The Kindness of Strangers

When I was growing up, children were commonly taught: "don't talk to strangers." Strangers might be bad, we were told, so it's prudent to steer clear of them.

And yet most people are honest, kind, and generous, especially when someone asks them for help. If a small child is in trouble, the smartest thing he can do is find a nice-looking stranger and talk to him.

These two pieces of advice may seem to contradict each other, but they don't. The difference is that in the second instance, the child is choosing which stranger to talk to. Given that the overwhelming majority of people will help, the child is likely to get help if he chooses a random stranger. But if a stranger comes up to a child and talks to him or her, it's not a random choice. It's more likely, although still unlikely, that the stranger is up to no good.

As a species, we tend help each other, and a surprising amount of our security and safety comes from the kindness of strangers. During disasters: floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, bridge collapses. In times of personal tragedy. And even in normal times.

If you're sitting in a café working on your laptop and need to get up for a minute, ask the person sitting next to you to watch your stuff. He's very unlikely to steal anything. Or, if you're nervous about that, ask the three people sitting around you. Those three people don't know each other, and will not only watch your stuff, but they'll also watch each other to make sure no one steals anything.

Again, this works because you're selecting the people. If three people walk up to you in the café and offer to watch your computer while you go to the bathroom, don't take them up on that offer. Your odds of getting three honest people are much lower.

Some computer systems rely on the kindness of strangers, too. The Internet works because nodes benevolently forward packets to each other without any recompense from either the sender or receiver of those packets. Wikipedia works because strangers are willing to write for, and edit, an encyclopedia -- with no recompense.

Collaborative spam filtering is another example. Basically, once someone notices a particular e-mail is spam, he marks it, and everyone else in the network is alerted that it's spam. Marking the e-mail is a completely altruistic task; the person doing it gets no benefit from the action. But he receives benefit from everyone else doing it for other e-mails.

Tor is a system for anonymous Web browsing. The details are complicated, but basically, a network of Tor servers passes Web traffic among each other in such a way as to anonymize where it came from. Think of it as a giant shell game. As a Web surfer, I put my Web query inside a shell and send it to a random Tor server. That server knows who I am but not what I am doing. It passes that shell to another Tor server, which passes it to a third. That third server -- which knows what I am doing but not who I am -- processes the Web query. When the Web page comes back to that third server, the process reverses itself and I get my Web page. Assuming enough Web surfers are sending enough shells through the system, even someone eavesdropping on the entire network can't figure out what I'm doing.

It's a very clever system, and it protects a lot of people, including journalists, human rights activists, whistleblowers, and ordinary people living in repressive regimes around the world. But it only works because of the kindness of strangers. No one gets any benefit from being a Tor server; it uses up bandwidth to forward other people's packets around. It's more efficient to be a Tor client and use the forwarding capabilities of others. But if there are no Tor servers, then there's no Tor. Tor works because people are willing to set themselves up as servers, at no benefit to them.

Alibi clubs work along similar lines. You can find them on the Internet, and they're loose collections of people willing to help each other out with alibis. Sign up, and you're in. You can ask someone to pretend to be your doctor and call your boss. Or someone to pretend to be your boss and call your spouse. Or maybe someone to pretend to be your spouse and call your boss. Whatever you want, just ask and some anonymous stranger will come to your rescue. And because your accomplice is an anonymous stranger, it's safer than asking a friend to participate in your ruse.

There are risks in these sorts of systems. Regularly, marketers and other people with agendas try to manipulate Wikipedia entries to suit their interests. Intelligence agencies can, and almost certainly have, set themselves up as Tor servers to better eavesdrop on traffic. And a do-gooder could join an alibi club just to expose other members. But for the most part, strangers are willing to help each other, and systems that harvest this kindness work very well on the Internet.

This essay originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal website.

Posted on March 13, 2009 at 7:41 AM • 38 Comments

Comments

matMarch 13, 2009 8:00 AM

"Wikipedia works because strangers are willing to write for, and edit, an encyclopedia -- with no recompense."

The benefit for writing a Wikipedia article is related to the same benefit of "winning" an argument, which tends to be an ego boost and a sense of self-gratification.

josephdietrichMarch 13, 2009 8:10 AM

From Germany at least, tor.org redirects me to Yahoo Deutschland (de.yahoo.com). torproject.org, however, seems to work.

