Arif Qazi / Insider
How humans behave during natural disasters
Every two minutes or so, all over the world, someone asks someone else for a small favor. Pass the salt, wipe the counter, turn on the light — the microscale transactions of daily life. No big deal, right?
A bigger deal: All over the world, almost everyone says yes. All the time. In rich countries and poor ones, urban or rural, from eastern Ghana to northern Australia and from Ecuador to Poland, people help one another out. We agree to three times as many of these fiddly little requests as we decline or ignore. It is a defining trait of us humans. We cooperate.
In a new cross-cultural, multiyear study, researchers all over the world recorded people’s day-to-day lives in high-def video. They found that we cooperate with one another on low-stakes stuff all the time, even more frequently than when we’re working together on big things like building a road or hunting a whale — no matter what language we speak or culture we come from. All this cooperation — prosociality, the researchers call it — not only defines human civilization but literally makes it possible.
Which makes it easy to ask for favors. “You have a right to ask for help for small things from the people around you, and the people around you have an obligation to comply. As soon as they diverge from that, they have to give a reason,” says Nick Enfield, a linguist at the University of Sydney who was the lead author on the new paper. “It’s a moral architecture, in a way.”
But what happens in those rare instances when someone declines to do a favor? How can we tell when somebody would rather not lend us a hand? What is the moral architecture for “I’d prefer not to”?
Turns out it’s complicated. Even when humans decline a request for a favor, they almost never say the word no out loud. Instead, we fumble out some kind of excuse — I can’t reach the salt, I’m still eating, I’m not near the light switch — or offer delightful displays of sitcom-like adversarialism in Italian (“Get your own knife!”) and passive-aggressive deflection in Polish (“Why turn the light on?”). Even our refusals to cooperate are couched in the language of cooperation. I’d like to help you, but I can’t at the moment — sorry. As the paper puts it, these results show the pervasiveness of cooperation across cultures and different social relations, and “further align with theories that posit a universal infrastructure for social interaction.” Our cultural norms favor reciprocal favor-doing, presumably because the ability to get along conferred an evolutionary advantage. Cooperating helped us survive. Saying no to others put us at risk, as a species.
Why can’t we be friends
You’re not buying it, are you? You can’t even persuade your next-door neighbors to stop putting their trash cans on your side of the driveway or get your officemate to turn down the music that you can literally hear through their headphones. A world in which mass shootings are common enough to track with lists doesn’t seem very cooperative.
Well, it is and it isn’t. In one respect, Enfield’s results offer some perspective. “A study like this shows empirically how generous and compliant people are in their own lives. When we get better empirical understanding of how life is, that leads to greater literacy and understanding,” he says. “Murders and shootings and plane crashes are much more rare than you would think from looking at the news.”
Enfield suggests using that knowledge to gain some mindfulness about interpersonal relationships. “If someone says no to you, you realize that’s a rare thing,” he says. “Our first reaction is, this person is being a jerk. Now, maybe that’s true, and if they keep doing it, pretty quickly you won’t be that person’s friend anymore.” But an unexpected “no” tells you 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.
Humans have spread so successfully across the surface of our home planet because we’ve worked together to do so — growing and killing more food, inventing and improving tools, building frameworks for exchanging goods, figuring out governance structures. Other animals do some of these things, too, but none so well as us. Clearly, cooperation has some evolutionary value, or we wouldn’t have gotten so good at it.
We lucky apes have figured out how to assort — to identify people who will cooperate with us. We do that partly through kinship — we help our relatives, figuring that even if they don’t help back, they’ll help our descendants. But kinship doesn’t really scale. In larger settings, like the urban jungle, we probably rely more on reputation, cooperating with those who have a reputation for being cooperative. And when the scale changes to something even bigger, like in an institution or a nation-state, cooperation gets significantly more complex.
“If you have a hierarchy, you don’t always have free choice,” says Shakti Lamba, a behavioral ecologist who studies cross-cultural cooperation. “The hierarchy forces many of the functions for coordinating people.” House rules supplant our cultural predisposition to cooperation.
