noted that previous studies have not found that levels of cooperation vary by gender or ethnicity in the US.
The study did not measure some other social factors, such as levels of trust in strangers. Previous research has found a general decline in trust over several decades in the US.
“An intriguing implication of these findings is that while Americans’ cooperation has increased over time, their beliefs about others’ willingness to cooperate have actually decreased,” the journal article states.
Materials provided by American Psychological Association. Note: content can be edited for style and length.