Picture yourself in a foreign city, walking along with a guidebook in one hand and city maps in the other.  If misfortune came your way, if you stumbled and dropped everything, where would you be most likely to receive help from a passerby?  Budapest?  New York?  Bangkok?  Rio de Janeiro?  Stockholm?  If you said Rio, give yourself a pat on the back.

Social scientists and frequent travelers have known for years that people—strangers, to be precise—are more likely to receive help in some cities than in others.  In a meta-analysis of 65 studies, psychologist Nancy Steblay found that strangers are more likely to receive help in small and medium-sized cities and less likely to receive help in large cities.  If you fall off your bicycle and break a leg, it’s better to be in Topeka than in Kansas City.

But what about cities in other countries?  Are there cross-national differences when it comes to helping strangers?  Social psychologist Robert Levine and his colleagues investigated this question by sending experimenters to large cities in 23 different countries on five continents.

In each city, a male experimenter measured the frequency of three different helping behaviors.  In the first study, the experimenter dropped a pen—not once but dozens of times—while walking in the city center.  If someone picked up the pen and brought it to him, it was counted as helping.

In the second study, the experimenter wore a leg brace and walked with a limp.  He “accidentally” dropped a pile of magazines and then struggled to pick them up.  If someone offered to help or began to help without offering, it was counted as helping.

In the third study, the experimenter wore dark glasses and carried a cane, pretending to be a blind person who needed help to cross the street.  He stepped up to the corner just before the light turned green.  If someone offered to accompany him across the street or just told him the light was green, it was counted as helping.

When Levine combined the three helping scores for each city, he discovered that the frequency of helping was inversely related to a country’s economic productivity.  Residents of cities in poor countries like Malawi and India were usually more helpful than residents of cities in wealthy countries like Singapore and the United States.  According to Levine, countries with high economic productivity are more likely to be individualistic and have a faster pace of life, so it might be these variables that account for the relatively low rate of helping in wealthy countries.

Levine also discovered that people in countries with a tradition of simpatía—Spain and Latin American countries—were more helpful.  In simpatía cultures, people are expected to express concern about the social and emotional well-being of others.  As a result, they are more likely to be friendly and polite and … helpful to strangers.

To be sure, other explanations for Levine’s findings are possible.  Most people living in simpatía cultures are Roman Catholic.  Maybe their willingness to help reflects the Catholic Church’s mission to help those who cannot help themselves.  Simpatía cultures are also cultures of honor.  (See our earlier post—“Southern Comfort”—about cultures of honor.)  Perhaps they take special care to be polite and helpful because an unintended insult may escalate into a fight or feud.

My advice to world travelers who might need some help while overseas?  Visit a poor, Roman Catholic, mostly rural country in Latin America.  I hear Nicaragua is beautiful this time of year.

Most Helpful Cities

1.  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

2.  San Jose, Costa Rica

3.  Lilongwe, Malawi

4.  Calcutta, India

5.  Vienna, Austria

Least Helpful Cities

19.  Sofia, Bulgaria

20.  Amsterdam, Netherlands

21.  Singapore, Singapore

22.  New York City, USA

23.  Kuala Lampur, Malaysia


Levine, R. V., Norenzayan, A., & Philbrick, K. (2001). Cross-cultural differences in helping strangers. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32(5), 543-560.

Steblay, N. M. (1987). Helping behavior in rural and urban environments: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 102(3), 346-356.

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