People Are Cooperating More Than They Have in Decades


Key Takeaways

  • Cooperation among American strangers has been increasing between 1956 and 2017, based on research.
  • More cooperation was associated with income inequality, societal wealth, how many individuals lived alone, etc.
  • Such increases in cooperation among strangers bode well for addressing global challenges.

Cooperation is often encouraged in relationships and is a well-known sign of a strong community. Now, a new study published in Psychological Bulletin has found that cooperation levels among strangers has been increasing in the US since the 1950s.

Researchers reviewed 511 American studies that took place between 1956 and 2017, including those that assessed for cooperation among strangers.

There are so many 21st-century challenges—from climate change to global inequality—that require a collective effort, and this research could provide some hope for the future.

A Surprising Increase in Working Together

Researchers analyzed over 500 studies that occurred from 1956 to 2017, and found that increasing levels of cooperation were correlated with growing urbanization, societal wealth, income inequality, etc.

Despite the slight increase in cooperation among strangers based on this review of experimental studies, actual beliefs about the willingness of Americans to cooperate with one another has ironically decreased.

Some limitations of this research include that it only analyzed experimental studies conducted in the US, primarily with college student participants, which may not be as generalizable to other groups.

Cooperation and Competition Often Co-Exist

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida Inc., psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, “When people bind together to address a common purpose, that cooperation creates relationships and the rewards of achieving this common purpose together may prove to be a process that motivates people to cooperate again in the future.”

Based on the study, Dr. Pratt notes that places with higher individualization in more urbanized areas had more trust in donating to charities and volunteering. “In other words, places where you have more individuals living alone showed a high sense of community,” he says.

Dr. Pratt explains, “Society has reaped the positive outcomes of inclusion and diversity and continues to move in that direction. At the same time that we celebrate our individuality we also recognize that the individual needs to be a part of a group of individuals for things to advance.”

Despite the division in society, Dr. Pratt notes people are more similar than they are different and are often driven to care about each other. “Cooperation often lives in a state of tension with competition,” he says.

Howard Pratt, DO

This increased cooperation between strangers underscored in this study is something we can count on to get us through these serious crises ahead.

— Howard Pratt, DO

Dr. Pratt highlights, “Historically, the newest immigrants to our country have been the most isolated regarding access to resources, social inclusion and income equality. While discrimination remains a stubbornly persistent feature of our society, there is also a process of acceptance that prevails.”

From living and working in Miami, Dr. Pratt reflects on how Cuban, Haitian and other immigrant communities rely on cooperation. “While there were growing pains with the arrival of high numbers of immigrants, today, it’s the positive impacts that dominate the cultural narrative of South Florida, drawing people from around the world here,” he says.

Dr. Pratt explains, “Despite tensions between groups, this is a nation with a history of different groups coming together to solve problems. We came together to address the pandemic, whether it was driving someone to get vaccinated, dropping food at a quarantined neighbor’s doorstep, etc.”

To solve global problems such as climate change, Dr. Pratt notes that different nations have to come together. “This increased cooperation between strangers underscored in this study is something we can count on to get us through these serious crises ahead,” he says.

Dr. Pratt highlights, “From a mental health perspective, people do better when they are working with other people. As a psychiatrist, I can tell you that every person that comes to my office is in one way or another driven by their relationships with other people. The importance of connection with other people, even with strangers, is critical to our mental health.”

Neuroscience Supports Cooperation Among Strangers

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, “The research shows a slow increase in the levels of cooperation among the US population since the 1950s. This is good news and is reflected in some of the cultural relationships and experiences we enjoy.”

Weaver explains, “The previous theories suggested that we were becoming more self-focused, less helpful and individualist as a society. However, this research suggests that we are actually growing in our social capital, where we became more reliant on the support from strangers.”

Social groups and healing circles are evidence of finding ways to support communities, according to Weaver. “In fact, we witnessed that as a nation during the pandemic when many people were sacrificing their personal comfort by wearing masks and getting vaccinated,” she says. 

Weaver highlights, “The pandemic forced us all to wake up to the idea that we need each other to survive. Problems and challenges are no longer relegated to a certain person/group. We are all impacted by social issues and as a result we are growing in our compassion towards others.”

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

There are so many benefits to be enjoyed when we cooperate with others. Neuroscience supports that caring for others gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Of course, this leads to improvement in our mood because our dopamine and serotonin are flowing.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

If the public had more awareness about the number of organizations that have a mission to elevate the experience of others, Weaver notes that there would be greater cooperation. “I wish the public knew that we can go deeper and further when we work together,” she says.  

Weaver explains, “There are so many benefits to be enjoyed when we cooperate with others. Neuroscience supports that caring for others gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Of course, this leads to improvement in our mood because our dopamine and serotonin are flowing.”

Cooperating with others can also help to make individuals feel connected and boosts oxytocin, as Weaver notes that volunteering is often recommended for people who are depressed or in recovery. “It increases our ability to feel with people and see their humanity,” she says. 

Weaver highlights, “In terms of working with patients, I have witnessed that group work is extremely effective. People can relate on similar thoughts, feelings and experiences, and the group might be the only opportunity for a person to socialize and connect with others.”

What This Means For You

There are numous benefits to working together, and it’s frequently the only way to solve some of the biggest problems our society faces. This research will hopefully inform strategies to better address global crises like climate change with increased cooperation.

Read the full article here


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