How can we build better communities? We should listen to the rats.

Evolutionary biologist Claudia Rutte and her colleagues have recently discovered that the common wild rat can hold memories of being helped or hindered by other members of its species. In an act called specific reciprocity, rats are most likely to help those other particular rats that have helped them in the past. But Rutte also finds that rats are also capable of generalized reciprocity; when a rat has been generally helped by many other rats in the past, it is more likely to help any rat in need.

It turns out that people are actually a lot like rats in this respect: we’re capable of both specific reciprocity and generalized reciprocity. But as social scientists such as Robert Putnam and Pamela Paxton point out, generalized reciprocity is preferable by far. In communities that stick to rules of specific reciprocity, working out who owes what to whom is a task that drains time and effort. On top of that, strangers in systems of specific reciprocity tend to be perceived as enemies, leading to conflict and division within a community.

In communities characterized by generalized reciprocity, however, strangers tend to be thought of as friends we haven’t met yet, a perception that minimizes conflict. In places where everybody tends to help everybody, help is delivered more efficiently as needed, not as earned through a bank of favors. Feelings of unity and solidarity across the community grow.

If generalized reciprocity is so helpful for a community, how can we help make sure that our communities in Maine adopt that norm? The rats point us toward an answer. Remember that rats who have the experience of being generally helped by other rats are the most likely to help any rat in need.

This implies three lessons for our human communities. First, as individuals we should try to help others, even and especially those we do not know. Second, when we enter into helping groups, we should make sure that they draw membership from as many sources across the community as possible, to create experiences in which all sorts of people in a community help one another, not only people of specific ages, neighborhoods, occupations or creeds. Third, at the community level, it is vital for us to share the good news when people do help one another, not just the bad news when people betray one another.

A stellar example of generalized reciprocity in action is the University of Maine at Augusta’s new community garden. The vegetables growing in the garden are destined for the broader community through the Augusta Food Bank. Gardening sessions have drawn support from young and old, from students and community members, from experts and newcomers.

Thanks to Jason Pafundi’s recent article in the Kennebec Journal, the good news of the garden is being shared. There are many stories like this of Mainers helping one another. The more that these stories are told, the more generalized reciprocity takes hold.

James Cook has been a professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2011. Dr. Cook’s primary areas of interest in research and teaching are political organizations, social networks, and social media, specifically applying social network theory to social media in the Maine State Legislature.