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The Contagion of Kindness

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, July 30, 2016

We Can Also Catch the Spirit


Witnessing kindness spreads kindness, and that diffusion involves more than repetition of benevolent actions.  Research suggests the underlying spirit of kind actions can cascade through individual and group encounters, evolving new forms as it travels.

Scientists have documented many types of social, behavioral and emotional contagion, both positive and negative. Drug addiction and obesity can travel through networks and so can happiness and cooperation. People who know that neighbors recycle, or donate to a charity, are likely to do the same.  Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, and colleagues explored whether such contagion extended more flexibly beyond replication of similar actions.  In a Scientific American story Zaki says their work suggests one individual’s kindness can “trigger people to spread positivity in other ways.” Zaki is also director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab.

In one study described in the article, participants received a $1 bonus in addition to payment for completing the study.  They were then shown descriptions of 100 charities and asked if they wanted to donate any of their bonus. After each donation, participants were shown what purported to be the average donations of the last 100 study participants.   Actually, some participants were told the average donation was a generous three quarters of the bonus, and others were told it was a stingy one quarter.  Participants who thought others were generous became more generous themselves.  

In a follow up study, participants witnessed generous and stingy donations, and were then asked to do what they thought was an unrelated follow up task.  They read a note that related the recent ups and downs in another person’s life and wrote back. Those who had witnessed generous behavior wrote friendlier, more empathetic and more supportive notes than those who has witnessed stingy behavior.  In another follow up, people read stories of the suffering of the homeless, and then saw reported reactions of past study participants. Some saw reported responses that were kind and empathetic, others saw callous ones.  Given the chance to donate a test bonus to a homeless shelter, those who saw empathetic responses donated twice as much as those who were led to believe their fellow test subjects were callous.

While all the psychological forces that power kindness contagion are not fully understood, Zaki writes, people like to “be on the same page” with others. Studying social norms and neural responses to food preferences, Zaki and colleagues found that when people discover their opinions match those of a group, the brain area associated with rewards is activated.  They also found that alignment with group norms can influence opinions and preferences.  


“The battle between dark and light conformity likely depends on which cultural norms people witness most often,” Zaki writes. “Someone who is surrounded by grandstanding and antagonism will tend toward hostile and exclusionary attitudes herself. Someone who learns that her peers prize empathy will put more work to empathize herself.” 

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