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At the smallest scale of human interaction, prosocial behavior follows cross-culturally shared principles

We have a new paper out in which we find that people overwhelmingly like to help one another, independent of differences in language, culture or environment. This finding is surprising from the perspective of anthropological and economic research, which has tended to foreground differences in how people work together and share resources. Key to this new work is a focus on the microscale of human interaction.

Sampling many hours of everyday social interactions around the world, we find that small requests for assistance are very common —once about every two minutes on average— and that people overwhelmingly help each other out, with compliance seven times more likely than rejection. And in the few cases that people do reject, they tend to give a reason.

We found that the frequency of small requests for assistance is highest in task-focused interactions like cooking dinner, with an average of one request every 1 minute and 42 seconds, and lower in talk-focused activities, with an average of one request per 7 minutes and 42 seconds.

The kind of low-cost requests we see —hand me that thing, hold this for me, lift your arm, let me see that, zip me up— are very different from the type of higher stakes exchanges often studied by economists and behavioural ecologists, which are much rarer and so perhaps more susceptible to cultural inflection. These small acts of human kindness suggest deep similarities in cooperative behaviour across cultures.

The report is the latest outcome of a large-scale comparative project that started in Nijmegen over a decade ago, in Nick Enfield’s ERC project Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use. Earlier work from the same team documented universals and cultural diversity in the expression of gratitude (2018) and universal principles in the repair of communicative problems (2015). Our work on small requests for assistance (or ‘recruitments’) is also documented in Getting others to do things, an open access book published with Language Science Press.

Rossi, G., Dingemanse, M., Floyd, S., Baranova, J., Blythe, J., Kendrick, K. H., Zinken, J., & Enfield, N. J. (2023) Shared cross-cultural principles underlie human prosocial behavior at the smallest scale. Sci Rep 13, 6057.

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