My graduate student Joe Chancellor and I recently received a grant from the Science of Generosity competition at the University of Notre Dame to study how acts of kindness may propagate from one person to another. Previous researchers - most prominently the social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler - have provided strong evidence that such attributes as obesity, smoking, happiness, and loneliness are "contagious." However, much of the prior work has been correlational. In other words, the spread of a behavior from one person to another is not directly observed but rather inferred from a documented social network. So, for example, it turns out that I am more likely to be happy if my friends and my friends' friends and even my friends' friends' friends are happy. But we don't know if the happiness is literally spreading across my social network. We don't know which direction the causal arrow goes. And we don't know whether the "contagious" pattern could simply be a result of the fact that we tend to befriend others who are similar to us (whether in happiness, smoking habits, or overweight).
For these reasons, Joe and I decided to do an experiment in which we instruct some people to be "givers" (i.e., do acts of kindness for others in their communities or workplaces), while others will be either lucky "receivers" of the kind acts, simple "observers" of these acts, or none of the above. Furthermore, we will be able to track who does what for whom (and who witnesses it and who passes it forward and to whom, etc.) by using a new technology: Everyone involved in our study will wear sensors on a badge or wristband that will detect actual social interactions (e.g., who is talking to whom).