The Spreading of the Kindness Contagion
Altruism, like the coronavirus, spreads exponentially
It’s not only pathogens like the coronavirus that spread exponentially. For decades psychologists have documented the dark side of “social contagion”: binge-eating, risk-taking, and countless other deleterious behaviors. Yet only recently have academics turned their attention to the phenomenon’s brighter side. Their findings are heartening. Kindness, it turns out, is also contagious.
This is important to keep in mind as we track both the brutal trajectory of the coronavirus and our response to the crisis. Thousands of everyday people are donating their time and money to help strangers. In a way, we’re witnessing dueling contagions: one deadly, the other ameliorative. Mirror images of each other.
The most basic example of the “ kindness contagion” at work is charitable giving. Think of those pleas from a fellow alum to support the old alma mater, or the ubiquitous GoFundMe campaigns. They exist for a reason. They work. Nearly four in 10 Americans say they’ve donated to a charity because a family member or friend asked them to do so, a recent survey found.
Clearly, peer pressure plays a role. Nobody wants to look stingy, with their money or their time. This dynamic helps explain why so many celebrities have responded to Covid-19 by reading children’s books aloud and posting online. What began with a celebrity or two quickly snowballed. The website Storyline Online now lists dozens of celebrity readings, including Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Costner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, and Annette Bening, with more jumping aboard every day. They donate their time for altruistic reasons, yes, but also because they want to match their peers’ generosity. It’s difficult to pinpoint how this kindness contagion began, but that is the point: Once kindness reaches a critical mass it takes on a life of its own.
There is more to the kindness contagion, though, than peer pressure, as a clever study by psychologists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler revealed. When one person gives money to help others the recipients are more likely to donate to others in future games. A domino effect kicks in, with one person’s generosity spreading first to three people, then nine and still more in subsequent…