Imagine: four strangers come together. Each one is given twenty dollars and asked to decide whether to keep the whole twenty dollars for themselves or share some of it with their group. Each dollar they share with the group will result in all four people receiving forty cents. Of course, this means the giver may lose sixty cents (they give one dollar but only receive forty cents back). On the other hand, if all four people gave one dollar, each person would receive one dollar and sixty cents back (.40 times 4). So, mental gymnastics begins as each one decides whether to share and, if so, how much. “If I give too much more than everyone else, I’ll lose money. If everyone doesn’t give, I’ll lose money. If I give a little and everyone else gives more, I’ll really make out and still look pretty good….”
As the initial group time comes to an end, the players learn who contributed what amount to the group. Then, each player is given twenty dollars more and set up in another group made up of three new people. Each person goes through this process until they have met with a total of six different groups of four. (Read about this study in Cooperative Behavior Cascades in Human Social Networks, James H. Fowler, PNAS, 3/23/2010)
Here’s the question: How did learning about other group members’ contributions impact an individual’s kindness and generosity in future groups? Initially, many people might assume that each individual would act in a way to maximize their personal profit—in other words, keep all their money and walk out with a bundle or give sparingly in hopes of receiving back more than they gave. But this did not happen. What actually did happen proved much more interesting.
When even one person contributed to the group, each of the other three group members changed their giving in the next round. Specifically, they increased their giving in response to even one person contributing to the group. And that increase in giving endured over the next 5 games, impacting each of the players in those games as well. Specifically, if a person gave one dollar to the group in round one, the other three group members increased their giving by 19 cents in round two, 15 cents in round three, 8 cents in round four and 17 cents in both rounds 5 and 6. Amazing, right? And of course, their increase in giving impacted the other three members of their new groups, contributing to each of those people increasing their giving in future rounds. In other words, one person’s generosity rippled out through other people for the next five rounds.
That’s an amazing aspect of kindness. Kindness cascades from one person to dozens of others, even impacting and inspiring people we have not met! Imagine this “kindness cascade” circulating in your marriage before flowing to your children and then streaming through them to their schools and overflowing into your community. The power of a simple act of kindness inspiring another to act in kindness forms a cascading, gathering stream of kindness that fans out and changes a dry, weary land of incivility and impoliteness. And it all begins with showing kindness to your family.
Unfortunately, we know that rude behavior cascades as well. In fact, just being in close proximity to someone who acts in a rude manner contributes to ill-mannered and impolite behavior toward others. They also began to interpret other people’s behaviors in a negative light and so respond to them based on those misinterpretations. Those interacting with a rude person may engage in minor revenge (like withholding resources) from the rude person. Most disturbing of all, studies suggest that a single act of rudeness continues to cascade and impact other people for up to one week.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be ground zero for a cascade of rudeness. I want to become ground zero for a cascade of kindness. So, let’s start a kindness cascade that will water a land devoid of the refreshing water of kindness…and let it begin with you and me right in our homes.