Scientific Proof for “Paying It Forward”

By Katie Goldsmith | March 1, 2010 | 0 comments

Ever get that warm fuzzy feeling in your chest when you see someone do something nice for someone else? Scientists call that feeling "elevation," and studies show that people experience elevation when they witness a virtuous act, especially one that helps others.

But does this good feeling actually lead to good deeds? That's what psychologist Simone Schnall and colleagues wanted to find out in a new study published in Psychological Science, asking whether feelings of elevation lead to altruistic behavior.

In one experiment, 59 women ages 18 to 26 were either shown a clip from a nature documentary or a clip from Oprah in which musicians thank the teachers who mentored them.

Immediately after watching the clip, the participants filled out questionnaires indicating how they were feeling, and they wrote essays describing what they had just seen. As they were receiving payment for their participation in the experiment, the subjects were also asked whether they would be willing to complete another experiment in which they would not be paid.

The results showed that those who watched the Oprah clip were more likely to report feelings of optimism about humanity, feelings of warmth in the chest, the desire to help others, and the desire to be a better person—and they were much more likely to volunteer for the unpaid experiment.

But do these results just mean people are more generous when they're made to feel good, or is there something special about elevation?

In another experiment, the researchers got a new set of participants and showed them the nature documentary, the Oprah clip, or a humorous clip from a British comedy that made participants feel amused. After screening one of these clips, the research assistant conducting the study pretended to have problems opening a computer file that was supposedly necessary for the experiment. She then told the participants that, because it was impossible to complete the rest of the study, they were free to leave and would still receive full credit for their participation.

As the participant got up, the assistant asked, seemingly as an afterthought, if the participant would be willing to complete another questionnaire for a different study. The assistant mentioned that the questionnaire was rather boring and emphasized that the participant was free to stop whenever she wanted, but that completing any number of items would be a great help.

The results showed that, once again, participants in the Oprah condition reported greater feelings of elevation. What's more, those participants spent roughly twice as much time on the boring questionnaire than did those in either of the other two conditions.

The results convince Schnall and her colleagues that witnessing goodness is in fact enough to inspire kind, helpful—or "prosocial"—behavior.

"Our findings suggest that, by eliciting elevation, even brief exposure to other individuals' prosocial behavior motivates altruism," write the authors, "thus potentially providing an avenue for increasing the general level of prosociality in society."

For more on elevation, check out this Greater Good essay by psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

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About The Author

Katie Goldsmith is a Greater Good editorial assistant.


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