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People have become more cooperative in the last 60 years

18 July 2022
In the last 60 years people became more cooperative, even in small steps. People did not become less cooperative over time, as one should expect, because of the dominant belief our society is becoming more individualistic.

An international team of scientists, led by Giuliana Spadaro from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) and Mingliang Yuan from Anhui Agricultural University found no evidence for a decline in cooperation over a 61-year period (from 1956 to 2017) involving more than 63,000 American participants. Instead, they found a slight increase in cooperation. The results are published in Psychological Bulletin today. 
VU-researcher Giuliana Spadaro: “These findings challenge the common belief that our society becomes more and more individualistic and cooperation among strangers have declined in the United States over time.”

Impersonal cooperation
How can we explain an increase in cooperation in the United States (US)? Spadaro: “Individualism (i.e., independence and autonomy) may be a prerequisite for the development of trust among strangers and impersonal cooperation. Moreover, cross-national research has revealed that societies with higher levels of individualism have greater levels of general trust. Furthermore, individualism could be associated with higher impersonal cooperation, in part, because individualistic societies have greater relational mobility. That is, people regularly interact with and form relations with new people. Relational mobility has been found to be positively associated with trust and cooperation among strangers across societies.”

Increase of strangers in daily life
Economic development and technical innovation, along with increasing urbanization, have made the US a highly industrialized society with large social organizations, a fine-grained division of labour, and sophisticated forms of food sharing, producing, and collective welfare. In such a society, people frequently depend on strangers to achieve what they want in daily life. VU-professor of Social Psychology and co-author Paul van Lange: “It's plausible that people gradually learn to broaden their cooperative orientation from friends and acquaintances to strangers. After all, strangers are increasingly part of our lives. In societies that become more urban and anonymous, it makes sense for people to develop a more cooperative orientation to strangers. Over time, strangers become less strange but a source of fruitful interactions that helps to broaden social capital.”

Society only functions through cooperation
The research team believes that the study of human cooperation is critical to the functioning of societies. VU-professor of Social Psychology and co-author Daniel Balliet: “Greater cooperation within American society may help Americans tackle present and future challenges that call for cooperation among strangers, such as responses to a pandemic, reducing climate change, and the conservation of resources. Also, increased cooperation among strangers is positively associated with higher government effectiveness, safe societies, and economic growth.”