Is big-city living eroding our nice instinct?

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A new study by University of Miami psychology researchers of anonymous interactions suggests that humans switch off their automatic inclination to share in dealings with strangers.

Would you tip your waitress if you knew you'd never return to her restaurant? Probably, because that's how most of us are socialized. But what if you knew the waitress would never know if you left a tip? Without the incentive of her approval, would you still be generous?

Researchers in the University of Miami's Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory who set out to answer that question found that we humans, who learned long ago to instinctively be generous and fair to others, can quickly unlearn that cooperative behavior when encountering strangers if we know we won't benefit from our actions.

Lead author William H.B. McAuliffe, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, and senior author Michael E. McCullough, professor of psychology, say their study published October 22 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, supports the theory that our ingrained cooperative spirit is a remnant of our evolutionary past. When we lived in small groups, we knew every person in our social circle—or someone who knew them—and we never knew who we might need to help us. Over time, we automatized the decision to be kind out of self-interest.

"We are actually walking around with Stone Age minds," said McCullough, director of the lab in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology. "Our minds still think how we treat everyone we meet could have consequences—that everyone we run across and are either mean to or nice to will somehow pay us back. We have a natural karma built into us because our minds have evolved into thinking that what goes around really does come around."

But their study, "Experience with anonymous interactions reduces intuitive cooperation," shows that the "cognitive shortcut" we have built into our brains to be generous or fair can be easily switched off if we learn there won't be any payback, either positive or negative. The researchers demonstrated this point by exposing 200 volunteers to a social environment devoid of any incentive or punishment for how they treated others, and tracking how their behavior changed over time.

The volunteers, who came to the laboratory in small groups on two separate occasions about a month apart, 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. But, sitting at consoles with headphones, the participants did not interact with each other. They made all their decisions and collected all their winnings anonymously and privately.

During the first round, the study showed, participants behaved predictably: Acting on habits shaped by their everyday experiences, they split windfalls with strangers fairly and shared about half their earnings with charity. But on their return visit about a month later, they weren't as generous, sharing, on average, about 20 percent less.

"After acclimating to the situation, they realized this was extraordinarily different from the situations they find themselves in everyday life," McAuliffe said. "They realized, 'What I do doesn't really matter. It has no social consequences. Nobody is going to pat me on the back if I am generous. No one is going to think I'm stingy if I'm not.' So, when they come back, they don't act on that cognitive shortcut because they've learned that the same rules don't apply."

McCullough, who has devoted his career to shedding light on by examining our evolutionary past, said the study could explain why big-city dwellers have a reputation for being more hurried and less friendly to strangers than small-town folk.

"I think what this study says isn't that generosity towards strangers is part of what humans evolved into, but instead that we evolved in a world where there really weren't strangers," McCullough said. "We knew everybody. They knew us, and if we didn't know everybody directly, we knew somebody they knew, so if we were bad to someone they could say, 'That is a terrible person.' Now we live in cities with millions of people and you can legitimately encounter a and say 'I'll never see that person again—and get away with treating them poorly.' That's less so in small towns, where almost everybody does know everybody."

Explore further

Humans might not be altruistic 'avengers' after all, study finds

More information: Experience with anonymous interactions reduces intuitive cooperation, Nature Human Behavior (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0454-9 ,
Journal information: Nature Human Behaviour

Citation: Is big-city living eroding our nice instinct? (2018, October 23) retrieved 22 August 2019 from
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Oct 23, 2018
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I'm not sure if this carries over well into real life in a city. I know that if a stranger is polite and kind to me, it puts me in a better mood which I then express by being more polite and kind to other strangers. I assume others are similar. My act of kindness may come back to me very diluted but that is still better than contributing to an openly hostile environment. Besides, it feels good to be good for no particular reason and being a jerk feels pretty awful--payback from
others either way is irrelevant.

Parts of the Internet are more like the experimental environment. To understate it, I often fail to live up to my standards online. Maybe because part of me is too primitive to grasp actual people read what I say. It feels about the same as mumbling to myself about something on TV or in a book.

Oct 24, 2018
This article points out the precise problem with the evolutionary worldview. It claims to have arisen from a random event long ago with survival of the fittest being the driving force.
With that worldview comes no absolute standards so everyone and anything can do as they please. Which means that the way to go is to be as forceful, mean and violent as possible in order to get what you want. There is absolutely no incentive to regard others as equal or better than yourself. The only place where such different thinking comes from (documented, in the western world) is from the bible. (All kinds of people will argue about this statement, but that is par for the course)
The be kind to others principle is quite clear stated: Matthew 22:37-39

37 Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' [q/]

Oct 24, 2018
Unless one regards God as supreme with Him as the absolute reference, one is unlikely to subscribe to the notion of loving one's neighbour as oneself. Even if one did do so initially, the act will soon fade into oblivion just as the researcher(s) discovered.
The only permanent internal standard comes from having a higher power to answer to. Beyond that it is all too easy to succumb to the temptation to be expeditious.
Currently, most westernized people are moving away from the Judeo-Christian believe because they believe in abiogenesis and evolution. In doing so they are proclaiming their high moral standards as being self-developed and not subject to the bible. But they neglect to see the origin of their moral standards - the bible - and in so doing go about destroying the very things they treasure so much: Honesty, respect for other people's property and lives etc.
The chickens are coming home to roost already.

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