New Research Shows That People are Happy to Collaborate!

Humans may be wired to help.

Joyful, friendly people showing a spirit of togetherness.

(Dmytro Zinkevych /

Here’s some good news! Humans may not actually be the self-serving people cynics claim them to be. So says Sydney University linguistics professor, Nick Enfield, leading a cross-cultural, multiyear and global study that has illustrated the human capacity for cooperation, along with Assistant Professor, Giovanni Rossi, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and published in Nature Scientific Reports. Its results indicate that people are fundamentally inclined to reach out to and collaborate with others; happy to help those around them and be helped by them!

In reality, Enfield tells The Brisbane Times, in an upbeat explanation, “The sense that people are non-co-operative and ungenerous is similar in my mind to people’s focus on the world being full of catastrophe. When people are co-operative, that’s far more the rule than the exception.” 

Appreciating the smallest instances of liking to say yes!
Significantly, this study zooms in on real-time, daily cooperation at the smallest observable scale that its authors refer to as “mundane,” or what Business Insider, in its article on this research, calls “The microscale transactions of daily life.”

This research focuses on decisions made around these tiny prosocial actions that are spontaneously requested, offered and received in everyday home and village life. Small-scale interactions, its authors explain “as when passing someone a knife in the kitchen, taking a pot off the fire for them, or flicking a light switch for someone who cannot reach it.”

As The Brisbane Times puts it,  “We are endlessly co-operative. We say yes seven times more often than we say no; six times more often than we just ignore them altogether; and three times more often than we say no outright.” 

People are so inclined to help, the study finds, that if someone can’t assist and needs to decline, they feel obliged to explain why they are turning down a request. This exchange is something Enfield describes as “moral architecture” to Business Insider,  and it is particularly apparent in small scale, lower-stakes actions.

The study’s authors document that their investigation is part of a core tradition of in-depth, qualitative, anthropological research that highlights interdependence, reciprocity, altruism and cooperation, all of which are felt to have some evolutionary value.

Our natural tendency to cooperate is universal
The study, entitled “Shared cross-cultural principles underlie human prosocial behavior at the smallest scale,” has a global research emphasis that is significant. This is because it indicates, as a news release from the University of Sydney points out, that “Deep down, people of diverse cultures are more similar than you might expect.”  As The Brisbane Times explains, based on video recordings of hundreds of participants in their own environments, it shows that this tendency to cooperate to help each other transcends national, linguistic and cultural differences, and is universal.

The study authors detail that they examined prosocial behaviour among people known to each other, both related and unrelated, in eight cultures on five continents. And the sample is culturally broad. As well as participants from English-speaking cultures, it also included people from Italy, Poland, Russia, and from villages in rural Ecuador, Ghana, Laos, as well as Indigenous Australians.  

There are valuable takeaways here too. Enfield suggests to Business Insider that the results of this study be used to gain some mindfulness regarding interpersonal relationships. “Realize,” he advises, “that if someone says no to you, that’s a rare thing and it’s probably an indication that something else is going on with that naysayer, and maybe you can offer them some grace. They’re going to offer a reason, we should listen.”                

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