Much has been written about the need for and the power of generosity in our society, including the notion of “pay it forward.”  The expression has been popularized by the best selling novel Pay It Forward by Catherine Hyde Ryan which was adapted into a movie starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. New research shows a clear link between the act of "paying it forward" and generosity.

Paying it forward now happens on a regular basis in fast-food or drive through outlets. A record was reported reached in Winnipeg, Canada when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward at a Tim Hortons.

Adam Grant, author of the best-selling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, argues success is due often to our generosity with our time and knowledge. He identifies the population as being either givers, matchers (people who help only those who reciprocate) and takers (people who demand help but never offer). Grant suggests several easy strategies to become a giver, such as the “five-minute favor” by referring a request to someone who can be more helpful; or by asking a person who you have helped to not reciprocate to you but pay it forward to someone else.

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley has published a number of studies which show the positive benefits to the individual associated with generosity and giving.

Rob Willer of Stanford University and his colleagues in multiple universities, conducted a study to determine the nature of generosity and reciprocity through pay it forward. They concluded, “giving resources both leads to and can be motivated by feelings of gratitude. One implication of this is that gratitude may serve as a prosocial, affective motivation leading individuals to ‘pay forward’ benefits received from one party by giving benefits to third parties.”

Their study has been replicated with participants in China, Germany, Brazil and Israel, and showed that individuals who received more generous monetary gifts subsequently gave more generous gifts. The authors concluded a generalized benefit from generosity: “When we behave generously, our kindness may benefit others we do not even know, may never meet but will nevertheless benefit.”

 Kurt Gray at the University of North Carolina with his colleagues Adrian Ward and Michael Norton at Harvard University conducted an interesting study on  the subject. They presented a very different perspective by posing the question “what happens when people cannot reciprocate, but instead have the change be cruel or kind to someone entirely different by paying it forward?”

The study showed that while equal treatment was paid forward in kind, greed was paid forward more than generosity. The authors concluded that people pay greed forward as a means of dealing with negative emotions that being treated badly engender. Their research was published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology .  

In research more consistent with the positive effects of generosity and giving, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley led by Minah Jung, also a fellow at the Greater Good Science Center, looked at what happens to commerce when there’s no set price tag. Jung and her colleagues’ findings have been presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and the Association for Consumer Research, They found that shoppers spend more money when engaged in a pay it forward chain of good will when they can name their own price. The study shed some new light on psychological and social forces such as fairness, obligation and reciprocity.

The study found people typically overestimate the financial generosity of others, until they learn what others have actually paid. The traditional pay-it-forward in this context is a pricing scheme in which customers are told that a previous customer has paid for them. The new customer then gets the opportunity to pay for someone else. The alternative “Pay What You Want” scheme is economically similar approach, in which the customers have the option to pay any price. In the other separate experiments conducted by Jung and fellow researchers with 2,400 individuals, consumers consistently paid more for another customer than for themselves.

So it would be fair to conclude that good things will happen to the receiver and giver of generosity and kindness, whether the recipient is known or not, and that the effect could become contagious.

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