Kindness and Altruism: Are They Contagious?

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 I have all-time favorite commercials that I actually have looked forward to seeing. One of them starts by showing someone doing a good deed for a stranger. A second stranger happens to see this, smile, and go on to do another kind deed for another stranger, while someone else happens to look on and continue the chain of good deeds. This commercial always brought a smile to my face, and a recommitment-to-do-good-deeds to my heart.

I've always wondered if witnessing acts of kindness has this effect on other people as well, and apparently some researchers have had the same question in their heads, because I came across a great new study that poses this exact question.

A few years ago, psychological scientists Simone Schnall from the University of Cambridge, Jean Roper from the University of Plymouth, and Daniel M.T. Fessler from the University of California, Los Angeles, recently set up a study where participants viewed either a neutral video, or an uplifting clip of musicians expressing gratitude to their mentors on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' (one of the best shows to watch for uplifting content), which was designed to provide an 'elevation', or a burst of positive feelings. Participants then wrote essays about what they saw, and were paid for their time. Researchers found that those who watched the uplifting clips were more likely to volunteer as subjects for future projects.

While it can be argued that people watching pleasant and uplifting videos were more likely to want to participate in future studies because they found the experience more enjoyable and more repeat-worthy, the willingness to help in future studies can also be interpreted as a greater propensity toward helping others for those who watched others display kindness.

But it's not a completely clear connection; I wanted to see more.

And, lucky for me, they did a second study that gave me much more!

In the next experiment, a different set of volunteers watched one of three clips: a neutral one, the uplifting Oprah one from the other study, and a funny clip designed to make subjects laugh. Then, as they were free to leave, the research assistant helping with the study pretended to have trouble opening a computer file necessary for the experiment. She told them that they were free to leave, but asked if they would be willing to fill out a questionnaire that she described as boring. The results of this study put a smile on my face.

Participants who viewed the uplifting clip spend about twice as much time helping the researcher as did participants in either of the other groups! (This means that finding the experiment enjoyable, or wanting to make additional money participating in studies isn't what was behind people's willingness to help out.) The researchers themselves conclude that "by eliciting elevation, even brief exposure to other individuals' prosocial behavior motivates altruism, thus potentially providing an avenue for increasing the general level of prosociality in society."

This research left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling in my chest and a determination to see this in action in my own life: will people in my environment be kinder to others if they see more kindness from me? Will they be less stressed? I intend to find out, though I already know what the answer will be, methinks.

How will you use this information in your own life? Share your positive experiences with your friends (when you see them or via social media) and bring a smile to everyone else's face, too! (And if you find this information interesting, please pass it on!)

Below are more resources for kindness, altruism, gratitude and all of those good feelings.

Source: Schnall, S.; Roper, J.; and Fessler, D. Elevation Leads to Altruistic Behavior. Psychological Science, 2010.

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