Paying It Forward: Can You Be Too Generous?

A while back I wrote about how, in some parts of the country, people were "paying it forward" -- paying for the coffee of the person behind them at Starbucks or at the drive-up window.

But a new study has found that it may hurt to be too generous.  

According to The New York Times, "if you receive or observe an act of help, you become more likely to help others, even if your own action won’t be directly reciprocated or rewarded," demonstrating that the effect of a single act of kindness can in fact ripple through a social network, setting off chains of generosity that reach far beyond the original act. 

But observing people doing too much for others can backfire, the study discovered.  

"We found that receiving and observing generosity can both significantly increase your likelihood of being generous toward a stranger, but that if you observe a high enough level of generosity, your willingness to help suffers — you become a 'bystander' who feels that help is no longer needed," write Milena Tsvetkova and Michael Macy.

They explain, "When (study) participants observed a low level of helping, it increased their own likelihood of helping; but when they observed a high level of helping, they did not themselves help — they appeared to feel that their own sacrifice was no longer needed."

The study concluded that observing an act of kindness was likely to play an important role in setting a cascade of generosity in motion, since many people can potentially observe a single act of helping. "But we found that it was receiving help that sustained the cascade as it spread through the group," note the writers.

It all comes down to karma, it seems. The next time you stop to help a stranger, you may be helping not only this one particular individual but potentially many others downstream. "And who knows? In the end, maybe what goes around will come around," say the writers.

Haven't you observed it in your own life?  I've always been a somewhat rageful driver -- don't you dare cut me off.  But lately I've found myself giving in a little to the people who race out in front of me at stop signs or don't stop at all for red lights.  I've even let a few squeeze in front of me at merges.  And maybe it's my imagination but somewhere that same day, someone else will let me into a line of traffic, just like I did.

Maybe it's too naive to call it karma but I have been finding that the more I do for others, somewhere, somehow, someone else does it for me.  


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