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Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

Is Kindness Contagious?

By February 9, 2010

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I have favorite commercials that I actually look 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 brings 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.

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 new information in your own life? Share your experiences in the comments section 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.

February 9, 2010 at 4:59 pm
(1) Christine Bonsmann says:

I have read similar research before and it was good to be reminded of this learning. Your article made me smile. Happiness is when a sad looking person returns your smile. Every contact we have with another leaves a trace. We are powerful beyond words!

February 10, 2010 at 3:01 am
(2) piergiulio says:

loving kindness to you, metta. Piergiulio

February 11, 2010 at 6:35 am
(3) stress says:

Wonderful comments, Christine and Pierguilio! Thank you for sharing :)

February 11, 2010 at 12:15 pm
(4) Susan says:

I love it when I go to Starbucks or something and the person there is in a contagiously-good mood! I know they may just be wanting tips or whatever, but I do feel genuinely uplifted just encountering another person who’s extra-nice and friendly instead of stressed and harried. Then I end up passing the good mood along.

April 15, 2010 at 11:19 am
(5) Lucy Storch says:

When a customer gives a verbal compliment on a job well-done, I always ask them (light-heartedly) to put it in writing, too. When they send the e-mail, I always send it to the other departments that were involved in the success. My co-workers have told me how encouraging this is to them – especially since I’m the only one that does it!

July 6, 2010 at 4:43 am
(6) Pauline Rumbol says:

On the other hand, I notice that the reverse is also sadly true – when I find myself surrounded by miserable people, mal-gossipers ie those that thrive on the misery of others, people who are in a rut, going nowhere, moaners, those that believe that everything bad in their live is someone else’s fault, users and manipulators for their own benefit, etc, etc – I find that the atmosphere is mega depressing and contagious, so I quickly get the hell out of their space and look around me everywhere for something or someone to counteract the ‘weeds’ amongst the ‘lilies’

April 26, 2013 at 6:50 am
(7) El Pastor says:

This happened to me recently:
I was running late for an important meeting due to unexpected traffic and road repair in the Washington, DC, area. I had been reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” so I’d decided to practice being kind and positive to others all day. I entered the compound of a secure government, prepared to go hunting a vast parking lot for a far-away parking space, and enter my meeting late. Nonetheless, I gave the gate guard a heartly greeting and made some positive small talk to try to uplift his day. Then I asked where to find parking. He disappeared into his booth for a moment and came out with a “VIP Parking” pass, handed it to me, and that enabled me to parking next to the building and make my meeting on time!

May 3, 2013 at 12:56 am
(8) camping says:

I do not know if it’s just me or if everyone else experiencing issues with your blog. It seems like some of the written text within your posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them as well? This could be a issue with my browser because I’ve had
this happen previously. Kudos

March 26, 2014 at 8:09 am
(9) Sheri says:

I find this to be totally true in my own life at church, the store, Twitter, etc. Anywhere I’m socially active, kindness breeds kindness. Thank you for sharing this!

March 26, 2014 at 9:51 am
(10) Stephen says:

I was on the train travelling back from Grantham to Leicester early in the year and sat in front of me were a woman and her young son who was clearly distressed and she was trying very hard to keep him occupied with Thomas the Tank Engine stories. This would keep his attention for a few minutes and help to calm him down but he soon became distressed again. I was wearing my beanie hat as it had been a cold day and the little boy had turned round to look at me a couple of times so as he became more and more distressed I waited for him to turn round to me again and seized the moment to pull down my beanie hat over my face and then pull it back up again to play peek-a-boo and I got this wonderful little chuckle and smile and it made me feel pretty good too. The Mother smiled at me to as if to acknowledge what I had done and I guess it made my day !!

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