Cities of angels or hell on earth?

Where in the world will you find people most willing to help a hapless tourist? Simon Calder examines a new study that pinpoints the best and worst places to be in trouble, and conducts his own - highly unscientific - experiment to test the kindness of strangers in London
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The Independent Travel

To find the place where the milk of human kindness overflows, aim south-south-west: beyond Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia. Skim over the Canaries and the Cape Verde islands. Breeze along the soft Atlantic coastline of Brazil. Touch down in Rio, and make your way through the crowds to 15 November Square. Then drop a pen.

It is certain to be returned.

Who says so? Robert Levine, a gentle, quietly spoken and genuinely helpful New Yorker - qualities that, as we shall see, make him something of a civic anomaly in his home town. He and his researchers have visited 22 of the world's great cities, plus Lilongwe in Malawi, to assess the degree of altruism in each.

To do this, they conducted three experiments. "Our studies focused on simple acts of assistance, as opposed to Oskar Schindler-like heroism," says Dr Levine. "Is an inadvertently dropped pen retrieved by a passing pedestrian? Does a man with an injured leg receive assistance picking up a fallen magazine? Will a blind person be helped across a busy intersection?"

With buttery fingers, fake limps and white sticks, the research team homed in on busy city centres. They noted how citizens reacted to each staged event, and fed the data back to the Department of Psychology at California State University in Fresno, where Dr Levine teaches. His findings, published in American Scientist, have little in common with the usual travel-industry surveys. No self-selecting samples here; Dr Levine and his, er, helpers have conducted what he says is "the largest cross-national comparison of helping ever conducted".

The figure of Christ keeps a kindly eye over Brazil's sultry Cidade Maravilhosa. But the concept of help in Rio takes many forms. Indeed, a small but significant minority of locals are keen to help themselves to your belongings. This may take the form of simple pickpocketing on an overcrowded city bus whizzing through Copacabana or Ipanema (which is how I lost a ticket for the Carnaval). Ironically, some other scoundrels fleece tourists by feigning altruism. The "mustard trick" has been happening almost since the days when Luke commended the helpful Samaritan: person A surreptitiously squirts a squidgy substance on your jacket, person B offers to help clean it off, and while you remove the jacket some combination of A and B, or possibly accomplice C, make off with your valuables. Yet the scam still succeeds frequently enough for Lonely Planet to highlight the practice in the "Dangers and Annoyances" section of its guidebook to Rio.

Were you to drop that pen or feign blindness when trying to cross a road, though, it is a racing certainty that a Carioca will oblige; Brazil's former capital is the only city in Dr Levine's survey to score 100 per cent on both counts.

American Airlines flight 950 must carry an interesting mix of people on board. Every night it flies from Rio, officially the kindest place in the world, to the least helpful location in the Americas: New York. If you find yourself on this Boeing, just drop a pen to identify the nationality of each fellow passenger. While the Girl from Ipanema will be benevolence personified, the Boy from New York City will likely walk on by.

When he visited America's biggest metropolis in the 1930s, Cecil Beaton wrote, "Wherever one goes one finds that people seem really glad to meet strangers, and the appearance of rush is readily interrupted by the slightest excuse for leisure." Not any longer, pal: in the Big Apple, the milk of human kindness has soured. "You're more likely to receive assistance from someone you don't know just about anywhere else in the world," says Dr Levine, with a twinge of embarrassment for his fellow New Yorkers.

The only place that scores worse than New York is, curiously, Kuala Lumpur. You can write off that pen three-quarters of the time in the Malaysian capital, which happens to be the only predominantly Islamic city in the survey. Neighbouring Singapore rates third-worst. Yet I have nothing but pleasant memories of the people I have met in both these South-east Asian cities, and the Rough Guide notes, "If you lose something in Malaysia, you're more likely to have someone running after you than running away." Other factors must be at work, such as the wide availability and negligible cost of pens on the Malayan peninsula.

"The overriding civic characteristic is simple humanity." That's the last description I wrote of the people of Amsterdam. Unfortunately, the Dutch capital slumps to fourth-most unkind place, performing even worse than Sofia in Bulgaria. Why? It could be that everyone in Amsterdam is stoned and therefore incapable of noticing the pen dropping or that a (notionally) blind person needs assistance. The study tried to avoid subjects who were obviously tourists, but in the centre of Amsterdam it can be hard to tell. And, as Dr Levine says, "It is possible that residents passing through heavily touristed areas may act differently than they would in other areas." After all, the Dutch make the top five on the wholly unscientific Calder Hitch-hiking Scale. This is another measure of the kindness of strangers, and goes: 1, Germany; 2, Canada; 3, New Zealand; 4, Turkey; 5, Holland.

One country mentioned neither on my scale nor Dr Levine's study is Japan. Hitching on Japanese highways is superb, because almost everyone stops. Yet I never thumb in Japan these days, because the all-too-helpful locals are unfamiliar with the conventional "I'm going 50 miles down the road and will drop you at the Nagasaki turn-off" practice, and feel compelled to take you all the way to your final destination. Similarly, exceptionally strong norms of civility in Tokyo meant that Dr Levine's experimenter was rendered psychologically incapable of performing the subterfuge necessary to assess assistance.

