We’ve all been there: It’s early morning. You’re stuck in rush-hour traffic. You’re running late. And you need the strongest concoction that your coffee shop can brew.
Now imagine your surprise when you pull up to the window, and the barista says, “Your drink has been paid for by the customer before you. Would you like to keep the trend going?”
That’s exactly the situation that Carson Skinner, a 34-year-old graphic designer from Jacksonville, Fla., found himself in one Saturday morning. He said yes—and became the 22nd person in a row to pay it forward to the driver behind him.
“The odd thing is that, when I pulled up, I thought, ‘Why don’t I pay for the person behind me?’ ” remembers Skinner. “Then the cashier informed me that someone earlier in line had started paying for the person behind. It’s not a foreign concept to me, but it brightened my day.”
Most of us have, at some point, either paid it forward to someone else or benefited from the random kindness of a stranger. It’s a nice feeling—and one small act can truly turn your day around.
News Flash: Generosity Is Human Nature
David Rand, a researcher at Harvard University who will soon start a professorship in the psychology department at Yale University, has spent years studying human cooperation, as well as what drives us to pay costs that will benefit the greater good.
Rand’s research revolves around reputation motivators, which are the conscious and subconscious mechanisms that encourage us to cooperate with others. “If you interact repeatedly with the same person or small group of people, you’re likely to help them, so that they will help you in the future,” Rand explains. And it’s not just on a small scale. Rand adds that when we’re interacting with huge groups, we’re still inclined to cooperate because we never know who could be taking note.
Last fall, in conjunction with two other researchers, Rand asked 2,000 subjects to participate in a game—participants were given money, and then asked to decide whether they’d keep it for their own purposes or place the money in a pool to collectively benefit other people. The results? Most of the subjects chose to help fellow man before thinking to use the money for a selfish purpose.
“We explain the result as follows: In our daily lives, structural factors, like reputation, make cooperation a winning strategy, so we get used to cooperating most of the time,” says Rand. Translation: No one likes selfish people, so it makes sense to help others. Essentially, not only does paying it forward have an immediate monetary cost—like the price of a cup of coffee—but Rand explains that the overall cost you’re paying to help the greater good includes your time and effort.
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That’s not to say that the only reason we choose to pay it forward is for the reputation boost. Take, for instance, the story of Sherry Richert Belul, an inspirational book author and life coach based in San Francisco. She chose to celebrate her 48th birthday by completing 48 random acts of kindness within 48 hours—and most of the beneficiaries were strangers.