News Release

Study shows human tendency to help others is universal

People of diverse cultures are more similar than previously thought

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Sydney

Professor Nick Enfield

image: Professor Nick Enfield, University of Sydney view more 

Credit: University of Sydney

A new study on the human capacity for cooperation suggests that, deep down, people of diverse cultures are more similar than you might expect. The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, shows that from the towns of England, Italy, Poland, and Russia to the villages of rural Ecuador, Ghana, Laos, and Aboriginal Australia, at the micro scale of our daily interaction, people everywhere tend to help others when needed. Our reliance on each other for help is constant: The study finds that, in everyday life, someone will signal a need for assistance (e.g., to pass a utensil) once every 2 minutes and 17 seconds on average. Across cultures, these small requests for assistance are complied with seven times more often than they are declined. And on the rare occasions when people do decline, they explain why. This human tendency to help others when needed—and to explain when such help can’t be given—transcends other cultural differences.

The findings help solve a puzzle generated by prior anthropological and economic research, which has emphasized 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 present a challenge for our understanding of cooperation and helping in our species: Are our decisions about sharing and helping shaped by the culture we grew up with? Or are humans equally generous and giving by nature? This new global study finds that, while special occasions and high-cost exchange may attract cultural diversity, 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 becomes universally visible.

This study was coordinated by Giovanni Rossi (UCLA) and Nick Enfield (University of Sydney), director of the European Research Council grant ‘Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use’. See below for full list of team members.

Talking points

  • Small requests for assistance (e.g., to pass a utensil) occur on average once every 2 minutes and 17 seconds in everyday life around the world. Small requests are low-cost decisions about sharing items for everyday use or assisting others with tasks around the house or village. Such decisions are many orders more frequent than high-cost decisions such as sharing the spoils of a successful whale hunt or contributing to the construction of a village road, the sort of decisions that have been found to be significantly influenced by culture.
  • The frequency of small requests varies by the type of activity people are engaged in. Small requests are most frequent in task-focused activities (e.g., cooking), with an average of one request per 1 minute and 42 seconds, and least frequent in talk-focused activities (conversation for its own sake), with an average of one request per 7 minutes and 42 seconds.
  • Small requests for assistance are complied with, on average, seven times more often than they are declined; six times more often than they are ignored; and nearly three times more often than they are either declined or ignored. This preference for compliance is cross-culturally shared and unaffected by whether the interaction is among family or non-family.
  • A cross-cultural preference for compliance with small requests is not predicted by prior research on resource-sharing and cooperation, which instead suggest that culture should cause prosocial behavior to vary in appreciable ways due to local norms, values, and adaptations to the natural, technological, and socio-economic environment. These and other factors could in principle make it easier for people to say “No” to small requests, but this is not what we find.
  • Interacting among family or non-family does not have an impact on the frequency of small requests, nor on rates of compliance. This is surprising in light of established theories predicting that relatedness between individuals should increase both the frequency and degree of resource-sharing/cooperation.
  • People do sometimes reject or ignore small requests, but a lot less frequently than they comply. The average rates of rejection (10%) and ignoring (11%) are much lower than the average rate of compliance (79%).
  • Members of some cultures (e.g., Murrinhpatha speakers of northern Australia) ignore small requests more than others, but only up to about one quarter of the time (26%). A relatively higher tolerance for ignoring small requests may be a culturally evolved solution to dealing with “humbug”—pressure to comply with persistent demands for goods and services. Still, Murrinhpatha speakers regularly comply with small requests (64%) and rarely reject them (10%).
  • When people provide assistance, this is done without explanation, but when they decline, they normally give an explicit reason (74% of the time). Theses norms of rationalization suggest that while people decline giving help “conditionally”, that is, only for reason, they give help “unconditionally”, that is, without needing to explain why they are doing it.
  • When people decline assistance, they tend to avoid saying “No”, often letting the rejection being inferred solely from the reason they provide for not complying. Saying “No” is never found in more than one third of rejections. The majority of rejections (63%) consist instead of simply giving a reason for non-compliance.

Data collection

Our research is based in 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 (see the Table 1 and Figure 1 below).

We identified and analyzed over one thousand request events in domestic and informal settings on five continents. We extracted these events from video recordings of everyday life featuring more than 350 individuals—family, friends, neighbors—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).



Language family


Data collected by

Coding and analysis by







IE (Germanic)





IE (Romance)










Southern Daly





IE (Slavic)





IE (Slavic)










Table 1. Languages included in this study and authors responsible for data collection and analysis. (IE = Indo-European).

Attached Figure 1. Locations of data collection. (This map is published with the paper and can be used under a Creative Commons license that attributes the source, citing the paper)

What did we NOT do?

  • We did NOT rely on introspection or second-hand reports about the cultures we studied. Reports about how people interact with one another (e.g., how often they ask for help, or what they say to refuse help) are often skewed by biased impressions. Our findings are instead based on direct observation of naturally occurring interactions captured on high-definition video and audio. We collected first-hand audio/video recordings from around the world, and systematically compared what we saw.
  • We did NOT make people play economic games. Much prior research on resource-sharing used economic games (e.g., Ultimatum Game, Dictator Game) to compare prosocial behavior across cultures. This experimental approach poses issues of ecological validity: does people’s behavior in the experiment reflect what they would do in the real world? To overcome this, we observed unconstrained, spontaneous interactions among people; interactions that would have occurred without our study taking place. Another issue with economic-game experiments is that they typically require at least one participant to be anonymous. This means that social relations are not (fully) invoked in, or affected by, the decision made. By contrast, our focus on helping/sharing events among social familiars, happening in public and repeatedly, allowed us to study interactions with clear implications for relationships and reputation.
  • We did NOT study requests in formal or institutional exchanges, such as when buying something at a store, or getting assistance from an employee. Exchanges in workplace, business, or religious settings are constrained by institutional obligations and goals. This not only restricts how participants conduct themselves but also makes interactions harder to compare across cultures. Our focus was instead on maximally informal interaction in the home or village among people who know each other well: family, friends, neighbors. Informal interactions of this kind represent the most basic and primary sphere of social life, providing a solid baseline for comparison across cultures.
  • We did NOT study requests among strangers. Our interest was specifically in cooperation among social familiars with close and enduring relationships. While encounters among strangers are common in large-scale, industrialized societies, in many communities around the world it is rare to interact with someone and not know who they are or how they are related to you. Also, helping/sharing events among social familiars have clear implications for reputation and reciprocity.
  • We did NOT study big requests (e.g., to share scarce resources, to borrow a large sum of money, etc.). Prior economic-game research focused on high-stakes helping/sharing decisions and found them to be shaped by striking cultural diversity. Such decisions are relatively infrequent, and more susceptible to the influence of local norms, values, and the socio-economic environment. By contrast, small, low-cost requests are pervasive, and often motivated by similar kinds of needs and practicalities that permeate mundane life in communities around the world: people everywhere need others to pass items, help to make food, move heavy objects, etc. Another reason for focusing on small requests is that, while the fulfillment of big requests is often deferred, small requests are typically fulfilled immediately, in the next few seconds or minutes. This allows us to capture these events on video, from start to end, and analyze them in their entirety.

Who are the authors of this study?

Corresponding authors:

Giovanni Rossi (project coordinator and lead author)

N. J. Enfield (project leader and corresponding author)


Mark Dingemanse

Julija Baranova

Joe Blythe

Simeon Floyd (project coordinator)

Kobin H. Kendrick

Jörg Zinken

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