Being nice to others is highly contagious, new psychological research finds.
Someone who sees a person being prosocial is more motivated to perform their own act of kindness for another.
Things like running an errand for a neighbour, helping someone in the street or giving a present all tend to be imitated by others who see it.
An act of kindness can ultimately be tripled in value by people subsequently giving more and more.
Seeing other people benefit from kindnesses is an even more powerful motivator for our own prosocial behaviour than when we receive the kindness ourselves.
Nevertheless, acts of kindness are not wholly unselfish, they provide a small, but significant boost to happiness.
Cooperative behaviour is even more important right now, says Dr Haesung (Annie) Jung, the study’s first author:
“Just like the deadly virus, cooperative behavior can also be transmitted across people.
These findings remind the public that their behavior can impact what others around do; and the more individuals cooperate to stop the spread of the disease, the more likely others nearby will do the same.”
People do not just copy the prosocial behaviour they observe, though, said Dr Jung:
“We found that people can readily improvise new forms of prosocial actions.
They engaged in behaviors that were different from what they witnessed and extended help to different targets in need than those helped by the prosocial model.”
Asian countries have the strongest prosocial contagion effect, followed by European countries, then North America.
Modelling prosocial behaviour is important for tackling the pandemic, said Dr Marlone Henderson, study co-author:
“Many people may choose to avoid social distancing practices because they don’t think they’re likely to contract the virus or experience serious symptoms.
So, one of the best things we can do is frame recommended practices as prosocial actions.
By thinking of recommended practices as prosocial behavior, modeling then becomes a powerful tool for encouraging others to engage in such practices.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin (Jung et al., 2020).