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Small Acts of Kindness Are Universal: Global Study Finds People Help Each Other Every 2 Minutes

An international study of people on five continents has found that humans help each other with small things about every 2 minutes, and acquiesce to calls for help overwhelmingly more often than reject them.

For sociologists, understanding the root of any kind of human behaviour first requires them to attempt to parse out how much influence on it comes from nurture, and how much from nature.

Kindness, generosity, anger, curiosity—how much are these expressions amplified or tamped down by the culture a person grows up in, and how much is built-in to the human animal?

Attempting to tackle kindness and cooperation, a team of researchers at UC Los Angeles conducted a study of observing everyday interactions between strangers and relations to see how often they helped each other.

Previous literature was, in hindsight, aiming a little too high in attempting to answer this question.

For example, the UCLA press room states in a report on the paper, that 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 a fear of generating negative gossip.

In Kenya, they continue, 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.

While these are valuable insights into human social organisation, they are dealing with complex phenomena with consequences, such as how to divide a whale kill among dozens of people, or financing road construction.

Instead, UCLA sociologist Giovanni Rossi aimed a bit lower. His team analysed over 40 hours of video recordings of everyday life in towns in Italy, Poland, Russia, Aboriginal Australia, Ecuador, Laos, Ghana, and England.

“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?”

They registered signals for help, such as asking if someone could pass them the water at a dinner table, or a visual signal of help such as struggling to lift a heavy object into a truck, and identified more than 1,000 such requests.

They found that people complied with small requests seven times more often than they declined, and six times more often than they ignored them. Rejections of help came at a rate of 11% at most, but 74% of all rejections came with an explanation as to why the rendering of help wasn’t possible.

In other words, only 2.5% of all help signals were denied without explanation.

“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,” Rossi told the UCLA press.

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