Clive RobinsonMarch 13, 2009 8:23 AM

@ Bruce,

"But if a stranger comes up to a child and talks to him or her, it's not a random choice. It's more likely, although still unlikely, that the stranger is up to no good."

This rule like many other good ones has an exception.

If the child is obviously in distress (fallen of pushbike etc) then the chances are the majority of adults who aproach are simply responding to a primeval imprinting system to help the young / protect the tribe.

The sad thing about "Beast Grabs Child" type headlines is it causes adults who would in previous generations have helped a child who had fallen over etc to think "uh oh I'm going to be treated with suscpicion because it's a child".

The ills of the press like the roots of a poisonous plant spread deep within the fertile soil of society rendering it a baren waste.

Not Tor ChristensenMarch 13, 2009 8:26 AM

Tor.org is controlled by someone named Tor Christensen and doesn't seem to be related to the TOR project. Lucky guy is seeing huge traffic from WSJ.com. May be that's why it redirects to Yahoo.

kangarooMarch 13, 2009 8:34 AM

There have been papers studying altruism -- specifically whether people in games will act as "rational economic machines", or do the "right thing". As long as the cost isn't too high -- humans tend to do what they think is the right thing, even if it has an unrecompensed cost. They do good; they punish evil doers.

This is even in artificial situations where any possibility of payback is eliminated.

Tom WelshMarch 13, 2009 9:04 AM

And this is why the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is revolutionary and brilliant, even for atheists. Just forget the religious background for a moment, and assume for the purposes of argument that Jesus was just an ordinary man. His advice that we love everyone just as much as ourselves, forgive everyone, and give up all personal pretensions and possessions, can be interpreted as a radical answer to the Prisoner's Dilemma. When everyone is absolutely, irreversibly committed to unselfishness, the prisoner no longer has a dilemma. And the Tragedy of the Commons evaporates at the same time.

Pity most human beings do not have enough intelligence and imagination to catch on. The science fiction writer A E Van Vogt captured a hint of what a paradise we could have in his novel "The World of Null-A". In his Venusian society, people automatically do whatever is needed without special regard to their own personal advantage. (But that was an artificially selected society; only those who had passed the test of the Games Machine could emigrate to Venus).

NickMarch 13, 2009 9:44 AM

@Tom,

As an atheist, I almost completely agree with you. I think the ideas and teachings of Jesus are lessons that are good for everyone and actually wish that more of Jesus's "followers" lived by what he taught. I think we can agree that "treat other people as you wish to be treated" is universally applicable regardless of faith.

The only disagreement I have with you is a minor one, in that I believe Jesus is no more real than Harry Potter or Santa Claus.

HJohnMarch 13, 2009 9:50 AM

@: "No one gets any benefit from being a Tor server; it uses up bandwidth to forward other people's packets around."
____

Should say no one honest gets any benefit from being a server. Dishonest people have used their position as a server to sniff/intercept sensitive information that is not encrypted. Tor may have fixed this, but since I'm not a user I never followed up (I guess you can say it was an externality to me).

Julian GallMarch 13, 2009 10:01 AM

Am I the only one who finds it strange to see "alibi clubs" alongside "the kindness of strangers"? Most of this article is about trusting people. How can you trust someone who agrees to lie for you? How can someone who does the lying trust the person they're lying for? It seems fundamentally inconsistent to trust someone to do something untrustworthy.

Ward S. DenkerMarch 13, 2009 10:05 AM

Tom Welsh,

You seem rather convinced of your position. Can I have all of your stuff?

Paradise is a nonsense concept. If you want to pretend that humans aren't animals with the same primal drives, suit yourself, but stop trying to convince others to live in your ridiculous fantasy with you.

The best you can hope for is that it becomes the norm that you can pursue your own goals while others pursue theirs and everyone minds their own business, so long as no crimes are being committed.

In my opinion, that's the real tragedy of humanity: we all think we know what is best for each other and work to force others to come around to our way of thinking.

HJohnMarch 13, 2009 10:28 AM

In regards to some of the skeptical comments...

I think Bruce's point is not that there aren't dangerous people who can't be trusted, I believe the point is that most people can be. Basically, if you ask someone to safeguard something, your odds of them being honest are excellent. The article says if someone offers, be skeptical.

If someone approaches a child and offers them candy to get in a car, the child should be careful. On the other hand, if a child is lost and picks a house or a stranger to ask for help or to call their parents, their odds of the person being safe are very, very good.

