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Can't find a good Samaritan? Don't blame it on Rio.

By Andrew DownieSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2003


An injured man knocks over a magazine stand in Sofia, Bulgaria, and no one helps him pick it up. A woman drops her pen on a crowded New York City sidewalk, and passersby don't let her know. A blind man needs help crossing a busy street in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but has to fend for himself. In some parts of the world, it can be hard to find a good Samaritan.

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But in Latin America, and especially in Rio de Janeiro, it's a different story.

The friendliest people in the world are here and elsewhere in the region, according to a six-year study of "simple acts of kindness" - a series of live street tests coordinated by Robert Levine and published in the current issue of American Scientist magazine. The research, carried out in 23 cities on all five continents, counters the Hollywood stereotype of Latin Americans as drug traffickers and gangsters, and shows that people across the region are friendlier, kinder, and likelier to come to the aid of someone in need than their fellow global citizens.

"The two highest-ranking cities are in Latin America: Rio and San José, [Costa Rica]," says Mr. Levine, a professor of psychology at California State University in Fresno, in the report. "Overall, we found that people in Por- tuguese- and Spanish-speaking cities tended to be among the most helpful. The other three such cities on our list - Madrid, San Salvador, and Mexico City - each scored well above average. Considering that some of these places suffer from long-term political instability, high crime rates, and a potpourri of other social, economic, and environmental ills, these positive results are noteworthy."

No single explanation

Levine's researchers dropped a pen to see if it was picked up by passers-by and returned to its owner. They watched to see whether a person pretending to have an injured leg would get help picking up strewn magazines. And they waited to see how many people would assist a blind man trying to cross a busy street.

In Rio, the pen was always returned to its owner and the blind man was always helped across the road. The injured man was helped 80 percent of the time. By contrast, in Singapore the blind man was helped just half the time. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 3 of 4 pens went unreturned. And in Sofia, Bulgaria, just over 20 percent of the "injured" were assisted.

Levine said there was no single reason to explain why Latin Americans tend to be more helpful. In addition to their shared geography and linguistic roots, the cities with the friendliest inhabitants were all ones in which people had less disposable income, where the pace of life was slower, and where the culture emphasized the value of social harmony.

That is particularly true of Rio. Although Rio has a reputation as one of the bloodiest cities in the world - drug-related violence has become so widespread that Citibank recently advised its clients not to use the city's main airport because of repeated shootouts on the roads nearby - people who know it rave about the warmth and generosity of the locals.

Levine's research partner, Arnoldo Rodrigues, said that is because the residents of what people here proudly call "the Marvellous City" make an extra effort to be nice.