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Research from the past six decades suggests that Americans are more willing to cooperate with people they don’t know than they were in the 1950s. Getty Images
  • A new meta-analysis suggests people are getting along better with strangers than they did six decades ago.
  • Researchers believe societal and economic shifts, such as a rise in the number of individuals living solo, may be factors.
  • Experts and researchers hope this cooperation helps us work together on issues like climate change and racial justice.

A global pandemic, political unrest, and the overturning of Roe vs. Wade have sparked debates between family, friends, and even strangers. The conversations can become heated and give people the impression that society is more divided than ever.

But a new meta-analysis by the American Psychological Association suggests that may not be the case. The research, published online on July 18, indicates that cooperation among strangers has improved since the 1950s.

“We were surprised by our findings that Americans became more cooperative over the last six decades because many people believe U.S. society is becoming less socially connected, less trusting, and less committed to the common good,” lead researcher Yu Kou, PhD, a professor of social psychology at Beijing Normal University, said in an APA news release.

“Greater cooperation within and between societies may help us tackle global challenges, such as responses to pandemics, climate change, and immigrant crises.”

The researchers looked at 511 U.S. studies with more than 63,000 participants conducted between 1956 and 2017. The findings indicated a slight but gradual uptick in cooperation during the last 61 years, which they link to:

  • urbanization
  • more people living alone
  • societal wealth
  • income inequality

The authors stressed they couldn’t definitively prove those factors triggered the increase in cooperation, but they did note a correlation. The researchers also didn’t look at data on other issues surrounding stranger interaction, such as Americans’ trust in people they do not know.

If you’re surprised by the findings, you’re likely not alone. Even the participants felt that Americans’ belief in others’ inclination to cooperate has decreased over the past several decades.

The study doesn’t necessarily mean Americans aren’t divided in some ways.

PEW research from 2021 indicated that 90% of Americans responded that conflicts exist between individuals who back different political parties, while 71% had the same response regarding racial and ethnic groups.

This data made the United States the most politically and ethnically divided nation analyzed.

Other PEW research from before the 2020 Presidential election found that nearly 90% of registered voters who supported either Donald Trump or Joe Biden felt that a win by the candidate they did not intend to vote for would lead to lasting harm to the country.

That same year, PEW research suggested that most Americans felt the differences between sides were about more than policies but core values.

For starters, it’s important to note that the study looked at research up until 2017 — before the pandemic and the 2020 election, whereas PEW’s data is from 2020 and 2021. But can both things still be true — can America be divided yet cooperative?

One psychologist doesn’t believe the two are mutually exclusive.

“I think you could argue that it is the very divisiveness within our nation that has caused groups that do have commonalities to become more cohesive,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in communication and relationships and author of Joy from Fear. “People who are normally more individualistic are finding it important to have a common cause, like Black Lives Matter or Roe v. Wade.”

And this cooperation among strangers could be a vehicle for positive change.

“As individuals, we often cannot achieve very much,” Manly says. “When we have the support of like-minded people and the assets that come with each of those individuals, we can do a great deal. There is power in number, and not only power but intelligence and creativity in numbers.”

Another psychologist says that even fleeting, one-on-one interactions with strangers, like holding the door, can lift a person’s mood, even during challenging times.

“Doing something kind for another person, or having someone do something kind for you, can expand your thinking and help alleviate the intensity of whatever is bothering you at that specific moment,” says Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, a psychiatrist and the Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health.

“This new study indicated that people in the U.S. often don’t believe others will be willing to cooperate with them, so being surprised by the openness and kindness of a stranger can always change your mindset, even just temporarily.”

Social media interactions with strangers can be different than in-person ones.

At times, the social media landscape can feel toxic. Part of that’s by design by the social media companies.

A former employee, Frances Haugen, revealed internal documents showing that Facebook (now called Meta) knew hateful, divisive content got more engagement. In response, its algorithm prioritized it on people’s feeds to generate more time on the site, clicks on ads, and money for the company.

