Lost letter experiment suggests urbanites are not less prosocial than their rural counterparts

People living in the city of Perth, Australia do not appear to be less altruistic than those living in rural towns, according to new research published in Evolutionary Psychological Science.

“Altruism is considered a defining feature of mankind, but how altruism has become so prevalent has long intrigued and puzzled psychologists and evolutionary biologists,” explained study author Cyril C. Grueter, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia.

“Countless lab-based studies have explored the functional underpinnings of altruistic behaviour but research under naturalistic conditions has lagged behind. One phenomenon in particular, the urban incivility phenomenon, has received mixed support in the academic literature.”

“The urban incivility phenomenon describes the stereotype that residents in large cities are selfish and uninterested in the wellbeing of their neighbours, while those who reside in small towns have a strong sense of community that fosters cooperation,” Grueter said.

To examine the likelihood of helping behaviour, the researchers used the lost letter technique in 20 different suburbs of Perth and 12 rural towns in Western Australia.

“We dropped Hundreds of letters in both a city and rural towns and counted the number of letters that were picked up by passers-by and posted in the mail to the legitimate recipient. Roughly half of the letters dropped were returned. This impressive number doesn’t dovetail with the view of humans as self-interested rational profit maximizers but instead points a picture of humans as Good Samaritans.”

The researchers dropped 300 letters in urban/suburban environments and 502 letters in rural environments. The letters were stamped, sealed and addressed to a residential address, and were dropped face-up. The letters were distributed on Friday evenings to prevent postal workers from finding them on the weekday.

“Moreover, city dwellers were neither less nor more altruistic than their rural counterparts; in other words, we found no support for the urban incivility phenomenon,” Grueter noted.

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“There is ample room for follow-up studies to refine the methodological design. We need to be circumspect with extrapolating from these findings to other geographic locales,” Grueter explained.

“Perth is not the typical ‘urban’ city — it is very suburban and people in different suburbs conglomerate together to form mini-communities within the larger metropolitan area. Perhaps the urban incivility phenomenon is only evident in actual urban cities with high population density and high residential instability?

“Some of the towns also varied in terms of residential stability and demographics and this could have influenced letter return rates,” Grueter added. “For example, tourist towns with many unoccupied holiday homes may lack a sense of community that is characteristic of other rural towns. It’s also possible that the results are task-dependent, so for instance if had chosen a more onerous helping task, we might have found a different result.”

The study, “Urban Civility: City Dwellers Are Not Less Prososcial Than Their Rural Counterparts“, was authored by Cyril C. Grueter, Grace Westlake, and David Coall.