Doing selfless good deeds, or just being kind, is contagious — and the behavior of a few can influence many, a new study suggests.
Participants played a “public-goods” game in which one person gives money to others. Players didn’t know each other before the game and never played it more than once with the same person. Yet researchers found that generosity in the first round was tripled by others, who were directly or indirectly influenced to give more.
When people benefit from kindness, they “pay it forward,” which creates greater cooperation that influences others in a social network, say researchers Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Harvard University, and James Fowler, a social scientist at the University of California-San Diego. Findings were published in March in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Christakis and Fowler also have found happiness, loneliness and obesity to be contagious. In their earlier work, they used records of individuals in Framingham, Mass. But the new study is the first laboratory evidence to support a domino effect in contagion, they say.
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Spirit of generosity multiplies and persists, researchers find
Acts of kindness spread rapidly, and it takes only a few people acting cooperatively to influence dozens of others, U.S. researchers report.
They found that when study participants played a game in which they had an opportunity to cooperate with one another, people who received a donation of money were more likely to donate money to other people in future games.
This generated a domino effect in which one person’s generosity spread to three other people and then to nine people who those three people interacted with, and then on to many others as the experiment progressed, said the researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard Medical School.
This spirit of generosity persists in people who’ve experienced it.
“You don’t go back to being your ‘old selfish self,'” study co-author James Fowler, an associate professor in the political science department at UC San Diego and Calit2’s Center for Wireless and Population Health Studies, said in a news release.
“Though the multiplier in the real world may be higher or lower than what we’ve found in the lab, personally it’s very exciting to learn that kindness spreads to people I don’t know or have never met. We have direct experience of giving and seeing people’s immediate reactions, but we don’t typically see how our generosity cascades through the social network to affect the lives of dozens or maybe hundreds of other people,” Fowler said.
The study was published online in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.