The media loves to cover stories about a hero. The kind stranger who gives a $1,000 tip to a struggling waitress, or the generous shut-in who leaves her entire fortune to the less fortunate, are heralded in the news, but not often enough. Is it just that the media likes covering stories of greed more than good? Or are people greedier than they are generous? To answer this question, Kurt Gray of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina conducted a series of experiments to determine which actions people would be more inclined to pay forward: greed, equality, or generosity?
For his study, Gray first had the participants receive acts of greed, generosity of equality, in the form of monetary or labor divisions. Then, the participants were instructed to pay it forward to an anonymous participant. In essence, they had a choice of passing on the greedy, generous, or equal division of money or labor to someone who had never done anything, good or bad, to them. Gray discovered that perhaps the news coverage we see, depicting more greedy acts than generous ones, are accurately capturing the attitude of our society. He said, “Equality is paid forward in anonymous situations, suggesting that people will act fairly even when no one is watching—if they have first been treated fairly.”
Instead, he found that when someone received a generous portion, they were only inclined to treat the next person fairly, not generously. Specifically, when a participant received more money or less labor than they were supposed to get, they did not pass that generous portion on. Instead, they rationed an equal portion, the portion that was expected, to the anonymous recipient. When someone received less money or more labor, greedy portions, they were more likely to pass on even greedier portions to the next person. This effect occurred more often than the generous/equal or equal/equal effect. Gray believes that perhaps people are fearful of being shortchanged, or they feel angered by the acts perpetrated on them and react by passing on that aggression or anger in the form of greed. Regardless of the reasons behind the acts, Gray’s study shows that true acts of generosity occur far less often than acts of greed, and he believes that these results are significant to the field of social psychology.
Gray, K., Ward, A. F., and Norton, M. I. (2012). Paying it forward: Generalized reciprocity and the limits of generosity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031047
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