American society may seem more fractured than ever, but cooperation among total strangers has been on the upswing for decades, researchers in China say.
Their conclusion emerged from an analysis of more than 500 studies that tracked cooperation patterns over the past six decades.
The upshot, study author Yu Kou said, is that Americans appear to have gradually embraced a "slight increase in cooperation" over generations.
"That is, Americans became more cooperative toward fellow Americans -- at least to strangers," she added.
Kou is a professor at the Chinese National Demonstration Center for Experimental Psychology Education at Beijing Normal University.
She said her team was surprised by its finding, which she acknowledged runs "contrary to a highly influential hypothesis and perspective that American cooperation among strangers is declining."
Yet Kou pointed to a number of changes in American life that might explain what's afoot.
For one, more Americans now live in dense urban centers and more are living alone. That's important, she said, given prior research suggesting that "individualism could be associated with higher impersonal cooperation."
Increases in education and thinking skills as well as income inequality may also help explain the increase in cooperation, researchers said.
The findings don't prove these factors caused more cooperation, only that there is a link. A study earlier this year examined how perceptions of political polarization affect Americans' trust in one another.
For the new study, Kou and her colleagues reviewed 511 studies conducted in the United States between 1956 and 2017. Taken together, they included more than 63,000 Americans between 18 and 28 years of age, with college students making up a majority.
Each of the studies focused on the tendency to cooperate with strangers. Kou said researchers broadly defined that "as behavior that benefits the group or collective but is costly for the individual."
Because all of the studies were conducted in controlled laboratory settings, the researchers stressed that the findings may not represent how people actually behave in real life.
Still, they said, over time Americans do appear to have become more likely to interact with -- and perhaps even depend on -- strangers, leading to a slight but notable uptick in cooperation.
Surprisingly, the researchers pointed to the advent of social media as a factor that may have helped to boost cooperation. That's because it provides an easy way to engage with strangers who might otherwise have been out of reach.
"We expect this trend to continue going forward, along with [the] above societal changes," Kou said.
James Maddux, senior scholar with the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., reviewed the analysis.
"These findings are surprising," he said, "because they are inconsistent with the popular narrative and 'accepted wisdom' that trust and cooperation in general in American society has declined significantly, and that this is both a cause of and a result of increasing political polarization."
At the same time, Maddux acknowledged that it's not surprising that once again conventional wisdom goes unsupported by careful scientific investigation -- in this case, research that examined actual behavior and not just beliefs and feelings.
"These results are encouraging, and I hope they get the attention they deserve," Maddux said.
A University of Pennsylvania expert offered a far less rosy view of the findings, however.
Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical training at Penn's Department of Psychology, said that far from offering insight into real-life behavior, the studies reviewed were all conducted under conditions that don't truly reflect how people make key decisions.
For example, Hunt noted that the studies generally didn't do a good job of fairly assessing how and when people act out of selfishness. Nor did they rigorously examine how people tend to distinguish between making decisions based on short-term versus long-term interests, she said.
Hunt also pointed out that while many of the earlier studies mostly involved men, by the end of 60-year time frame, mostly women were involved. That, she said, is a big and perhaps influential gender shift that was unaccounted for by the new research analysis.
"I certainly wouldn't make much of [this] finding, and I don't think it's relevant to the actual problem of civic engagement, much less does it address core issues of partisanship and tribalism," Hunt said.
The findings were published July 18 in the American Psychological Association's Psychological Bulletin.
UNICEF has more on the benefits of cooperation.
SOURCE: Yu Kou, PhD, professor, Institute of Developmental Psychology, Beijing Normal University, China; James Maddux, PhD, professor emeritus, psychology, and senior scholar, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; Melissa Hunt, PhD, associate director, clinical training, Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Psychological Bulletin, July 18, 2022