No one is saying there aren't dangerous people, they are simply stating that, provided the person is selected by you and you are not selected by them, the odds of kindness are much greater.

acMarch 13, 2009 11:32 AM

@Tom - "And this is why the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is revolutionary and brilliant, even for atheists."

This is off-topic, but perhaps you should look up the teachings of the Buddha, say, not to mention the implications of the Hindu concept of karma. Then there was some chap called Confucius.. all predating J of N

old guyMarch 13, 2009 11:39 AM

I'm not a mathematics expert. Is there any math backing up the odds discussed here?

Rick AuricchioMarch 13, 2009 12:11 PM

"Whatever you want, just ask and some anonymous stranger will come to your rescue. And because your accomplice is an anonymous stranger, it's safer than asking a friend to participate in your ruse."

See Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers On A Train."

sbrMarch 13, 2009 1:01 PM

@old guy:

And it shows, unfortunately. Because it's not, at heart, a mathematical problem....

HJohnMarch 13, 2009 1:36 PM

@old guy: "I'm not a mathematics expert. Is there any math backing up the odds discussed here?"
____

I don't see how it could really be measured. We'll never know how many people ask a random favor of a stranger, the only ones we hear about are the ones who get burned by one.

A Tor Relay OpMarch 13, 2009 1:38 PM

There is a benefit to the operator of a Tor relay, at least hypothetically (there are differing opinions on how much it helps):

Since Tor cells - in their encrypted form - are indistinguishable from one another, a Tor relay op who also uses the network may gain a higher degree of anonymity, since an attacker cannot determine whether cells originated at the relay's network, or are simply being routed through it.

partdavidMarch 13, 2009 1:49 PM

The implications of the alibi club are interesting, as is the larger question of "When should lying be illegal?"

It's pretty well-established that lying in order to induce someone to give you money (fraud) should be illegal. The alibi club members will set you up with a fake receptionist and sources for other fake office establishments. If you get someone to thus invest in a scheme and then disappear, that's clearly a crime.

On the other hand, it would be pretty repugnant to make illegal lies of convenience like telling your girlfriend you were at a movie when you went to a strip club instead (and getting the fake ticket stub to "prove" it, or the "buddy" leaving the message on the answering machine).

And then there's covering up for excused absences at work. Calling in "sick" when you really just want a day off is pretty common. So when you get fake justification from a "doctor" for a long absence--is that illegal? Fireable? What if you told your work that you were spending three days at a fake conference when you were really taking a vacation? How about if you charged the company for it--that's clearly embezzlement, of course.

I don't know, it's interesting and I wonder if it's really "kindness" we're talking about here. I don't have definitive answers to these questions but I find them interesting.

CorkyAgainMarch 13, 2009 1:52 PM

Wikipedia and Tor are more like the case where some stranger is volunteering to help you with something. As several commenters have pointed out, they might be doing this for nefarious reasons.

Let me add another reason the bad guys might "volunteer" to write/edit Wikipedia articles: to spin them in ways that are favorable to themselves or their companies. That this already occurs is well known.

HippyChickMarch 13, 2009 2:06 PM

If you are an honest, good person, why would you need an alibi club ? If someone is willing to lie for you, then they aren't kind, they are devious and not doing you a favor at all. The kind person would tell you that you shouldn't lie.

Lasko FransitzMarch 13, 2009 3:04 PM

The first 6 paragraphs make sense. The rest of it isn't consistent with those paragraphs.

You say that if you pick someone to watch your laptop, you're OK. If someone volunteers then it's less safe. Agreed.

Then you talk about wikipedia where authors volunteer, alibi clubs (which are inherently dishonest) where you ask and someone else volunteers, tor where people volunteer to run nodes, etc.

Trusting people who respond to a general broadcast advertisement for help is more like the child talking to someone who walks up to them.

dragonfrogMarch 13, 2009 4:42 PM

"But if a stranger comes up to a child and talks to him or her, it's not a random choice. It's more likely, although still unlikely, that the stranger is up to no good."

It's entirely possible that's true, but I'm not sure it's an assertion that can be let stand.

Let's assume for the moment that a child approaching a stranger will select a truly random one, i.e. someone who exactly the average chance of meaning them harm. But, do we have any reliable information about the typical motivations of a child-approacher?

Jonadab the Unsightly OneMarch 13, 2009 9:22 PM

> When I was growing up, children were
> commonly taught: "don't talk to strangers."