How did some of the world's great tourist cities, such as Cairo, Istanbul and Paris, shape up? Alas, they were not included. "We were working on a very small budget and only tested cities where our students happened to be travelling back home those summers," says Dr Levine. I bet you want to know how well the ever-helpful Brits performed. Sadly, the national capitals of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were not assessed by Dr Levine's team. So on Wednesday I conducted my own experiment in the environs of Waterloo station in London, the first UK experience for millions of foreign visitors.

Pretending to drop a pen inadvertently is a lot tougher than it sounds. After a few dry runs, I wrapped it in with a wad of papers from which it might legitimately escape. The test began brilliantly: the first three people all pointed out my loss, and two of them actually picked the pen up for me. Perhaps tellingly, all were women. The next five passers-by happened to be male, and only one responded positively.

Four helpful, four unhelpful. To balance the genders, the last two victims had to be women. The next test was, in tennis terms, declared a "let", because she turned out to be a neighbour of mine. By now my pen-dropping technique was developing, and I had learned to unload the Uniball to fall directly in the subject's path. The fourth female ignored it, and instead gave me a look that suggested she was about to call the police to report a stranger acting suspiciously.

On the final test, my aim was so good that the unhelpful subject had to lift her foot to avoid stepping on the pen, but did not bother to point out the loss. Oh no, I was about to conclude: London rates fourth-worst in the world. But then a man who was been walking in the same direction as me checked, turned around, went back to pick it up and returned it with a smile. That small kindness hoisted the capital two places to finish on a par with Taipei at 50 per cent.

As I cycled away, I was nearly obliterated by a delivery van and, later, witnessed an attempted road-rage attack. Welcome to London.

What explains the dramatic differences that Dr Levine discovered? "Far and away the best predictor we found was population density," he says. "People in more crowded cities were much less likely to help. New York was Exhibit A."

Yet Calcutta in India, not renowned for its wide open spaces, comes in a highly creditable fourth overall. Here, another variable comes into play: to be helpful, it helps to be poor; the lower a city's wealth, the more altruistic its people.

Lilongwe, Malawi (third overall) scores an average helping rate of nearly 90 per cent, yet its gross domestic product is a tiny fraction of that of New York, where the help index is half as much. Another variable is how fast pedestrians tend to walk, a measure used to assess the pace of life. The slower the stroll, the more helpful the citizens.

If you yearn for caring, sharing hosts, head for somewhere Latin. Of the top half of the table, four cities were Latin American and a fifth was Madrid. San José, capital of Costa Rica, runs Rio a narrow second as helpfulness heaven. The last time I was there, on Christmas Day 1999, I was unceremoniously mugged. Perhaps I should have countered my attacker by simultaneously limping, dropping a pen and pretending not to see him.

You may be tempted to conclude from Dr Levine's survey that Americans and Malaysians are genetically unfriendly, while the DNA of those warm Latins in Rio and San José is drenched in double-cream of human kindness. But the last time I was in New York, on a cold, dark day in December, I arrived late at night at Kennedy airport and took the subway to the city. As I peered at the map in the gloomy station, two friendly locals insisted on chaperoning me from the station to my hostel. Don't call the good Samaritans just yet: even in the ice-cold heart of a Manhattan midwinter, humanity prevails.

Dr Robert Levine's latest book is 'The Power of Persuasion: How We're Bought and Sold' (John Wiley, 2003). His paper, 'The Kindness of Strangers', appears in 'American Scientist', Vol 91, pp226-233; www.americanscientist.org

'The Independent' welcomes stories about acts of kindness, or otherwise; please write to Help!, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or e-mail travel@independent.co.uk

HOSTILE OR HELPFUL?: HOW TOP TOURIST DESTINATIONS RATE

Among top European city-break destinations, you will find the kindest hearts in Vienna, Madrid, Copenhagen or Prague. All make it into the warm and welcoming top of Dr Levine's league table. But Amsterdam, Stockholm, Budapest and Rome join the cold-shoulderers in the lower half.

Visually impaired travellers should head for Prague or Madrid, where you are certain to be helped across the road; in Amsterdam, your chances are hardly better than 50-50. For those with a bad leg and a hard-to-grip magazine (or, presumably, guidebook), Vienna and Rome help themselves to top place, with four out of five citizens likely to assist.

If you plan to take an expensive pen with which to write postcards, though, opt for Stockholm: more than 90 per cent of Swedes will ensure you retrieve it, compared with only one in three Italians.

American altruism can be found at its most concentrated in Tennessee. In 1994, Dr Levine and his team from California State University measured kindness in 36 US cities on a range of six variables. Four out of the top 10 places were taken by cities in Tennessee: Nashville (3rd), Memphis (4th), Knoxville (5th) and Chattanooga (10th); nearby Lexington, Kentucky, was 6th. Top place went to Rochester in New York State; last was Paterson, New Jersey.

When donations to charity are stripped out, and only the helpfulness experiments considered, New York City is "dead last", says Dr Levine. Interestingly, his adopted home town, Fresno in California, rates a poor 33rd out of 36. Yet Dallas, which in my experience is the most miserable city that God ever imposed upon America, achieves an unlikely mid-table rating.

Simon Calder

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