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Study shows humans around the world like to help

20 April 2023
Yes we can!
A global study, led by co-director of the Sydney Centre for Language Research Professor Nick Enfield, shows human tendency to help others within their social group is universal.
Profile photo of Professor Nick Enfield

Lead author, Professor Nick Enfield. 

New research on the human capacity for cooperation finds that, deep down, people of diverse cultures are more similar than you might expect.

Published in Nature Scientific Reports, the study finds that from the towns of England, Italy, Poland and Russia to the villages of rural Ecuador, Ghana, Laos, and the First Nations countries across Australia, at the micro scale of our daily interaction, people everywhere tend to help others in their close social circles when needed.

“Our reliance on each other for help is constant,” said Professor Nick Enfield, of University of Sydney, who led the study with Assistant Professor Giovanni Rossi of University of California, Los Angeles.

The study found that in everyday life, someone will signal a need for assistance (for example, to pass a utensil) once every two minutes and 17 seconds on average. In all cultures, these small requests for assistance are complied with seven times more often than they are declined.

“On the rare occasions when people do decline, they explain why,” said Professor Enfield. “This human tendency to help others when needed—and to explain when such help can’t be given—transcends other cultural differences.”


Map showing the locations of data collection

Locations of data collection. Credit: Professor Nick Enfield

The research is a comparative observational study based on extensive field work and on the analysis of video recordings of social interaction in everyday home/village life in a set of geographically, linguistically, and culturally diverse field sites.

It is important to note the study focused on close and enduring social relationships in the home or village life rather than with strangers or in more formal settings (workplaces, businesses, shopping). They also did not study big requests, such as loaning large sums of money. The study focused on small, pervasive low-cost requests such as passing items, helping to make food or moving heavy objects. These requests are fulfilled immediately.

The researchers identified and analysed over one thousand request events in domestic and informal settings on five continents. They extracted these events from video recordings of everyday life featuring more than 350 individuals - family, friends, neighbours - representing eight diverse languages and cultures: Cha’palaa (northern Ecuador), Lao (Laos), Murrinhpatha (northern Australia), Siwu (eastern Ghana), English (UK/US), Italian (Italy), Polish (Poland), and Russian (Russia).

Cultural Differences

The researchers said the findings might appear puzzling, given the known differences among people of diverse cultures in how resources are shared. For example, while whale hunters of Lamalera in Indonesia follow distributional norms when sharing out a large catch, Hadza foragers of Tanzania share food more for fear of generating negative gossip; or while wealthier Orma villagers in Kenya are expected to pay for public goods such as road projects, such offers among the Gnau of Papua New Guinea are likely to be rejected as they would create an awkward obligation to reciprocate.

Cultural differences like these sometimes present a challenge for our understanding of human cooperation and generosity, the researchers noted. Are our decisions about sharing and helping determined by the culture we grew up with? Or are humans generous and giving by nature?

This new global study finds that 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 - among family and friends - becomes universally visible.

Key findings

  • It’s not a given that people will comply with small requests for assistance as often as they do: cultural norms, relative power, kin/non-kin relations, and situational factors could in principle make it easier for people to say “no”, even to small things, but this is not what we find
  • People do reject and ignore small requests, but a lot less frequently than they comply (average compliance 79 percent, rejection 10 percent, ignoring 11 percent).
  • The frequency of small requests for assistance is not uniformly high: it is higher in task-focused activities (e.g., cooking), with an average of one request per 1.7m / 102s, and lower in talk-focused activities (conversation for its own sake), with an average of one request per 7.7m / 462s.
  • Speakers of some languages/members of some cultures (e.g., Murrinhpatha speakers of northern Australia) do ignore requests more than others, but only up to about 1/4 of the time (26 percent). 
  • Ignoring more does not imply rejecting more. For example, Murrinhpatha speakers’ rejection rates are in line with the average (10 percent). 
  • The high frequency of reason-giving for rejection (74 percent) suggests that people decline giving help “conditionally”; the low frequency of reason-giving for compliance (4 percent), on the other hand, suggests that people give help “unconditionally”.

Declaration: This study received funding from the European Research Council, the Australian Research Council, the Dutch Research Council, the Max Planck Society, the Academy of Finland, and the University of Sydney.

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