That's a gross oversimplification of what we were taught. In a nutshell, we weren't supposed to accept gifts from or get into cars with or cetera... strangers who approached us out of the blue when there were no adults around. OTOH, we were consistently encouraged to be friendly to strangers whom we approached, or who were introduced to us, or who approached when our parents were around.

Karl LembkeMarch 14, 2009 12:15 PM

Jonadab: That may be a gross oversimplification of what *you* were taught. Some people taught me what you were taught -- others taught me "don't talk to strangers", apparently thinking that by building in that extra layer of proscription, I'd be even less likely to accept gifts or rides from strangers. And those who were taught that shortcut have tended to pass it on to their children without thought.

Dennis Prager has an essay on his page, saying children *should* talk to stragers. (They should not go with them, or accept gifts from them.) But children who never talk to strangers never learn how to "break the ice" with all the strangers they're going to meet during their adult lives.

(Indeed, children who have been trained never to talk to strangers may be at greater risk of coming to harm, since they'll never approach anyone asking for help if they get into a bad situation.)

Clive RobinsonMarch 14, 2009 5:57 PM

@ dragonfrog,

"But, do we have any reliable information about the typical motivations of a child-approacher?"

The answer is no as we don't have any real idea why people would approach a child any more than they would any other person.

The simple answers are,

1, To use/harm them.
2, To help them.
3, To tell them off.
4, Due to misidentification.
5, Because they are attracted to them for some reason.

There are a whole host of things covered by 1 some of which are not harmfull such as a LEO asking questions after an accident others people simply asking simple questions such as "Is this west 54th street?" or "do you know which house is 157?" etc. Through to quite rare occurances such as abduction.

Likewise 2 covers such things as other parents sensing that a child needs help or is about to do something dangerous like step into a road etc and most adults used to help a child who had injured themselves (less so these days).

And as "children will be children" they quite often earn the ire of adults who will naturaly want to tell them to stop 3 above covers those times when "the little angels" doing things such as kicking balls into gardens or other minor anoyances like making lots of noise etc. How many reading this have not felt like telling a neighbours kid to "shut up" or "stop kicking that ball against the fence" or stop any one of a 101 other irritating things kids do.

Surprisingly adults sometimes have trouble telling children apart especialy at a distance or if they are facing away. It is not uncommon for a non parental guardian to aproach the wrong child in a play area simply because they are dressed similarly to one of their "charges".

Finaly there is 5 this looks odd to people from WASP nations but less so to those from other societies. For instance in many asian cultures children are almost venerated and it is not uncommon for adults to talk to children simply because they are children. Often parents of babies will experiance strangers come up to them and say how atractive etc their baby is, I'm told this is due to it being hard wired into our brains.

My son used to make me very jealous he just had to look at an attractive young woman and invariably she would visably melt and talk to him with a goofy eyed expression. Often the more atractive the woman the more she would be attracted to him it got to the point where I used to have a stock thing to say,

"My son suffers from a terrorable affliction" they would then look concerned and I would say "Cuteness, you know you've been infected when you smile" which immediatly did make them smile.

When I was a toweringly tall spotty teenager I would have killed to get that amount of attention from women. And even at my advanced age I would still give a lot to get the attention my son does 8(

GweihirMarch 14, 2009 9:56 PM

Don't know abouy the US, but here if you do not help somebody in physical distress that needs help, you become criminally liable. So if you see a lost/hurt child that is alone, you are legally obliged (and of course morally) to walk over an offer help.

Incidenially, given the number of strangers that hurt children (very, very low) and the number of family members that do the same (relatively high), there are quite a few children around that would fare much better with a random stranger than with their own parents. People tend to forget that with all the "holy family" blindness.

HarryMarch 14, 2009 10:00 PM

@dragonfrog:

Think of it this way. People who approach children will include those who intend harm and those who don't. People who don't approach include those who don't intend harm. So, yeah, the approachers are more likely to mean harm.

FWIW I put my money where my mouth is, instructing my own child to approach someone if he's in trouble or need help. But not just anyone. First choice is someone in uniform (really, someone with a badge on his/her chest). Second choice is a woman with children with her. Third choice is a man with children with him.

Statistically, though, even these instructions won't make my child much safer: most harm done to children is done by someone known to that child.

*****

I don't think alibi clubs belong in this list for two reasons. One, being a member confers a concrete benefit - you lie for someone, someone else will lie for you. Two, the group does not have a benign goal.

