Country Mouse vs. City Mouse: Who is More Giving?

Politicians always harp on about “small-town values,” but what do they actually mean?

Personally, when I think about “small-town values,” a sense of community comes to mind – everyone knowing everyone, and with that, a generosity of spirit.

But does that mean city-dwellers aren’t as giving as small-town folk?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about prosocial behavior, including financial giving and volunteering help.

Historically speaking, small-town folk have long been thought to be more helpful from an evolutionary perspective due to kin selection and reciprocity – both direct and indirect – as a result of cooperative behavior.

Today, we’ll take a look at some studies that pit city-folk against country-folk to see if a city-culture is as generous as its small-town counterpart.

Altruistic Opportunities

A study by Korte and Kerr contrasts urban and nonurban environments, intending to test the urban incivility hypothesis, which the study characterizes as:

“interaction between strangers is less civil, helpful, and cooperative in an urban environment than in a nonurban environment.”

The study used a field experiment – 116 field situations, in fact – in Boston and in a number of small towns in Massachusetts, using three dependent measures.

These measures were requests for assistance for:

a) “lost” postcards, b) overpayments to store clerks, and c) a wrong-number phone call.

In each of these cases, those in small towns were more likely to help than in the city of Boston.

So, yes, small-town folk were found to be more helpful in this particular situations…

But does that cross cultures?

Turkish City vs. Small Town

A similar study by Korte and Ayvalioglu was conducted across 456 towns, cities, and urban squatter settlements (also thought of as “urban villages”) in Turkey.

This field experiment also studied helpfulness in three dependent measures:

a) response to a small accident, b) willingness to do an interview, and 3) willingness to give change.

Helpfulness levels were found lowest in cities and of equal measure in towns and squatter settlements.

Do these two studies suggest city dwellers are generally and universally less helpful than those living in small towns?

While we’d need a broader scope, it appears to be trending that way.

And this may be due to the size of the population, resulting in less trust and intimate human connection in the city culture versus small town culture.

‘Simpatia’ and Spontaneous Helping: What Values Contribute to a Culture of Volunteering?

Do you find time to volunteer?

For what reason?

Is it something personally important to you? Or is it something that your culture values?

We’ve been talking about prosocial behavior in culture over the last couple of weeks, including donating money.

This week, we’ll look at what values might contribute to a culture of volunteering.

Spontaneous Helping

When you think of volunteering, you probably think of giving your time and energy regularly to an organization – working at a food bank, helping your church bake sale, participating in big brother/sister, etc.

But there are different forms of volunteering.

One form – spontaneous helping – was the focus of a study on cross-cultural differences in helping strangers.

Research was conducted in big cities – New York, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, etc. – of 23 countries.

Non-emergency situations were set up, in order to assess how frequently strangers might proactively come to a person’s aid.

These situations included a stranger dropping a pen, a stranger with an injured leg trying to pick up magazines, and a blind person crossing the street.

These three measures resulted in a relatively stable helping rate per city.

But the findings across cities varied greatly.

Brazilians vs. Malaysians

The highest helping rate – 93% – was found in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

This finding is in line with past studies of cultural norms in Spanish and Latin American countries.

Such studies have highlighted the cultural value of “simpatia” in such cultures – i.e. a demonstrated politeness and helpfulness to strangers and a proactive concern for others.

The lowest helping rate – 40% – was found in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Being that both Brazil and Malaysia are collectivist cultures, this result contradicts the theory that collectivist societies might have a higher helping rate than individualist societies, due to their social orientation.

In reality, the results were all over the map in relation to collectivism vs. individualism and helping, with cities in some collectivist countries averaging higher helping rates – like San Jose, Costa Rica (91.33%) and Lilongwe, Malawi (86%) – while others had low rates – like Singapore (48%) and Sofia, Bulgaria (57%).

Conversely, some individualist cultures were high on the scale – like Vienna (81%) and Copenhagen (77.67%) – while others were low – like New York City (44.67%) and Amsterdam (53.67%).

Economic Productivity

One curious finding was the inverse relationship between helping and the country’s economic productivity.

That is, helping occurred less on the whole in wealthier countries than in poorer ones.

This might suggest that some cultures show more care for each other out of necessity.

Next week, we’ll talk more about different avenues of volunteering and their cultural relevance.