But Dr. Devin Dunatov, a psychiatrist and the medical director at Burning Tree West, says people also may act differently behind a screen.

“There is a sense of anonymity being online,” he says. “People feel protected behind their screens, and that allows them to say things they wouldn’t say in person. Being online allows you to be whoever you want to be.”

Research on the impact of social media interactions on people’s mental health is mixed.

Older research from 2012 suggested that negative interactions on social media increased depressive symptoms in young adults. A more recent study from 2019 suggested that social interaction indicated that social networking websites could positively affect developing relationships.

Patel-Dunn sees pros and cons in interacting with strangers on social media.

“It can be helpful to connect with new people outside of your friends, family, and colleagues, and the internet is a powerful tool for meeting people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and beliefs than your own,” Patel-Dunn says. But Patel-Dunn adds that anonymity can embolden people to act more negatively toward others.

Manly thinks the context of the interaction matters.

“When you look at social media, it’s often disconnected in nature — people who are going down a rabbit hole of negativity who do not have a common goal except being divisive and conflict-oriented,” Manly says. “However, when it is used for a common goal to unite people…there can be, for better or worse, a great deal of power.”

For example, people might use social media to organize and promote an event to raise money for Alzheimer’s disease research or join a group that is organizing a meal train for a new neighbor undergoing cancer treatment, even if they have never met the recipient.

Though there is division in society, experts think cooperating with strangers may help us restore our faith in humanity.

“What we can do with a study like this is remember that when we are united on a cause, we can make a difference,” Manly says.

Here’s how you can use this news for good — for others and yourself.

Be specific

Though you are looking to unite with strangers, Manly suggests doing so around a common goal.

“When we have a goal and are really specific about our goals rather than be ambiguous about them, we can foster change rather than just talking about them,” Manly says.

Manly says it’s easier to be specific if you show up to a march, join a Facebook group, or attend a meeting for a non-profit.

For example, at a peaceful protest for environmental causes, Manly suggests saying to the stranger walking next to you, “I’ve joined this peaceful environmental protest because I firmly believe that we need to cut down our use of fossil fuels. I’m also focused on saving our oceans. I’d love to know about your top concerns and goals. Would you like to share them with me?”

“By opening up polite discussions of this nature, we can expand our connections and foster our own — and others’ —goals,” Manly says.

But it’s also possible to cooperate with like-minded strangers in more unexpected places, like a subway.

Look for clues the stranger is like-minded

Striking up a conversation with a stranger you meet on a train, grocery store, or park. She recommends looking for cues rather than talking a stranger’s ear off about your opinion on the 2020 election.

“For example, if the person next to you is wearing a T-shirt highlighting climate change or women’s issues, you can start up a conversation by offering a non-judgmental, curious question or statement,” Manly says. “You might say, ‘I love your T-shirt; the message is very appealing to me.’”

Move on if it’s not for you

Not every interaction is going to be a positive one. Perhaps you disagree with the negative tactics of an organization you thought aligned with your values. Dunatov says it’s OK to keep people at arm’s reach if, after getting to know them, you realize that you don’t click after all.

“If the space becomes toxic or negative, try to leave or set boundaries,” Dunatov says.

Dunatov says these boundaries may include spending less time in or leaving a Facebook group centered around a specific cause.

Introverts welcome

People who are more introverted can still benefit from connecting with strangers.

“[Introverted people] aren’t necessarily shy,” Manly says. “They just tend to get energized more from solitary activities than external activity.”

Manly says introverted individuals might thrive in behind-the-scenes roles, like designing creative or doing research. But she says they don’t have to forego public activities where they’ll be among more strangers if they are interested and inspired.

“An introvert can absolutely go out and be a part of a march or fundraising effort,” she says. “They just may need more time for relaxation.

See stranger interaction as self-care

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that isolation and loneliness can harm mental health. Interacting with others, including people we don’t know, can boost our moods. Consider it part of a holistic approach to your mental health.

“When we don’t interact with people, we are not acting like human beings are meant to,” Manly says. “We really foster our well-being when we connect with others who are like-minded.”