Have we stopped being nice in cities? A new study by psychology researchers at the University of Miami's Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory reveals that humans are likely to turn off their automatic inclination to be generous and fair if they knew there wouldn’t be any repercussions.

For instance, would you tip your waitress if you knew you'd never return to her restaurant, or if she wouldn’t know whether you left a tip?

According to lead author William H.B. McAuliffe, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, our cooperative nature is a part of our evolutionary past when we lived in small groups and depended on each other for our survival.

Senior author Michael E. McCullough, professor of psychology and director of the lab in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology, observes that our Stone Age minds still think how we treat everyone we meet could have consequences.

The study titled ‘Experience with anonymous interactions reduces intuitive cooperation’ shows that our natural inclination to be nice to others can be easily switched off if we learn there won't be any payback, either positive or negative.

Two hundred volunteers came to the laboratory in small groups on two separate occasions about a month apart, and were asked to play three games that required them to make investment decisions and share the windfall with others in the room, and eventually with a charity.

However, the volunteers were made to sit at consoles with headphones – without interacting with each other. They made all their decisions and collected all their winnings anonymously and privately.

The volunteers exhibited predictable behaviour in the first round when they shared windfalls with strangers fairly and even donated about half their earnings to charity.

On their return a month later, the innate generosity was missing with sharing, on average, about 20 percent less than the first round.

This was because of the participants’ realisation that there were no social consequences to their less-than-generous behaviour.

When they returned for the second time, they didn’t act on that cognitive shortcut because they learned that the same rules didn’t apply.

McCullough observes that the findings could shed light on why city dwellers are unfriendly to strangers compared with people from small towns.

A city person can get away with being rude to a stranger because they are sure they wouldn’t meet them again. The situation is different in small towns where everybody knows everybody.

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