Evidence That Generosity Is Contagious

Here’s a neat illustration from James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego and Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University that shows how kindness and generosity can spread from person to person to person, even when they’re strangers, creating what amounts to a domino effect.
Experiments found that if Eleni increases how much money she contributes to the public good when paired with Lucas, it benefits Lucas, and he gives more when paired with Erika. Erika then gives more when paired with Jay, and he gives more when paired with Brecken. The effect seems to last through three degrees of separation, meaning Eleni’s initial contribution can be tripled.
The kindness and generosity also spreads over time: Lucas gives more when paired with Erika and also when he’s later paired with Lysander, Bemy, Sebastian, and Nicholas. The results suggest that a small number of people can make a huge positive difference.
“Personally,” Fowler says in a write-up of the research, “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.”
It’s important to keep in mind that if Eleni decreases her contribution to the public good, that uncooperative behavior can spread through the social network as well, the researchers say. But as Christakis (who also co-wrote the book Connected with Fowler) points out:

Our work over the past few years, examining the function of human social networks and their genetic origins, has led us to conclude that there is a deep and fundamental connection between social networks and goodness. The flow of good and desirable properties like ideas, love, and kindness is required for human social networks to endure, and, in turn, networks are required for such properties to spread. Humans form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs.

Category: Cooperation


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  1. […] social networks. (Christakis and James Fowler, who co-wrote the book Connected, recently showed how kindness and generosity is contagious, even among strangers.) Studying the causes of generosity, Hebrew University psychologist Ariel […]

  2. […] Reciprocity doesn’t need to be direct to be effective. If, by sharing with you, I help to set up a virtuous circle, that will likely result in some benefit to me down the line. This has been seen in practice, with virtuous deeds propagating out to at least three degrees of separation. […]

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