Shall we help strangers?

I will never forget a lesson I was taught as a kid in New York. I was six years old and was walking down a busy Manhattan street with my father. Suddenly the stream of pedestrians was jammed against an obstacle on the sidewalk. To my astonishment, the object that people avoided turned out to be a human being: a man lay unconscious on the pavement. Not a single passerby seemed to notice that the obstacle was human. In any case, nobody risked a direct look. As we pushed past, my father - the pattern of a loving, warm-hearted gentleman - pointed to a bottle in a paper sack and told me that the poor soul on the sidewalk "just needs to sleep in." When the drunk began to swing confused speeches, my father warned me not to go any closer: "You never know how he will react." I soon saw this lesson as my first exercise in urban behavior.

But many years later I had a completely different experience at a market in Rangoon, the capital of Burma. I had traveled from one poor city in Asia to another for a year, but even measured by that, there was sheer misery. In addition to the terrible poverty, there was stifling heat, an incredible crowd and a strong wind that covered everything with dust. Suddenly a man dragging a huge bale of peanuts screamed in pain and fell to the ground. And then I witnessed an amazing ballet. As if they had rehearsed their moves many times, several vendors ran from their stands to help, leaving all their belongings unattended. One put a blanket under the man's head; another opened his shirt; a third questioned him carefully about his pain; a fourth fetched water; a fifth pushed the onlookers back; a sixth got help. A doctor arrived within minutes and two other locals assisted him. The performance could have passed as the final exam at a paramedic school.

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in the 18th century that cities were abysses for the human race. But as my experiences in New York and Rangoon showed, not all cities are created equal. Like individuals, places have their own personality. Which environment is most conducive to altruism? In which cities is the most likely to get help to a person in need? I have devoted the last 15 years almost entirely to this question.

My students and I have traveled across the United States and many countries around the world to see where passers-by are most willing to assist a stranger. We carried out five different field tests in each of the cities examined. Our studies focused on simple assistance that does not require heroism: Is an accidentally dropped pen picked up by a passing pedestrian? Will someone with an injured leg try to pick up a magazine from the floor and get help? Will someone escort a blind man through a busy intersection? Will anyone be willing to change a quarter dollar into smaller coins? Do people take the time to post an addressed, stamped letter that appears to have been lost?

We carried out our first investigations in the early 1990s. My students and I visited 36 cities of various sizes in different regions of the United States. The results confirmed my childhood impressions of New York. In a combined evaluation of the five experiments, New York City came in last. If we added a sixth measure of anonymous willingness to help - per capita contribution to the private charity United Way - New York would just climb to the penultimate place. Overall, we found that people in the small and medium-sized cities of the Southeast were the most helpful, while those in the large cities of the Northeast and West Coast did the worst.

Due to the numerous locations examined, we were able to see how certain social, economic and environmental factors were correlated with our test results. As we found out, by far the best indicator is population density. This parameter is more closely related to a city's willingness to help than the crime rate, the pace of daily life, the prevailing economic conditions or environmental pressures such as noise and air pollution. We could easily show that, on average, people in particularly densely populated cities take much less time to help. New York was the best example.

Common sense in a cultural comparison

This result is of course easy to understand. Crowd brings out our worst qualities. Urbanization critics have always emphasized that squeezing too many people together in an all too small space paradoxically leads to alienation, anonymity and social isolation. Ultimately, people feel less responsible for their behavior towards others - especially strangers. Previous research suggests that city dwellers are more likely to harm one another. Our study showed that they are also less willing to do good to one another, and that this apathy increases with the degree of constriction.

But do all cities follow this pattern? It is no great surprise that densely packed cities like New York do not show as much community spirit as small communities in the Southeast and Midwest, but as my experience in Rangoon shows, even in the largest cities you come across islands of village cohesion. How similar are city dwellers from different countries?

To answer that question, Ara Norenzayan and more than twenty other adventurous students at my university carried out five separate experiments with me in major cities around the world. All in all, we tested helpfulness almost 300 times: we simulated blindness, dropped more than 400 pens, spoke to around 500 people while pretending to have an injured leg or need change, and deliberately lost almost 800 letters. In the US, we chose New York for the same five experiments.

