Greed may be more powerful emotion than generosity
According to new research published by the American Psychological Association, 'paying it forward' – a popular expression for extending generosity to others after someone has been generous to you – is a heartwarming concept, but it is less common than repaying greed with greed.
"Focusing on the negative may cause unhappiness, but it makes sense as an evolutionary survival skill," said lead researcher, Kurt Gray. "If there is a tiger nearby, you really have to take notice or you'll get eaten. If there is a beautiful sunset or delicious food, it's not a life-or-death situation," he added.
"The idea of paying it forward is this cascade of good will ill turn into a utopia with everyone helping everyone. Unfortunately, greed or looking out for ourselves is more powerful than true acts of generosity," Gray said.
The study is the first systematic investigation of paying forward generosity, equality or greed, authors said.
"The bulk of the scientific research on this concept has focused on good behaviour, and we wondered what would happen when you looked at the entire gamut of human behaviours," said Gray, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who conducted the study with researchers at Harvard University.
In five experiments involving money or work, participants who received an act of generosity didn't pay generosity forward any more than those who had been treated equally.
But participants who had been the victims of greed were more likely to pay greed forward to a future recipient, creating a negative chain reaction. Women and men showed the same levels of generosity and greed in the study. In one experiment, researchers recruited 100 people to play an economic game.
They told participants that someone had split USD 6 with them and then gave them an envelope that contained the entire USD 6 for a generous split, USD 3 for an equal split, or nothing for a greedy split.
The participants then received an additional USD 6 that they could split in another envelope with a future recipient, essentially paying it forward.
Receiving a generous split didn't prompt any greater generosity than receiving equal treatment, but people who received nothing in the first envelope were more likely to put little or nothing in the second envelope, depriving future recipients because of the greed they had experienced.
The results confirmed the researchers' hypothesis that greed would prevail because negative stimuli have more powerful effects on thoughts and actions than positive stimuli.