Today, the milk of human kindness. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Psychologist Robert Levine
goes looking for the Good Samaritan -- for the
kindness of strangers. How do strangers respond if
we're in trouble? Levine wisely recognizes that the
impulse to give aid is best revealed, not in the
heroic act, but in the minor one.
How alert are we to the small needs of those around
So he and his students set off for cities around
the world with a set of five simple tests. The
first three work pretty well: He pretends to drop a
pen accidentally. How many strangers retrieve it
for him? He stands at an intersection with dark
glasses and a white cane. How many strangers offer
to help him across the street? Walking with a leg
brace, he drops a stack of magazines. How many
strangers help him pick them up?
Two more tests were failures for cultural reasons.
Drop a stamped letter; how many strangers pick it
up and mail it? In El Salvador, there's a
well-known scam in which an accusing bully appears
to claim that he'd had money in an envelope he'd
dropped. In Tel Aviv, it could be a letter bomb. In
countries with high illiteracy, too many people
just don't connect with it.
Another failed test involved asking people to
change a coin. In poor countries, poverty made that
impractical. In wealthy ones, it was implausible.
In the end, the least culturally-biased tests were
the ones with a pen, a cast on the leg, and a white
Levine ranks cities around the world. Rio de
Janeiro and San Jose, Costa Rica did best. Indeed,
all the Spanish-speaking cities did well. New York
and Kuala Lumpur were in last place.
But Levine casts a dimension of skepticism on his
own study as soon as he starts explaining the
different behaviors. New Yorkers filled their need
to give assistance at the same time they avoided
the dangers of contact. Without breaking stride, a
pedestrian shouts, "Hey buddy, you dropped your
pen." Or she might say to the blind man, as she
walks by him, "The light's green. You can cross
Spanish and Portuguese, however, have a word we all
know, but which does not translate well into
English. The word simpático
reflects a deep belief that any good person has the
quality of being agreeable, pleasant, good-natured,
and supportive. If you fail to pick up the pen and
return it, you are not simpático.
I suppose Levine's study does less to discriminate
among cities, than to diagnose how we express our
humanity in varying situations. No one people is
better or worse than any other. I have to remind
myself that the Good Samaritan was an outcast. He
was someone the traveler would normally have
ignored on the street.
Yet that does not stop me from crowing just a bit.
You see, my own much-loved city of Houston, Texas,
ranks second in the United States. And that's
something I'm aware of, living here in Houston.
We're very close on the heels of the leader, which
happens to be Rochester, New York, and we are far
ahead of Dallas.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. V. Levine, The Kindness of Strangers. American
Scientist, Vol. 91, May-June, 2003, pp.
Image of the Good Samaritan and the traveler, from
a nineteenth-century German Bible
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.