Psychologists who conduct sophisticated field tests know very well that a failed experiment is sometimes as instructive as a successful one. With this in mind, we quickly discovered that measuring procedures for helpfulness cannot always be transferred smoothly from one culture to another. Two experiments in particular - asking for change and losing letters - do not work in many countries as they do in the United States.

The test with the lost letter caused the greatest difficulty. We left franked and addressed envelopes clearly visible on the street and later measured the percentage of letters delivered. One problem was that in some cities people literally ran away from the letters. Especially in Israel's capital Tel Aviv, where unordered parcels too often contain bombs, people deliberately avoided our suspicious-looking envelopes. In El Salvador, our experimenter learned of a common trick with intentionally scattered letters: as soon as a good Samaritan picked one up, a crook would show up and claim he had lost the letter, which was supposedly a lot of money. Then the gangster demanded the fictitious amount back so threateningly that the honest finder paid out of his own pocket and of course never touched another letter again.

In many developing countries, mailboxes are not emptied or are simply missing. To post a letter, instead of posting it at the next corner, you have to go to the post office. In Tirana, the capital of Albania - where we finally abandoned the field experiment altogether - we were advised against the experiment because even letters posted in the post office rarely reach their destination. Of course, unreliable mail delivery is a nuisance in some richer countries as well. But the biggest problem was that in several countries, correspondence is of no importance to most residents. In retrospect, we should have planned the experiments less ethnocentrically. After all, what can one expect from a country like India, where 52 percent cannot read or write?

Close to cash

The experiment with asking for change also turned out to be difficult to transfer. In the United States, the experimenter asked someone oncoming to change him a quarter of a dollar, in other countries a comparable sum. However, as we learned, in many parts of the world the demand for certain coins had disappeared due to inflation and the use of phone cards. In Tel Aviv, for example, nobody seemed to understand why a person needs change. In Calcutta - which is now officially called Kolkata - our experimenter had difficulty finding anyone with low-value bills and coins because they were rare in India at the time.

In Buenos Aires, the capital of economically battered Argentina, we wondered how to rate the reaction of a man who said he was so bankrupt he couldn't even give us change. In some cities, people shied away from exchanging money with strangers at all. In Kiev - another city where we stopped collecting data - the thieves are so outrageous that visitors are warned not to open their wallets in the street.

Finally, we limited ourselves to the tests in which the experimenter pretended to be blind, to have an injured leg, or to lose a pen. Even these situations are sometimes difficult to transfer from one country to another. In the experiments with the injured leg, for example, we found that a leg brace was sometimes not enough to arouse sympathy. As reported by our Jakarta experimenter Widyaka Nusapati, people there usually don't take a minor injury seriously enough to help. Apparently - according to Nusapati - he should have missed a leg for the test to work.

In some cities, such as Tokyo, the traffic lights generate acoustic signals so that the visually impaired know when it is safe to cross the street. This makes it less likely that a blind person will wake up helpfulness when crossing the zebra crossing. The person who carried out the experiment in Tokyo even felt so pressured by the good behavior prevailing in Japan that they found it almost impossible to simulate blindness or mobility problems in order to attract well-meaning helpers. That is why Tokyo could not be included in our ranking in the end.

Despite these difficulties, we successfully carried out the three tests in 23 different countries - and thus the largest international comparative study on the subject of helping to date. It revealed enormous differences in the willingness of city dwellers to approach strangers. In the blind test, for example, strangers in five capitals - Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), San José (Costa Rica), Lilongwe (Malawi), Madrid (Spain) and Prague (Czech Republic) - helped pedestrians across the street at every opportunity, while in Help was offered in less than half of all cases in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Bangkok, Thailand. If you have an injured leg, you are three times more likely to pick up a magazine in San José, Calcutta (India) or Shanghai (China) than on the streets of New York or Sofia (Bulgaria). And if you lose your pen in New York, the chance of ever seeing it again is three times less than in Rio.

The two top spots are in Latin America: Rio and San José. Overall, city dwellers from the Hispanic (Spanish-Portuguese) cultural area proved to be particularly helpful: Madrid, San Salvador and Mexico City were well above average. When you consider that several of these locations have long suffered political unrest, high crime rates, and other social, economic, and environmental evils, the results seem most remarkable.


