The concept of paying it forward, or reciprocating a kind act from one person by doing something kind for another, has been in the limelight lately, with Starbucks’ pay it forward campaign and other acts of kindness attracting media attention, but the idea that good deeds generate more good deeds dates back to the days of the ancient Greeks. New research, however, bursts the benevolence bubble. Although people do sometimes pay it forward, researcher Michael Norton writes in Scientific American, on the whole, we are much more likely to pass on negative actions than positive ones.
Norton and his colleagues performed an experiment in which they gave one person (an actor) six dollars and told the person to keep all the money, split it or pass all of it on to another person (the study subject, who didn’t know the other person was an actor). Then, the subject was asked to make the same choice—keep the cash, split it or give it all away to another stranger. Here’s what the researchers found:
First, some good news: people who had been treated fairly were very likely to pay forward fairness: if someone splits $6 evenly with me, I’ll split $6 evenly with the next person. Now, some worse news: people who had received generosity – who’d gotten the full $6 from the previous person –were willing to pay forward only $3. In other words, receiving generosity ($6) did not make people pay forward any more cash than receiving fairness ($3). In both cases, people were only willing to pay forward half. Now the bad news: people who had received greed? They were very likely to pay that greed forward, giving the next person just a little over $1, on average.
In other words, the subjects who were shortchanged were taking their frustrations about their bad experience out on a perfect stranger. They were more likely to pay greed forward than generosity, Norton explains, which can be summed up as, “If I can’t pay you back for being a jerk, my only option for feeling better is to be a jerk to someone else.”
At the same time, people have little incentive to be nice to one another unless they are part of a specific group that creates some sense of shared identity, Norton says. Based on these findings, you’ll probably want to have cash on hand next time you visit Starbucks. That stranger ahead of you in line most likely won’t be picking up your tab.
More from Smithsonian.com: