Generosity Is Contagious, Study Shows–But Selfishness Is Too

By Andrew Moseman | March 9, 2010 5:36 pm

WorkingTogetherContagiousness: It’s contagious! Happiness was contagious in 2008, then loneliness last year, and don’t forget being fat. Now it’s generosity that spreads like the flu across social networks, according to James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis (who were both behind the happiness study). Their new study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To test out whether generosity spreads, the scientists devised a game. In groups of four, each person had 20 “credits,” some of which they could decide to toss into a common fund for all the players. The scoring was set up so that giving to the fund was costly unless the other players did it too: If everyone kept their money, they’d have the 20 credits, but if everyone put all they could into the fund, each player would end up with 32. However, the players had no way to know how generous the others were being. The best payoff would come if everyone gave all their money — but without knowing what others were doing, it always made sense to keep one’s money and skim from the generosity of others [].

The researchers found that if a person was particularly generous, the people he or she played with were more likely to be generous during the next round, when they were shuffled into groups with different people. Ultimately, the initial person’s contribution was multiplied up to three times—a result in keeping with earlier findings on social contagion suggesting that this sort of ripple effect continues for three degrees of separation [TIME]. However, while kindness and generosity spread through the network of players, selfishness did too.

Certainly, these studies have their doubters. Commenters on one of our last “contagious” posts pointed to a 2008 BMJ study noting that if social networking studies weren’t careful in looking at correlations, one could plausibly find that traits like height, acne, and headaches are similarly contagious. Though Fowler and Christakis designed their experiment to try to see cause-and-effect links, not just correlation, they say the study is a general model for group behavior, and how well it fits the more convoluted real world remains to be seen.

But we talking apes are impressionable social creatures, after all, so perhaps we really do spread behaviors—and not just disgusting infectious diseases—amongst ourselves. Says Fowler, “When people benefit from kindness they ‘pay it forward’ by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of co-operation that influences dozens more in a social network” [The Telegraph].

Related Content:
80beats: Sad and Ironic Study Says Loneliness Can Be Contagious
80beats: Happiness Spreads Like the Plague
DISCOVER: Why Loneliness is Bad for You
DISCOVER: How to Make Your Friends Fat (slide show)

Image: flickr / Woodleywonderworks

  • nick

    Ask yourself, when someone is nice to you, do you feel better?

    When someone is mean to you, do you feel bad?

  • Albert Bakker

    Sure, one should always be careful not to fall for the correlation fallacy. But at the surface at least it always makes much evolutionary sense for social animals to try to maximize ones social stature in the group, but never at too great a cost. In this sense generosity aswell as selfishness can logically expected to be contagious. I believe it was already explained quite well by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene + the game theory aspect to it.

  • Sir E. Brum

    If you do something nice, someone else notices. They then go out into the world feeling good and usually they do something nice for others (as the insurance commercial depicts). A simple act of kindness like picking up something that another person dropped can make a person’s day. The “chain reaction” continues farther and farther along and makes people feel great about what act of kindness they received and what act of kindness they distributed. However, no one likes it when they are mistreated and so that spreads because we tend to be in a bad mood, and we might be rude to someone, seem arrogant, or something else like that. I think this article strikes upon the direct basic nature of humans as creatures.

  • Albert Bakker

    Yes, but in the test described above there is clear incentive to “do nice.”

    You’d have 20 credits if you decide to just jealously guard your possessions and cling on to them. But you could gain 12 more of those wonderful credits if you’d just stick out your neck and share what you have. The downside is the breathtaking risk you have to take of ending up with less than everybody else. So to avoid that risk, but to gain as much as possible you’d be wise to more or less follow a tit for tat like scheme, which automatically would create the illusion of contagion, especially if the number of participants is large relative to the duration of the game.

  • Jennifer Angela

    I suppose it also depends on how significant the generous/selfish person is to YOU. While I can think of family members, who surely have educated me towards generosity I have both observed and experienced pretty often, that people who are not even as much as friends (well they might be “fake friends” or “fake partners”) are very likely to just use generous people without even bothering to say as little as “thank you”.

    My grandfather was always very generous. In return, his wife never thanked him and basically treated him worse than most people treat their dogs, his second wife made sure her daughter would inherit her AND his fortune. Guess what happened? His second wife died and he has nothing but one room in his second wife´s daughter´s house. Did anybody ever say thank you to him? Have a guess!

    So what I am trying to say is the following: People should only then be generous when it is very unlikely to hurt them one way or the other.

    And trust me I AM A GENEROUS PERSON. This is why I know the risks of being generous so well! Therefore I suggest … next time you are being generous make sure you don´t do any harm to yourself.

    Here is an example of generosity that doesn´t do any harm to anybody:
    When I was waiting for my turn to borrow a book at a library, I saw a young woman looking very nervous and asked her if she was upset. She explained to me, that she was in a great hurry and told me why. I believed her, as I had been in that kind of situation myself before. I let her borrow her books before me even though it was my turn… simpely because I am a generous person. After this event I suddenly got to know new friends. Whether that was a coincidence or not is anybody´s guess.

    What I am trying to say is… generosity makes you and others happy, but don´t hurt yourself when you are being generous. Don´t let others use you.

    I bet generosity IS contageous, but consider all advantages AND disadvantages of generosity while being generous, BEFORE you wake up broke one day and don´t know how on earth such a thing could have happened to you(which is what happened to my grandfather more than once…)

    I would very much appreciate an article regarding the RISKS of generosity and the risks of being selfish.

    But I truley enjoyed this one too!

    Thank you ladies and gents for following your scientific goals in a passionate way. You guys turn science into fun the way good lecturers do.


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