Are city-dwellers less generous towards strangers?
According to scientists, our ingrained cooperative spirit as humans to be kind, generous and fair towards others was derived from our evolutionary past when we lived in small groups. At that time, we knew almost everyone in our social circle and helping others came naturally as we never knew when we might need their help in return. Now, large populations of people live in big cities where they don’t know everyone and frequently interact with strangers who they may never cross paths with again. So how does that affect our intuitive cooperative spirit? Do we still act generously?
During the first round, the participants split windfalls with strangers fairly and shared about half of their earnings with charity. When they returned a month later, they were 20 per cent less generous.
To find out, psychologists from the University of Miami exposed 200 volunteers to a social environment that offered no incentive or punishment for how they treated others. The volunteers came to the laboratory in small groups on two occasions about a month apart. They were asked to play three games that required them to make decisions about investing money and sharing the windfalls with others in the room, and eventually with a charity. The participants did not interact with each other and instead sat at consoles with headphones on. They made their decisions and collected their winnings anonymously and privately. The psychologists tracked how their behaviour changed over time.
During the first round, the participants split windfalls with strangers fairly and shared about half of their earnings with charity. But when they returned a month later, they were 20 per cent less generous on average. Initially, they acted on behaviours shaped by their previous experiences but when they realised this was different from the situations they face in everyday life, their behaviour changed. They realised that, irrespective of whether they were generous or not, their actions had no social consequences in the experiments.
This study shows that humans can unlearn the behaviour of generosity when they know they are not going to benefit from their actions. This may also explain why city dwellers can be less friendly to strangers, compared to people from small towns who know everyone.
Source: Nature Human Behaviour
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