The social psychologist Aroldo Rodrigues, who currently works with me at California State University in Fresno, previously taught for many years at universities in Rio, the most helpful city of all. He was not surprised by our results: "In Brazil there is the important word simpático"explains Rodrigues." It denotes a variety of positive social characteristics - being friendly, nice, pleasant and good-natured. Dealing with such a person is just fun. Mind you, simpático does not necessarily mean that the person is being honest or acting morally. It's a social quality. Brazilians, especially the Cariocas (the inhabitants of Rio), would very much like to be simpático apply - and that includes making an effort to help strangers. "This social example is not only effective in Brazil: Simpático being is also considered highly desirable in the other Hispanic cultures we examined.

There were other distinct trends, although each had its exceptions. The frequency of friendly aid files was higher in countries with low economic power - that is, with low per capita domestic product and thus little purchasing power -, in cities with a slow pace of life - measured by the speed of pedestrians - and in cultures that emphasize the value of social harmony . This "personality profile" of the cities fits in with Simpático-Hypothesis. In communities where social obligations take precedence over individual performance, people are on average less economically productive but are more willing to help others.

However, this trend did not apply to all cities in our study. Pedestrians in Copenhagen and Vienna, fast-paced First World cities, were very friendly to strangers, while passers-by in Kuala Lumpur, where life was slower, were not at all helpful. As these exceptions show, even city dwellers with a fast pace of life and economic pressure to perform can find time for strangers in need. Conversely, a slow lifestyle is no guarantee that people will invest their free time in realizing social ideals.

Rude helpers

As before in the inner-American city comparison, the New Yorkers also cut a strikingly bad figure in the international study: They came second to last among 23 world cities when it came to picking up a lost pen or helping a person injured in the leg. When it came time to help a blind person across the street, they achieved at least almost mediocrity with 13th place.

We also experienced that there can be a difference between helping and being polite. Where people move quickly, even when offering support, they behave less politely. In New York, help was often associated with particularly sharp distancing. When experimenting with the lost pen, willing New Yorkers usually called out to the tester that he had lost his pen and quickly ran away. On the other hand, helpers handed over in casual Rio - where sauntering around and simpático belong to the lifestyle - the pen mostly personally, for which they sometimes even chased the experimenter specially. During the test with the blind, willing New Yorkers often waited until the traffic light turned green, tacitly announced that the transition was now safe, and moved quickly. In the friendlier cities, volunteers more often offered to lead the experimenter across the street and sometimes asked if he needed further assistance. In places like this, our testers even had the problem that they could hardly get rid of particularly caring strangers.

In general, New Yorkers only seem to want to offer help if they can be sure that no further contact will follow - as if to say, "I am fulfilling my social obligation, but don't kid yourself, we will part ways." Whether there is fear behind this attitude or simply a desire not to waste time is difficult to say. But in helpful cities like Rio, human contact often seemed to us to be the real motive. People often offered help with a smile and were clearly happy to receive the thank you.

A particularly drastic example of impolite help occurred in the course of the - ultimately aborted - series of experiments with lost letters. In many cities I received envelopes that had been visibly opened. In almost all of these cases, the finder had sealed the letter again or posted it in a new envelope. Sometimes there was a note attached in which the finder apologized for opening our letter. Only from New York did I receive an envelope that was torn open at the side and left open. On the back of the letter the helper had scrawled in Spanish: "Hijo de puta ir [r] esposable" - apparently a bad insult that included my mother. Underneath was a common curse that I didn't need a translator for.It's interesting to imagine this angry New Yorker cursing my irresponsibility on the way to the mailbox and yet, for some reason, compelled to take the time to fulfill his social obligation to a stranger he already hates. Ironically, this rudely forwarded letter counted in the New York records as a positive relief measure. An extremely antipático Test person, the Brazilians would say.

Quite different in Tokyo: There several finders even delivered the letters personally. And from Rochester, the friendliest city in the United States according to our previous investigation, I received the following note on the back of a letter sent on:

"Hello. I found this under my windshield wiper with a note that it was next to my car. At first I thought it was a parking ticket. I'll put it in the mailbox on November 19th. Tell the sender it was on the Found the bridge near the library and South Avenue Garage at approximately 5 p.m. on 11/18.

