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Does the “Pay It Forward” Effect Really Exist?

How does generosity inspire others?

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).

We think this will be a very cool study. (And, indeed, if anyone reading this knows a workplace/company/organization that would be interested in having their members participate, let me know.) It has some novel and unique elements in it. We will be studying everyday generosity in a real-world naturalistic setting, using technology that allows us to capture face-to-face interactions, and using an experimental design that allows us to infer what causes what. These improvements over previous studies should help us discover whether generosity can truly be contagious - not just whether generosity spreads out from the original "receivers" but via ripple effects to second-degree or even third-degree "connectors," as well as to those who simply happen to observe a particular kind act. But our interest isn't purely scientific. Generosity has been found to make people happier, and happiness has been shown in many studies to render people healthier, more creative and productive at work, and more successful in their friendships and marriages.

Does the "pay it forward" effect really exist? How does generosity inspire others? Is giving really better than receiving? We're going to find out.