Is generosity contagious?


Is generosity contagious? This is a question that came mind last weekend as I was canning the streets of Pittsburgh for THON. While canning I noticed some trends that my group and I found very interesting, these trends have lead me to believe that there is a science to canning, and that generosity may be contagious.

I'm a freshman pledging a fraternity so this was my first canning trip. Going into the trip I really had no idea what to expect and was anxious to get started. We began canning at 7:30am on Saturday morning, traffic was slow, but as the day went on the streets became much busier. I was stationed at a streetlight, on the corner of a busy three-lane highway. Unsure of what to do I began shaking my can in the air with a THON sign taped to my chest, all while pacing up and down the street the entire length of traffic. Donations were few and far between in the morning due to the low traffic volume, but as the day went on the donations seemed to pick up. People would donate anywhere from a couple cents all the way up to two hundred and twenty dollars (thanks to one very generous woman). The most common donation seemed to be a dollar, which was great, but it truly didn't matter how much the person donated, as long as they donated, because every donation no matter the size adds up and will make a difference in a child's life. As the morning went on I began to develop a routine, I would walk along the traffic as far as I could starting at the light until it turned green, which is when I would walk back to the top and repeat the process again. There would be times when I would walk down the length of traffic and not receive a cent, where other times I would make up to twenty dollars on a single trip. As the day continued to go on I began to pick up on a trend, I found that when a car close to the light donated money no matter the amount, I was much more likely to receive multiple donations on that trip. At first I began to think that this was by chance, but it kept on happening. When I did not receive a donation by a vehicle in the front of the traffic line I wasn't likely to receive one at all, however when I did receive a donation from someone in the beginning of the line, this trend continued throughout. My thought of reasoning behind this phenomenon is that when a person sees someone committing an act of kindness, they are much more likely to keep the kindness train rolling, in this particular case donating.

Interested in this topic I decided to do a little research and see if anyone else shared the same views on generosity as I did, and it turns out I'm not the first to notice a trend like this. According to TIME Magazine "One person's initial generosity can spark a chain reaction of benevolence, according to the latest study from prolific social contagion researchers James Fowler and Nicholas Christaki". This study took participants who didn't know one another and had them participate in a series of games, all while making sure that every individual interacted with the other participants only once to rule out the possibility that generosity may be rooted in increasing familiarity. The studies showed that participants who received money in an earlier round were much more likely to give money in a later round, demonstrating that generosity is indeed contagious. The studies also showed that uncooperative selfish behavior was also contagious, when someone did not receive money in an earlier round they were less likely to give money in a later round. I witnessed both of these instances first hand over the weekend; when a car in the beginning of the line donated money the vehicles around them witnessed that act and felt an obligation to donate as well, where as when a vehicle refused to donate, no example was set, therefore placing no obligation on any of the surrounding vehicles.

This topic refreshed my memory and got me thinking about a commonly aired Liberty Mutual Commercial which does a great job at demonstrating this train reaction of generosity, and how witnessing an act of kindness makes you more likely to partake in an act of kindness as well, causing a generosity epidemic.

The bottom line is that generosity is indeed contagious, and that witnessing an act of kindness makes you much more likely to partake in an act of kindness yourself. This also works the other way around, and if no one steps up to the plate and demonstrates and act of kindness people are less likely to go out of their way to partake in an act of kindness. So instead of sitting back and not doing anything, be a leader and spread the generosity virus!



As a freshman, this weekend was also my first time Canning and I noticed the same thing. My friend and I were standing outside of storefronts in Annapolis so there was a heavy flow of people walking past and in and out of the store. After a few minutes of people generously donating there would be a period of time where we received no donations at all. As people walked past without looking, donating or even acknowledging us, the others behind them would do the same. Maybe they thought that if the people in front of them weren't paying attention to us then we weren't doing anything important. Once one person broke the dry spell, the others behind them followed and we would start receiving many more donations for the next few minutes. Even having someone stop to talk to us made other people come over to listen as well. I realized that I am one of those people who walk past canners without even reading their sign because I assume it's for the baseball team or Girl Scout cookies, something less significant than children with cancer. From now on I am going to pay more attention to these people because after seeing how generous some people were this weekend, it really did make me want to return the favor.

I think this is a really interesting topic that just about anyone who has gone canning can relate to. It all comes down to whether you're a leader or a follower, and if you're a follower, you're most likely going to wait for someone else to donate first before you do so. I don't think this applies to generosity only; I think it can be applied to just about anything. Leadership is a trait we possess (or in some cases do not possess) from the time we are born. This may help explain why some people were more likely to donate and be "first" - they're leaders! You can read more about the science behind leaders and followers here; I think it would really supplement the information you found well:

I agree with everyone that indeed generosity is contagious. My Spanish teacher last year told me a similar, chain-reaction story. She drove up the the drive through window at Dunkin Donuts. The worker told her that the previous car had paid for her order. In return, she paid for the car behind her. Situations like this can really make people's whole day turn around and make a difference, after all every part of THON canning makes a difference. Kara also brought up an interesting point that not solely generosity is contagious. For example, haven't you ever been down and had someone smile at you and it all of a sudden lightened up your face and mood. According to another science blog,, it's your conscious mind taking control, which explains why you catch a smile from that other person. Not only is generosity and donating a great thing, but any random act of kindness is awesome. However, I don't feel like people she have an attitude where they do good deeds hoping for things in return and good karma. It's important to do something nice because YOU want to...not because you saw others doing it and you felt obligated.

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