Cooperation with Strangers

Goldenrod and bald-faced hornet…

Have you ever been stung by a bald-faced hornet, alias yellowjacket wasp? These wasps are capable of stinging repeatedly. The stings pack a punch that you will not forget easily. I bawled after an encounter with a bald-faced hornet in my garden. When threatened, vengeance can erupt. And guess what…there is commotion and conflict within this aggressive wasp colony. One common worker-wasp version of a “strike” is to kill their queen. Competitive struggles for control obstruct the social organization of the colony. Does this sound like any human conflicts you know about?

Mister Rogers comes to mind: “When I was a boy and would see scary times in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” 

A researcher studying birds in Africa found helpers! Nichola Raihani, evolutionary biologist at University College London, studied pied babbler birds living in the Kalahari Desert where every bird cooperates in the flock as a helper to raise the offspring of a dominant breeding pair of birds. Raihani also studied mutualism in the meticulous “cleaner fish” who live on tropical coral reefs and found that cooperation extended beyond same species. Dubbed the hairdressers of coral reefs, cleaner fish remove parasites and surface gunk on other sea creatures. Now turning her attention to the study of human behavior, Raihani finds that cooperation is not always on the plus side. For example, corruption can be a form of cooperation!

Raihani wrote in The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World how we humans have the possibility of cooperating with strangers. Other species are most likely to cooperate within their family groups (leadings to their familial genes having the best survival chances). People have the capability to cooperate with both family members and strangers.

Cooperative progress is a challenging topic. And yet, over a fairly short period of time many workers were able to transition to work-from-home routines and many parents/grandparents carried out incredibly challenging home schooling for children. Expanding our cooperation to “outsiders” is important, especially in pandemic times.

Can we learn something from cleaner fish who move beyond helping their own kind? We need cooperation to confront the collective sting of the COVID-19 virus. Raihani writes, “Evolution under adversity helped to forge our cooperative nature, and this willingness to work together ultimately defined the human success story.”

How can we become better Planet Earth team players?

Pearls of Peace (PoP) quiz:

24. How important is cooperation in your daily life?

25. When is a time when you were a “helper” to a stranger?

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.


  1. Great way to start the day. Get the focus off myself now and then. Stay aware of opportunities to reach out to others in need.


  2. To help a stranger, I have the inclination to alert a fellow driver that they have a tail light/brake light out, or that they don’t have their headlights on. In the first case, if the timing works out, I will pull up next to them at a stop light and roll my window down to tell them, sometimes even going off my route, or sometimes, if I have time to kill, I will follow them, hoping there will be a chance to tell them. (I realize some drivers might be wary at first, but they always end up appreciative for the tip.) In the second case, I will flash my headlights to an oncoming lightless car. Maybe I’m helping prevent an accident some time down the road! I also keep single dollar bills in the car to give to panhandlers. That’s just how I roll, and that attitude applies to any situation where I might help.


  3. Great synchronicity with Terry’s spiritual friend comments this morning. Appreciate the references and comparisons to the animal world. We’re all in this together.


  4. Another delightful piece from you, Jan. Helping others can give us joy.
    Too bad there is some apprehension about trying to warn a driver in a car that needs attention.


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