Tom WelshMarch 15, 2009 4:32 PM

Nick and Ward, I was amused (though slightly disappointed) by your reactions to my comment. As it happens, I am a sceptical agnostic. I don't believe Jesus was divine, and I am by no means sure that he existed in the form reported by the Bible. The point I was making was that Jesus' advice, as reported in the Bible, is very good advice purely in game-theoretical terms. If only we could be sure that other human beings would not let us down in the crunch... which, sadly, we can never be.

Chris WalshMarch 15, 2009 5:38 PM

Obviously, love thy neighbor as thyself is an unstable equilibrium or we'd all be in Nirvana. :^)

As to why -- other than Original Sin -- we've found ourselves where we are, I would suggest Ken Binmore's "_Natural Justice_" (http://www.amazon.com/Natural-Justice-Ken-Binmore/dp/0195178114).

Gary "Nobel prize-winning economist" Becker summarizes Binmore's thesis thusly:

"Ken Binmore has written a truly exciting book that derives moral principles of fairness, equity, and other behavior from evolutionary theory. In his theory, societies that hit on more efficient and 'fairer' equilibrium are more likely to survive through a combination of genetic and cultural selection. He is in my judgment appropriately highly critical of the rather arbitrary solutions to morality offered by Kant and some other philosophers."

To the extent Kant's categorical imperative is a rehash of the sermon on the mount, Binmore provides an intellectually satisfying explanation of what see as our fall from grace -- much more so than Becker would have one believe, actually.


csrsterMarch 16, 2009 3:10 AM

Tom - arguably brilliant, but certainly not original. He was, after all, only quoting the Old Testament (or The Torah, as he would have said).

I was thinking about this general point only this morning apropos of a radio report of a campaign by a children's charity to educate parents in spotting the signs of "grooming" - ie how to tell if an apparently trusted adult is actually trying to get themselves in a position to molest your children. I must be well-trained by the likes of Bruce and Ben Goldacre because my immediate reaction was to scream "What about the false positives?" at the radio. Give that
i) as Bruce is reminding us here, there are many more non-paedofiles than paedofiles around and
ii) grooming behaviour is, I imagine, very similar to everyday being-friendly behaviour
it must follow that the overwhelming majority of grooming-like behaviours are just innocent everyday interactions.

SavikMarch 16, 2009 4:54 PM

@Julian Gall

You can trust untrustworthy people to do untrustworthy things because that is what they do. It does sound like a logic circle though.

sooth sayerMarch 17, 2009 6:54 PM

There is a negative aspect associated with telling children not to trust strangers - it's even more insidious, strangers are also afraid that they might be accused of bad motives if they do try to help.

Sinefeld used to have a episodes that played on this issue obliquely.

You really don't want to be "watching" someone's package at the cafe -- even a lop top -- depending where the cafe is.

SuzanneMarch 30, 2009 10:23 AM

Harry- I'd advise against advising your kids to seek out someone in a uniform first. In the days of beat cops who knew all the neighbors that was a good idea. In the days of security guards who are sometimes hired with very little background check, not so much. Especially since people who flunk out of the exams for becoming a police officer (for emotional as well as other reasons) often fall back on security work.

Statistically you're probably better off to go with the mom with kids first and the dad with kids second. Skip the uniform. Not saying they're all bad. The majority are fine, I'm sure. But looking official isn't the greatest physical cue for thinking someone will be nice.

andrew mortonApril 14, 2009 7:54 PM

My uncle was at a ballgame one time and the guy next to him asked if my uncle would watch his stuff while he was in the bathroom. My uncle did and when the guy came back he asked if the guy would watch his stuff. When my uncle got back he found both his binoculars and the guy missing.

JD BertronJune 5, 2009 8:04 AM

Interesting. Did anyone notice the implication that if I need help and I ask a 'stranger' to help me, to him I am definitely untrustworthy because I approached him.
Clearly, a 1-1 situation like this improves nothing about the security of trusting someone else, especially if the two parties aren't deemed equal (adult-child, liar-honest).
However, the principle that one can prompt multiple strangers to cooperate in helping them builds upon the security of a social (game) contract, not of an individual's level of trustworthiness. This is why you could ask multiple thieves to watch your laptop in a cafe without risking theft.
That social contract is complex and explains why people quiet down in crowded elevators or copy each other's behavior in new situations.
The contract breaks down if the group isn't as unacquainted as it seems. A beautiful example of a social engineering scam based on faking this contract was recently presented by Michael Shermer in his Scientific American column.

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