PS: Are you related to Levines in New Jersey or Long Island? L. L. "

Do our results mean that New Yorkers are inherently more hard-hearted than people in other cities? Not at all. The New Yorkers we spoke to gave many good reasons for their reluctance to help strangers.

The social cold of big citiesMost of them, like me, had been taught early on that it can be dangerous to approach people you don't know. To survive in New York - it was said - one should somehow avoid suspects.

Some also expressed concern that others might not want unsolicited help, that the stranger for his part feared external contacts or felt patronized or offended by them. Many said they were downright ill-treated for trying to help. One woman described an encounter with a frail old man who held a stick in front of him and was apparently unable to cross an intersection. When she politely offered help, he rumbled, "If I want help, I'll ask. Take care of your own filth." Others said they had been tricked by crooks enough times. One non-helper explained: "Most New Yorkers have seen the false blind and false lame and have been at least verbally attacked by the insane or the aggressive homeless. That doesn't necessarily make you immune or hardened, but it does make you cautious."

Time and again, New Yorkers have told us that they have deep compassion for the needs of others, but the harshness of city life prohibits them from reaching out to strangers. People spoke nostalgically of the past, when they'd easily picked up hitchhikers or found a meal for a hungry stranger. Many expressed grief or even anger because today's life withheld the satisfaction of feeling like good Samaritans.

These explanations may simply be the rationalizations of loveless townspeople trying to make themselves better than they are. But I do not believe that. All evidence suggests that helping depends less on the nature of the local people than on the characteristics of the immediate environment. As studies show, seemingly minor changes in the situation can have a drastic effect on helping - regardless of the personality or morals of the people involved. It has been proven that the place where you grew up has less to do with helping than your current place of residence. In other words, Brazilians and New Yorkers alike will be more helpful in Ipanema than they are in Manhattan.

Learn to help

Still, one should not give up hope of civilian manners in cities like New York and Kuala Lumpur. Precisely because the typical circumstances work against helping in some places, it can, conversely, also be encouraged by influencing the environment. As experiments have shown, the willingness to help grows when the anonymity and irresponsibility typical of many cities is removed - for example by increasing personal identifiability or by simply getting people to address each other by name.

In an experiment carried out on a New York beach in 1975, Thomas Moriarity, then a social psychologist at New York University, found that only twenty percent of the audience intervened when a man - actually an experimenter - stole a portable radio from a temporarily abandoned bath towel in front of everyone . But if the owner simply asked the beach neighbors to keep an eye on her radio while she was gone, 95 percent of those who had consented to take action against the theft.

Creating a sense of guilt - by making people aware that they could do more - also seems to have an effect. Perhaps most promising is the fact that helping can be taught effectively. As psychologists have found, children who are shown altruistic characters on television tend to mimic them. And because exemplary social behavior is often contagious in real life, any increase in helpfulness tends to reinforce itself.

Could a friendlier environment ultimately make New Yorkers more helpful? After all, this city is leading a trend across the United States and is currently enjoying a wave of falling crime: According to statistics, fewer New Yorkers injure each other than in the recent past. Could less fear of street crime encourage more people to offer help to one another, including strangers? Our experiments don't address changes over time, but I suspect that little will change. After all, the lower number of malefactors does not necessarily mean that more altruism is practiced. And I have little doubt that the drunk, whom passers-by avoided when I was six, would have expected even less help from a stranger these days.

A century ago the writer John Habberton was thinking of the New Yorkers when he wrote: "Nowhere in the world are there more willing hearts with plenty of money behind them than in big cities, and yet nowhere else is there more suffering." Good Samaritans may live there in large numbers but hide behind protective walls. It would make little difference to strangers who need help, because thoughts are less important than actions.


Cross-cultural differences in helping strangers. From R.V. Levine et al. in: Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, Vol. 32, p. 543 (2001).

The Pace of Life in 31 Countries. From R.V. Levine and A. Norenzayan in: Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, Vol. 30, p. 178 (1999).

A Geography of Time. From R.V. Levine. Basic Books, New York 1997.

Helping in 36 U.S. Cities. From R.V. Levine et al. in: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 67, p. 69 (1994).

From: Spectrum of Science 8/2003, page 26
© Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This article is included in Spectrum of Science 8/2003