The real challenge comes when something like a natural disaster blows up all those systems. How much do we cooperate when everything around us is in ruins? For decades, social scientists have said that disasters induce greater cooperation. Even the most heartless urban Boomer turns into Florence freaking Nightingale when the creek starts to rise. At least, that’s what I understood when I started writing about the COVID pandemic in early 2020.
First responders and best responders
I got interested in research on cooperation because I assumed the enhanced-cooperation-in-disaster trope would hold true about the pandemic, too. But then people resisted wearing masks, which were proven to reduce the spread of the virus. Despite the near-miraculous creation of vaccines within a year of the virus’ emergence, people refused to get their shots. When I wrote — more than once! — that COVID-19 disproportionately killed poor people and nonwhite people, my reports only gave richer, whiter people reason to see the pandemic as someone else’s problem.
So what happened there? I don’t know, and it bums me out. But it’s clear that disaster scenarios like COVID aren’t like passing the salt. “In the former, giving help often has a high risk or cost involved,” says John Drury, a psychologist at the University of Sussex who studies crowds and disasters. “Whereas in the latter, the context of cooperation appears more mundane and low-cost.” In other words, we cooperate when it’s easy.
The research captures not rare, high-stakes stuff like sharing the spoils of a hunt, but common, low-stakes stuff like spoiling the end of “Succession.”
Time is also a factor. Social support from peers, neighbors, and kin starts strong after a disaster, but within months it begins to wane. The “altruistic communities” that form spontaneously in a disaster’s aftermath run out of money and energy. Drury’s work on COVID social supports found that mutual aid started to fall off roughly three or four months into the pandemic.
It seems disasters on an international or global scale have gotten so large that they simply override our evolution-derived ability to sort stuff out with the people we live with. “What we’re looking at in our paper is what aspects of our species are due to evolution versus cultural variance and innovation,” Enfield says. “If you think of it that way, in our evolution we’re used to dealing with very much smaller social networks.” Hurricanes and drought in our town? Sure. Atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels spiking past 440 ppm? Um…gotta run! Good luck with that!
So what can we learn from the smallest scale of cooperation? To study how and when we do favors for others, the study’s authors worked from a big set of databases compiled by field linguists, who record human interactions in the wild, as they occur. That means the databases capture not rare, high-stakes stuff like sharing the spoils of a hunt, but common, low-stakes stuff like spoiling the end of “Succession.” The researchers ended up with data from 350 people in eight languages, including English, Polish, Lao, and Murrinhpatha, and more than 1,000 discrete “recruitment events.” Translation: People did a shit-ton of favors for others.
The requests for favors flew fast and furious — an average of one every 2.3 minutes, regardless of whether the participants were kin. (Most frequent was Siwu, spoken in Ghana, with requests every 1 minute, 14 seconds. Sparsest was Cha’palaa, spoken in Ecuador: one per 4 minutes, 24 seconds.) Requests came much more frequently during tasks like preparing food, and in every language, kin or non-kin, people complied seven times as often as they refused, and six times as often as they ignored the request. English and Italian speakers were more likely to comply using words, but most people just did it, whatever the “it” was. Asking for a favor in English and Italian (“Can you bring me a knife?”) usually yielded an answer (“Sure!”). Giving an order (“Bring me a knife”) just yielded — well, a knife.
That doesn’t mean the small things don’t matter in a huge disaster. The spatial and temporal scales are different, sure, but one thing holds true in both: If we maintain stronger connections with one another, we do better. “When our responses to crises work well, we’re doing things like evoking a specific social identity. Like, we’re New Orleanians, we’re Australians. It’s some identity more than we are humans,” Enfield says. “That’s exclusively the domain we’re looking at, people who are neighbors, friends, family — in constant interdependence.”
Those interdependencies, thankfully, can even survive during a full-blown disaster. During the pandemic, at the same time people were avoiding sensible health measures out of political tribalism, they were also performing important, everyday acts of kindness and cooperation, like checking on older neighbors and sharing childcare duties. When times turn tough, even small favors can make a huge difference. Because that’s when our survival depends on it.
Adam Rogers is a senior correspondent at Insider.